In Asia, Creating a New Jewish Revival

by Rebecca Kanthor and Jeanine Buzali

Shanghai, China: one of the world’s busiest ports. China’s most populous city. A top-25 global financial center. And on April Fourth, host to the region’s emerging Jewish renaissance.

While strange to some, this historic and fascinating city steeped with Jewish history will provide a springboard for Asia’s emerging Jewish communities through Destination Shanghai, a four-day celebration of what it means to be Jewish in Asia.

Seventy years ago Shanghai was home to tens of thousands of Jews – of Russian, Sephardi, and various European backgrounds (including refugees escaping Nazi persecution), but today it will inspire contemporary Jewish leaders from Asia and around the world who with gather here and build a Jewish identity and community uniquely their own.

So how did this happen?

Asia has long been home to various Jewish populations, but today, in East Asia especially, Jewish communities are growing, thriving, and seeking new ways to express their Jewishness. Filled with expats, indigenous, and transient Jewish groups, this mixed Jewish population is both reaping the benefits of global markets and enriching local Jewish practice and community.

As part of this evolution, a variety of Jewish groups (both global and local) including Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Limmud International, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, Kehilat Beijing, and Limmud China have contributed to this phenomenon and have added to its success.

Last year, for example, JDC and Limmud International worked with local Jewish expats to organize a Limmud event in China. Volunteers from Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, and Singapore worked together to put on the event just a stones throw away from the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing. It attracted 100 people, many of whom had never heard of Limmud before, and set off a firestorm of regional activity including another one day gathering, Limmud Hong Kong.

This year, the team – made up of a group of dedicated volunteers who gave of their time and energy and a JDC representative based here – took it up a notch, planning the entire program. Participants will attend an Asia-focused Limmud gathering followed by a community Shabbaton with the city’s Jewish movements and then a day commemorating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Hongkou Ghetto (where more than 15,000 Jewish refugees once lived side by side with their Chinese neighbors). By harnessing our creativity from the previous days and then examining our past, the conversation will turn to global Jewish responsibility, especially in the context of the budding Jewish expat communities of East Asia.

The conference will be filled to the brim with options. Every hour there are seven different sessions on a myriad of topics running simultaneously, with presenters culled from the local community giving lectures, workshops, classes, panel discussion, on-stage interviews, networking events, and performances. And it’s not just the amazing diversity of programming content that is impressive, but also because Limmud welcomes Jews of every walk of life.

What does that mean?

On one hand, the conference is completely kosher to ensure the comfort of Orthodox participants and on the other hand, it’s billed for everyone as a “Jewish journey,” so that people whose Jewish experience or knowledge is out of the mainstream can come and share their wisdom. That special atmosphere has even emerged in the planning process as we take these concepts and put them to work. As we prepared, our team meetings spurred cross-denominational conversations about different Jewish experiences. We’ve made a calculated decision behind every session on the program to make sure there is balance and diversity of thought.

By working together as volunteers to create a holistic Jewish experience, we have managed to turn the event into an equalizer, with everyone on equal footing to talk about and present their individual, spiritual, or professional paths. And in the end, it was really the volunteer aspect of planning the conference that was so important. After all, volunteering allows people to take ownership over the process, and in doing so, they are strengthening their connection to Judaism and to the community that they belong to.

And that’s a special lesson here in Shanghai. Centered primarily around three Chabad centers and one Sephardic Orthodox center, Shanghai is an exciting, vibrant and bustling city. But the transient nature of the expat population can make building a solid and lasting community a challenge.

Destination Shanghai has helped find solutions for that challenge. And while its true that the ebb and flow of the transient Jewish community means continuous change, by welcoming our community to join us at Destination Shanghai, we created an experience that brings people together. That first step can be the hardest to take, but the way forward is clearer now. In the process, we are building and strengthening our community. And that is priceless.

Rebecca Kanthor, Program Chair of Limmud China, and Jeanine Buzali, the Shanghai-based JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow, are members of the Destination Shanghai planning team.