In coronavirus-stricken China, Jews adopt new, hi-tech ways to worship for Purim


Ahead of the Jewish festival of Purim this week, mainland China’s Reform communities have found an inventive way to remain connected in a country that is still largely on lockdown in the face of what is now being described as the coronavirus pandemic. Community coordinators from Kehillat Beijing and Kehilat Shanghai, lay-led progressive sister communities for their respective cities’ Liberal Jews, will host their traditional costume contest and readings of the Book of Esther via video conferencing.

“We’ll probably hold a couple of Zoom sessions for the different time zones to sing Purim songs and so people can celebrate,” said Julia Ulman, coordinator of Kehilat Shanghai. Her community has around 150 dues-paying members and many visitors throughout the year, Ulman told The Times of Israel over the phone.

Since the outbreak started at the beginning of the calendar year, the Liberal Chinese Jewish communities have held modified Sabbath services and Hebrew school, using Zoom video conferencing technology and WeChat, an app owned and operated by the Chinese government that has been described as Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Venmo all rolled into one. The communities had used it in the past for updates, but now it’s become the lifeline for community members, many of whom are now stranded out of country.

As the global pandemic has spread, grounding airlines, sending global financial markets plummeting and closing schools, synagogues and now yeshivas, Jewish life in China has all but shut down.

Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, China’s Jewish multi-denominational community leaders describe a country on lockdown, with precious few Jews currently on hand out of the 10,000 who usually live there. Many Jewish families had been traveling over the Chinese New Year at the end of January as news of the outbreak spread. Facing certain quarantine, and with schools across the country closed, most stayed abroad.

Members of the Kehilat Shanghai community prior to the new norm of face masks and temperature checks. (Courtesy Kehilat Shanghai)

“We’ve held virtual candle lighting and Shabbat blessings over Zoom,” Kehilat Shanghai’s Ulman, 23, said over the phone from Cleveland, Ohio, where she is also waiting until she can return to China.

Ulman describes a close community that has displayed stubborn stoicism amid the crisis, despite the unknowns of what the future holds. “We’ve done a few sessions of virtual Tov!, our children’s education program, and we’ve been sending links to apps and resources that the kids can work on. We’ve also had a few adult educational sessions. We’re trying to do as much as we can,” she said.

Given the members’ different time zones, this can be a challenge. Members of Kehilat Shanghai are now spread around South Asia, the United States, Europe, Brazil, South Africa and Australia.

Youth in Kehilat Shanghai’s community. (Courtesy Kehilat Shanghai)

“We’ve found that sometimes sending a video lesson or message can be more effective because then people can watch it on their own time in whatever time zone they are in and comment on the group chat as opposed to tuning in at a specific moment,” Ulman said. “We’ve been encouraging people to send in their Shabbat messages from around the world… We’re finding many different ways to feel connected and use the fact that we are a community not just a synagogue. We are a community, no matter what is going on and where we are.”

Adapting to a new normal during Jewish holidays

Even as the country begins to cautiously limp its way back to some semblance of normalcy, there is a new “normal” with widespread temperature and hygiene checks, strict restrictions on travel, mandatory quarantining, and a general anxiety about gathering in groups.

This puts a damper on what was meant to be a busy month for Jewish communities with festivities planned for the Purim holiday this Monday and Tuesday, as well as Passover next month. A Limmud Asia learning conference planned for 150 people in May that alternates between Shanghai and Beijing every year is now also up in the air.

Dini Freundlich had initially planned a Purim party for a few hundred people at her Chabad center in Beijing. “Now I’m sitting here in New York thinking, ‘OK, I’ll pack two mishloach manot but who should I give them to?” she said over the phone from the United States, referring to the gift packages it’s customary to give on the holiday.

Bnai mitzvah students and the Jewish community of Shanghai celebrating at the Ohel Moshe synagogue, now Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, in October 2019. (Courtesy Hanna Minsky/ Kehilat Shanghai)

Freundlich, 47, is co-director of the Chabad center in Beijing with her husband Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, which operates a Hebrew school, a trilingual day school for 60 kids, a kosher restaurant, a synagogue and Jewish holiday programs. The mother of six was initially visiting New York over the Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January and planned to return to China on February 18. But with the schools closed and a mandatory quarantine in place when she does return to China, Freundlich didn’t want to take the risk traveling with her two youngest kids, aged 8 and 12. (Her other children attend school year-round in the United States and Israel). Her husband remained behind in Beijing to help out those still in China.

“It’s a little frightening, strange, and overwhelming,” Freundlich said. “Especially for kids. Mostly there is this unbelievable fear of the unknown and kids pick up on that. They’re like ‘What is going on here?’ And you can’t really answer any questions because you yourself don’t know.”

You can’t really answer any questions because you yourself don’t know

In the meantime Freundlich is living with family in Brooklyn, New York, until she gets word from the Department of Education that schools are allowed to reopen and that she will be able to self-quarantine at her home, rather than at a quarantine center where she would have no access to kosher food.

In some provinces it’s illegal to gather in groups and in others it’s highly discouraged.

“I can literally count on one hand the people I know that are left in Beijing,” Freundlich said of the mostly-expat community that usually boasts around 2,000 people throughout the year including business executives, embassy officials, professors and students.

Rabbi Shalom Greenberg delivers much needed face masks to Hongkou residents after a ceremony at the WWII memorial in Shanghai. (Courtesy Chabad Shanghai)

Twelve hundred kilometers (around 745 miles) from Freundlich’s adopted home city in Beijing, a Chabad rabbi in Shanghai is also gearing up for a toned down Purim holiday and uncertain Passover.

“It’s a very sad situation,” Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, 48, said over the phone from Shanghai. “All the schools and universities are closed, so 99 percent of the families didn’t stay here. They left. You can’t keep your kids at home in four walls for such a long time.”

Greenberg says there are typically 2,000 Jewish people in Shanghai and he hosts 50 to 100 people every week at his Chabad center for Shabbat services and meals. Since the virus outbreak, he’s barely had 10.

“People that do come to minyan [prayer quorum] wear a mask and keep a safe distance from each other. People are very cautious about what they are doing,” Greenberg said.

Rapidly spreading Jewish communities in China

The modern history of Jews in China dates back to World War II when China welcomed some 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. But most of China’s modern Jewish history started after Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy went into effect in the early 1980s. Since then, more foreigners started moving to China and the expat Jewish communities grew. Though Judaism is not one of the four religions officially recognized by the state, foreigners are free to practice it as well as Chinese nationals who have Jewish spouses or partners.

Now there are 13 Chabad centers across China including three in Shanghai alone, and Reform progressive communities in Beijing and Shanghai. There’s also an Israeli Sephardic synagogue in Shanghai. It’s estimated that 10,000 Jews live in China year-round, a smattering among China’s staggering 1.4 billion people, but it swells during tourist season and throughout the year for business: An afternoon prayer service at the mega Canton manufacturing fair which takes place a few times a year in Guangzhou regularly has over 500 people.

The Chabad school in Shanghai has over 70 students. (Courtesy Chabad Shanghai)

In Beijing and Shanghai, the two main communities operate independently but there is some overlap among congregants and programming. “We’re one community, we just pray separately on Friday night,” Freundlich said, speaking of Beijing’s Jewish population.

Members of the Reform communities in Beijing and Shanghai also describe a close-knit, unified group, despite its transient nature.

“It’s just this wonderful community made up of people from all different backgrounds who aren’t necessarily involved in the Jewish community in their hometowns, but here they discover what their Judaism is,” said Leon Fenster, an artist from Britain who often led services at Kehillat Beijing during his six-year stint in China’s capital.

There are around 730 people across the Kehillat Beijing and Kehilat Shanghai WeChat groups, many of whom, like Fenster, now live outside of the country.

There’s absolutely no history of anti-Semitism

China’s Jewish community members were effusive about the country’s welcoming environment, saying that anti-Semitism is practically unheard of.

“It makes Chinese history stand out,” Fenster said. “We just don’t think about it. There’s absolutely no history of anti-Semitism.”

Dan Krassenstein, 56, a supply chain specialist who lived in Shanghai for 15 years agreed. “There Jews are treated like long-lost brothers and with a lot of respect. The Chinese and Jews share a lot of similar values in terms of respect for family and our elders, and therefore [they] afford Jews and Israelis a lot of respect.”

Chabad of Shanghai’s mask drive was aided by fundraisers across the globe. (Courtesy Chabad Shanghai)

Chabad rabbi Greenberg felt the same and has always appreciated how welcoming the Chinese were to his family and community. To pay it forward, even with most of his community still not back in China, Greenberg organized a mask drive and distributed thousands of masks and aid kits to Jews and non-Jews in Shanghai’s Hongkou District. The area is home to a large number of elderly citizens who have had a hard time accessing the limited quantities of supplies at the city’s distribution centers. Volunteers from the Jewish War Refugee Museum helped Greenberg deliver them directly to people’s homes so they wouldn’t have to line up in the cold.

To Greenberg, this small measure was particularly poignant, allowing him to return a favor the Chinese afforded Jewish refugees in this same area between 60 and 70 years ago.

A lot of these elderly people who live in this district were young children when Jewish refugees lived here

“This means that they [the elderly] could go out to the fruit and vegetable market to get food, otherwise they would be stuck at home because they wouldn’t be allowed to leave without a mask,” Greenberg said. “To me this is something very powerful and meaningful because a lot of these elderly people who live in this district were young children when Jewish refugees lived here.”

“Many of the Jewish refugees came back to Shanghai to visit in the last 20 or so years and they told me how the Nazis took away our ability to feel like humans, but when they came to Shanghai, the locals treated them with dignity. Just for that we will always be grateful. And now we are able to come back and say, ‘We are here for you. Now you need us, we are happy to help.’ Just to make it more human for a while,” said Greenberg.

Rabbi Shalom Greenberg distributed thousands of masks and aid kits to Jews and non-Jews in Shanghai’s Hongkou district. (Courtesy Chabad Shanghai)

An eye to the future

“Passover is a question mark,” said Kehilat Shanghai’s Ulman. “We may be able to host, but it all has to do with the restrictions, so we have to wait and see.”

Slowly, some young professionals have started returning to China.

Hannah Maia Frishberg, 26, is a resident at the Shanghai Moishe House where she helps organize events for young Jewish professionals. She was previously the community coordinator at Kehilat Shanghai and now works in the development department at NYU Shanghai.

Since returning to Shanghai a week ago, Frishberg says life is slowly creeping back to normal. Still, she says, there are temperature and mask checks everywhere as well as complex regulations around eating out and package deliveries, including how far tables must be apart at restaurants. Most apartment complexes, including hers, have no-guest policies. “Getting together has taken on a new joy,” Frishberg said.

Still, the Baltimore native, along with 20 to 30 other young Jewish professionals, plans to gather for an Israeli-style Purim party this week. It’ll be a small gathering compared to the Shanghai Moishe House’s usual 200 people.

All the same, “We’re just happy that places are open,” Frishberg said.