Jewish communities in Asia – a new Centre for Global Jewry

Overseas visitors outside the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum; photo courtesy Australian Jewish Funders.
Overseas visitors outside the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum; photo courtesy Australian Jewish Funders.

By Simone Szalmuk-Singer

Asia is not an obvious location for the development and growth of a global Jewish community. Yet, on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore, Jewish identity and Israel sit centre stage for the increasing number of Jews living in these cities.

The Jewish communities of Asia are growing. Israeli companies are creating successful business ventures across Asia, satisfying an almost insatiable appetite for Israeli technology and innovation. Jews from around the world are pursuing diverse career opportunities in the region. European Jews leaving countries such as France are increasingly choosing Asia as their new home.

At the recent Global Leadership Conversation in Shanghai, the exploration of the evolving Jewish phenomenon in Asia was surprising and inspiring. The outcomes of the gathering reflect brave visionary leadership and a solid conviction to harness boundless communal potential.

This year was the third year in which the Pratt Foundation, the Jewish Funders’ Network and the Australian Jewish Funders convened a gathering in Asia to examine the needs and vast potential of the growing Jewish communities in the region. Business leaders, philanthropists and communal leaders from Asia, the United States, Israel and Australia came together as they had at preceding events in Singapore 2015 and Hong Kong 2014.

Attending for the first time, the vibrancy of the Jewish communities in Asia was immediately palpable to me. I was challenged to consider the role and possibilities for Jewish philanthropy in this innovative Jewish environment.

Israel is leading the current Jewish charge towards Asia. The nature and depth of the mutually beneficial relationship between Israel and China illustrates the importance of Asia in a new Jewish landscape. Amotz Asa-El succinctly stated “While China develops Israel’s physical infrastructure, Israel is helping develop China’s knowledge infrastructure.” Asa-El described the central role that Chinese construction companies are playing in developing Israel’s highways, roads, rail tunnels and mass transit systems. While at the same time, Israeli universities and businesses are providing China with knowledge, technology and innovation.

At the Shanghai event we heard that whilst commercial relationships thrive, cultural differences remain challenging. Israelis traditionally prefer to close deals in a much shorter time frame than their Chinese counterparts who prefer to develop a trusted relationship or Guanxi. These challenges are not however insurmountable as, in the current climate of bilateral commerce and development, compromise and solutions can nearly always be found.

The gathering hosted a panel of entrepreneurs from all over the world who each described their experiences of living and working in Shanghai and Beijing. The unexpected discovery and development of their individual Jewish identity in China, as opposed to countries with sophisticated Jewish infrastructure such as Australia, the US and Israel, emerged as a striking common theme. Some confessed that they found it easier to be a Jew in China than in Israel or in the US. During a visit to Moishe House Shanghai, residents and alumni passionately spoke of how they connected with people through inclusive events regularly hosted at the house. Their new bonds and connections with Jews from all over the world are deep, genuine and enduring. For so many, their global Jewish family formed at a time and place they never foresaw.

Larger Jewish communities in Asia gives rise to increased needs as well as new potential. A pivotal moment occurred during a robust panel discussion between communal leaders from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. The panelists shared the challenges and dreams they hold for their communities and spoke candidly of their wish to ensure that their children will grow up aware of their Jewish identity.

It became abundantly clear to everyone in the room during this session that these communities can help each other, learn from each other and benefit from their unique parallel environments. By bringing the different Jewish communities across Asian cities together each year, the consequential connections made have in turn facilitated the discovery of common challenges and shared visions. We arguably witnessed an historical juncture at which true inter-community collaboration in Asia was born. These annual gatherings have begun to build a community of Jews in Asia, a single conversation at a time.

The precise format of the evolving community is not yet known; it may be a council, community collaboration or simply a regular communication protocol. The communities in Asia working together will determine the ultimate structure that works for them. Whilst this is not the first attempt to connect these Jewish communities, it appears the most promising, as the communities themselves are now ready to take up the challenge. Their collaboration with each other will strengthen their ability to retain and grow a sense of Jewish identity amongst their members, current and future.

Importantly, they are not embarking on this process alone, as they will continue to be supported in their joint endeavors by the experience, networks and infrastructure of their fellow Jews who watched the commonalities surface. The onus falls upon all of us to ensure tangible progress continues.

Developing a strong collaborative relationship between and with the Jewish communities in Asia creates possibilities extending beyond Asia to benefit global Jewry. The pivot towards Asia is bringing together Jews from all corners of the world, creating a new centre for Jewish life and fresh opportunities for traditional and pluralist engagement. Possibilities are further amplified by Israel’s central role. The Jewish State is reaping economic benefits as well as enhancing ties with a broad range of economies, which in turn may assist Israel’s international geo-political interests.

Thinking globally provides scope for new and exciting Jewish philanthropic collaborations both into and out of Asia. The power of such partnerships is already visible in the new inter-community structure that is starting to take shape. The process that began three years ago and continued this year in Shanghai is an instructive example of visionary international community-building philanthropy.

Simone Szalmuk-Singer is a Board member of the AJF and Jewish Care Victoria as well as co-founder and co-editor of Jewish Women Of Words, an online publication for emerging and established Jewish women writers.