Around the Jewish World on Mainland China, Jews Can Choose Chabad or Liberal

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known the world over as holidays when Jews come crawling out of the woodwork to attend worship services.

The People’s Republic of China in 5764 is no different.

The number of Rosh Hashanah celebrants in the Jewish communities of Beijing and Shanghai swelled significantly this year, as individual Jews from remote cities like Kunming and Shijiazhuang joined with the Jewish residents of mainland China’s two most important cities to pray.

And even in China, Jews had their choice of three congregations — Chabad-Lubavitch centers in each city, and Kehillat Beijing, which, while unaffiliated, identifies with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a Reform movement.

Perhaps no less important than the High Holiday services were the milestones marked by each of the two communities on the Sunday preceding Rosh Hashanah.

In Shanghai, the community welcomed the first Torah to belong to a synagogue in that city since Jews started returning there after World War II refugees had departed.

In Beijing, meanwhile, a mezuzah went up on the first Jewish preschool the city has ever seen.

Jewish life indeed flourishes these days in mainland China, which enjoys the fastest rate of economic growth in the world.

Hong Kong, whose Jewish community is larger than Beijing’s and Shanghai’s combined, is a special autonomous region.

Expatriate businessmen, journalists, professionals and students — not to mention Israeli diplomats and company representatives — continue to pour into the bustling cities of Shanghai, with its 16 million people, and Beijing, the national capital, whose population totals 14 million.

The first congregation to be established since the Communists came to power in China in 1949 was Kehillat Beijing. Its origins date back to 1979, the year Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy went into effect.

Kehillat Beijing’s founders and current leaders, Elyse Silverberg and Roberta Lipson, say that in the early days their efforts focused on getting together for Passover and the High Holidays, which were usually celebrated at the homes of members. The community’s first seder took place in 1980.

In 1995, the community coalesced. While Kehillat Beijing receives some educational and spiritual support from the World Union, the congregation is mostly self-led, holding regular Friday night services and Shabbat meals in the Capital Club of Beijing.

Before Chabad opened here, the number of worshipers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would reach close to 200.

Chabad, which is active in Asia, came to its newest outpost in Beijing in 2001. Led by Rabbi Shimon Freundlich and his wife, Dini, formerly of Chabad Hong Kong, the Orthodox Chasidic synagogue operates out of the rabbi’s home.

After every Shabbat and holiday service, the large living room is swiftly transformed into a dining room, where strictly kosher multicourse meals are served.

The rabbi says that two or three times a year he brings a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, from Australia and a western-style butcher from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, where they slaughter cows and chickens to provide kosher meat for the communities of Beijing and Shanghai.

“I prefer this method to Hong Kong’s importation of frozen kosher meat from Australia,” Freundlich says. “I want Beijing to be as self-supporting a Jewish community as possible.”

Freundlich says Chabad has come to Beijing not to displace the liberal Jewish community but to complement it.

“We are here to pray together as one unified community,” Freundlich declared at Tashlich services celebrated Sunday jointly by both congregations on the afternoon of the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

It was an inclusive gathering as men, women and children gathered together to figuratively cast their sins into a Chinese lake surrounded by willow trees and stocked with brightly colored goldfish. Readings in Hebrew and English were divided equally among members of both congregations.

“Events like Tashlich, Chanukah and Purim are easy to celebrate together,” says Lipson, one of the Kehillat Beijing leaders.

“The issue of equality of women does not enter into the picture on those occasions. Although we celebrate these opportunities for unity of the whole Jewish community of Beijing, I’m afraid there will always be issues of belief and practice on which we differ.”

The two congregations each drew a share of the community on Rosh Hashanah.

Kehillat Beijing drew a smaller than usual crowd of approximately 100 worshipers, while Freundlich reports that about 150 attended services held at an expanded venue, the Sheraton Hotel, which catered kosher food for the third consecutive year.

Some 130 Israelis remained apart from the community, as the newly constructed Israeli Embassy hosted a Rosh Hashanah dinner, without services, on Friday night.

The new preschool is also a unifying force. Children ages 3 to 6 play and learn together in the school, called Ganeinu — Hebrew for “our kindergarten.”

Moreover, Freundlich and Lipson are contemplating the rental or purchase of a large house that could be converted into what they say would be the first Jewish community center in the world sponsored jointly by Chabad and a liberal congregation.

Meanwhile, 650 miles to the south, Chabad is the only game in town for the Jewish community in Shanghai, the mainland Chinese city with the richest Jewish heritage.

According to Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, who arrived in Shanghai with his wife Dina in 1998, more than 200 people attended Rosh Hashanah services, held at a hotel opposite the synagogue, which is in a spacious villa on the western edge of the sprawling metropolis.

The small local Jewish community of permanent residents and frequent business visitors, many of whom are Sephardi, has appointed the Chabad rabbi as their community rabbi.

The demand for kosher food is great in Shanghai as well, and the Greenbergs oversee a thriving kosher meal service providing lunches or dinners seven days a week.

The food is not inexpensive by local standards, and upon request, a Chinese driver will deliver meals by van to offices and homes even at some distance from the Shanghai Jewish Center.

While most of Shanghai’s historical synagogues have been demolished, two remain. Ohel Moishe, the most prominent Askenazi synagogue in the Jewish ghetto during World War II, is now a museum.

Ohel Rachel, similar in architecture to many Sephardi synagogues throughout south Asia, is being lovingly preserved by the community, which opens up the house of worship on special occasions. Last week, it was opened for the dedication of a new Torah, held amid great festivity and to the strains of Jewish melodies performed by Chinese musicians from Nanjing, under the direction of an American Jewish band leader who once played with Shlomo Carlebach.

The building itself, centrally located closer to downtown, is in such dire need of repair that the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit group that preserves monument sites worldwide, included the synagogue on its recently published endangered structures list.

Greenberg told JTA he was pleased the international community had recognized the needs of Ohel Rachel.

“We hope the magnificent synagogue can be restored to its original beauty, and most important, to its original purpose: to be used as an active and thriving Jewish center for Jewish people currently in Shanghai.”

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