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Around the Jewish World: Expatriates in China Spur Revival of Jewish Communities

July 2, 1998
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When the tiny Jewish community of China’s capital city wanted to hold a Passover seder with all the culinary trimmings, they naturally turned to the bubbe of Beijing.

The bubbe is Elaine Silverberg, who came here 10 years ago from New York to join her resident daughter, Elyse Beth Silverberg, a successful business executive.

Since then, the bubbe has devoted much of her time to coddling her Beijing-born grandson Ari, and to training some of the city’s top chefs in the art of Jewish-style cooking. For the seder, her lesson plan included instructions on the making of matzah ball soup and charoset.

The seder was a huge success, with 280 celebrants in attendance. Joining the festive occasion were Israeli Embassy personnel and some foreign tourists.

With the opening of China to the West, a steady trickle of Jewish businessmen and entrepreneurs from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Israel have established a Jewish presence in Beijing and are reviving the long-dormant Jewish community in Shanghai.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton got a first-hand glimpse into the community on Wednesday as she and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit to a recently restored synagogue in Shanghai.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built by Sephardi Jews in the 1920s and used during World War II by some of the 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai.

But in 1949, when the Communists came to power, they seized the synagogue along with several others in the city and outlawed worship.

The Jews of Shanghai scattered, and the synagogue was converted into a storage facility for the state education commission.

The restoration was spurred by a promise the mayor of Shanghai made to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a member of a U.S. religious delegation that visited China in February, to designate the building a historical site and open it to the public.

Schneier said recently he hopes the restoration will mark a “first step in the revival of Jewish life in Shanghai,” and this week he and his wife brought a Torah to the synagogue as a gift from Schneier’s synagogue, Park East Synagogue in New York.

After visiting the synagogue Wednesday, Clinton hailed the restoration as an example of a new respect in China for religious differences, and said, “I’m delighted I could come and see this.”

Albright, who recently learned that she was born Jewish and that her grandparents died in the Holocaust, said she was optimistic that the restoration was “a sign of the changes that are taking place here.”

The number of Jews in China is augmented by resident diplomats from Israel and other countries, and by young men and women who often find a foothold here as English teachers.

Hong Kong, the outpost of the British empire until its incorporation into China last year, remains by far the largest Jewish center in the country, with some 3,500 residents.

But the formation of Kehillat Beijing by Beijing’s 250 Jews, and of the newly established B’nai

Elyse Beth Silverberg came to Beijing as an exchange student in 1979, married a Chinese businessman and, after founding a medical instrument company, has recently opened the Beijing United Family Hospital.

She has been the sparkplug and steady anchor in a community whose Western business and diplomatic members rarely stay in place for more than three years.

Although Kehillat Beijing has no synagogue, the small congregation has ritual and continuing education committees, and holds occasional retreats led by a rabbi based in Hong Kong.

“We live in an alien place and during the week we are very busy trying to integrate into the local environment. So on Shabbat and holidays, we feel a particularly strong need to bond as Jews,” said Silverberg.

Shanghai has a much longer history of Jewish life than Beijing, but its present community is of more recent origin.

When the port city was opened to international trade in the 1840s, Jews from Iraq and India established themselves as the city’s foremost merchant princes and constructed many of its still-existing landmark buildings.

A new wave of some 4,500 Jews arrived in the first two decades of this century as refugees from czarist pogroms and later the Bolsheviks in Russia. During the Nazi era, when Shanghai was just about the only place in the world to admit refugees without a visa, some 20,000 Central European Jews settled in the city’s Hongkou district.

All of the wartime refugees left for Israel, the United States or Australia after the war, and organized Jewish life disappeared until the founding of the B’nai Ysrael congregation some 18 months ago.

The revival owes much to Seth Kaplan, an entrepreneur from New York who was the congregation’s first president. Kaplan, 31, sees a parallel between the current influx and the arrival of Jewish merchants 150 years ago.

“Jews make up less than 2 percent of Shanghai’s non-Asian population, but they represent 30 percent of the non-Asian entrepreneurs,” says Kaplan.

Last April, the city’s 150 Jews, representing 11 different nationalities, celebrated Passover, but were unable to agree on one joint communal seder. Instead, there were three seders, one organized by Chabad-Lubavitch, one by the Israeli consulate and one by a private family.

Indeed, says Kaplan, the toughest part of his volunteer job is to prevent the Jewish community from splintering into even smaller parts.

Two buildings that formerly served as synagogues, the Sephardi Ohel Rachel and the Ashkenazi Ohel Moishe, still stand, and the municipality has promised for years to renovate them and return them to the Jewish community.

Just weeks ago, at the behest of the White House advance staff, the Chinese government completed the restoration of Ohel Rachel, ahead of President Clinton’s trip to China.

The former Ohel Moishe, which houses a permanent photo exhibit commemorating the Jewish enclave and its inhabitants during World War II, received a long- overdue coat of paint in late May to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited China in June.

Although enclaves of ethnic Chinese practicing Judaism existed in past centuries, particularly in Kaifeng, they have melded into the general population and none is found among the members of the present congregations in Beijing and Shanghai.

There is, however, a growing interest in Judaism and Israel among Chinese academicians, who have established a Center of Jewish Studies and the China Judaic Studies Association in Shanghai, and a four-year curriculum in Hebrew language and literature at Beijing University.

Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, and reports on Israel in the state-controlled Chinese press have become more balanced in recent years, says Orna Sagiv, the information officer of the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

Both the embassy and the consulate in Shanghai spend considerable effort to expand trade relations between the two countries. Currently, trade between the two countries amounts to about $300 million per year, with China holding a two- to-one edge in the balance of trade.

(JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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