BEIJING (JTA) – Dror Poleg, an Israeli who has lived in Beijing for three years, says being Jewish is “easier in China than in Israel.”
“In Israel there is lots of politics, what school you go to, what yarmulke you wear,” Poleg says. “Here you can just be you.”
Beijing has had an organized Jewish community since China’s open-door policy of the late 1970s. The city’s Chabad-Lubavitch and liberal congregations cooperate well, notably on education.
And Jewish visitors coming to the Chinese capital for the Summer Olympics will find plenty of choices for davening on Friday night and Saturday morning.
While Judaism is not among the five world religions recognized by the Chinese government, foreigners are basically free to observe, as long as they are diligent about keeping in touch with authorities and registering any activities.
The lack of official recognition, however, does not put a damper on Jewish activities in Beijing.
Some 1,500 Jewish residents and a regular flow of Jewish tourists can pray at the liberal Kehillat Beijing and Chabad services at multiple locations.
Two New Yorkers established Kehillat. Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, both Long Islanders, met in Beijing in 1979 when a Chinese colleague told Silverberg there was “another Jewish girl just like you” across town, and handed her Lipson’s business card.
Lipson and Silverberg became friends and in 1981 founded Chindex International Inc., a successful health-care and medical equipment company now listed on the Nasdaq exchange.
For more than 25 years, they have lived with their families and practiced Judaism in China. The women hosted their first seder in 1980, with more than 25 guests at a Beijing hotel and matzah brought over from Taiwan.
Over the years they have organized regular Shabbat and holiday services, adult classes and a Hebrew school. By 2000, Kehillat Beijing had a home, a Torah and a core group of congregants. The egalitarian, lay-led community blends Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative beliefs and traditions.
So when Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freudlich came to Beijing in 2001, he understood that Chabad wasn’t the first outpost of Jewish life here. Still, he knew that Chabad could provide services that Kehillat did not.
“I came to Beijing because it was my dream always to come to a place where the Jewish infrastructure was limited and expand it, where there was no Jewish day school or kosher restaurant, and no mikvah, and to build it,” Freudlich says.
Many Beijing Jews now rely on Chabad for their religious needs.
Chabad’s Mei Tovah mikvah opened in 2006 with spa facilities and a Chinese-inspired design. It is used about 15 to 20 times a month and is a welcome convenience for women who otherwise would fly to Hong Kong or use a lake to fulfill the practice of family purity, or “taharat hamishpachah.”
Its Ganeinu day school for preschoolers and elementary-age students makes Beijing an attractive relocation option for some Jewish expats.
French native Gilles Perez says that when he was offered a job in Beijing, “the first thing I did was open the Jewish travel guide to find if there was a day school.”
If not, Perez says, he would not have come. His son Raphael attends the Chabad school.
Kehillat’s Hebrew school, Ahavat Yitzhak, uses the Ganeinu building and even shares some teachers. Twenty-six students and four recent bar/bat mitzvah teaching assistants attended Ahavat Yitzhak in the 2007-08 school year.
As an expat Jewish community nestled in a region with few native Jews, many children in Beijing’s Jewish community are of Chinese and Jewish backgrounds.
Chabad and Kehillah schools both have an open enrollment policy. Freudlich says the two schools will accept the same students.
“Anyone who considers themselves a member of the Jewish community can attend Ganeinu,” he says, “but they have to sign on the application a paragraph we write that states regardless of us accepting you to the school, it does not affirm your halachic Jewish status.”
Meanwhile, Chabad can teach prospective converts in China, but conversions cannot be performed in the country because of rules against proselytizing.
Chinese citizens, even those who come with a Jewish friend, may be turned away at the door from Chabad events.
Chabad’s Web site states, “All foreign-passport holders are welcome to join.”
In contrast, Kehillat Beijing members frequently bring Chinese friends to services without concern.
Some find the mere existence of such an active and diverse Jewish community in Beijing reason enough to participate regularly.
“The comfort I find in these weekly gatherings is astounding,” says Leo Lazar, 25, who is in Beijing on a six-month rotation for GE Healthcare. “Maybe it’s the sense of community, the sense of an adventurous – as opposed to a painstaking – Diaspora.”