Ni Hao – Limmud in China

Photo by Aaron Berkovic
Photo by Aaron Berkovich

[To celebrate Limmud’s 35th year, eJewishPhilanthropy is offering a look into Jewish communities around the world through the eyes of Limmud volunteers. Limmud, the global grassroots Jewish learning movement founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries on six continents.]

By Jamie Fleishman

This November, the small but vibrant Jewish community in China will host its fourth annual Limmud event.

While Limmud China is only four years old, the history of Jews in China stretches back well over a millennium. The earliest Jewish life in China began as trade thrived along the Silk Road during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties. The most notable Jewish community in China formed in Kaifeng, Henan Province. That community became known as the “Chinese Jews.”

However, it has been non-Chinese Jews who have largely shaped the Jewish community over the past century. At the beginning of the 1900s, Russian Jews escaped to China and settled in Harbin, Tianjin, and Shanghai, where they built synagogues. Then came World War II, when an estimated 20,000 European Jews found refuge in Shanghai’s Hongkou District. However, almost all left with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Jewish community in China largely did not exist in the following 30 years as China closed its borders. But as soon as the country began to open up in the late 1970s, Jewish community returned to China. One of the earliest members was Roberta Lipson, who moved to Beijing in 1979 following her studies at Brandeis and Columbia, and hasn’t left. In addition to founding China’s first international hospital, Lipson founded Kehillat Beijing, the first post-war Jewish community in mainland China.

Thirty-four years later, Kehillat Beijing is now one of the many Jewish institutions that have grown alongside China’s rapid development. Kehillat Shanghai – a Reform congregation like its northern sibling – followed. In the 1990s, Chabad established a strong presence in Shanghai, then Beijing, and now has branches in Yiwu, Chengdu, and Guangzhou. Moishe House Beijing, part of the international network of homes serving as hubs for young Jewish professionals, opened its doors in 2008; Moishe House Shanghai opened in 2014.

Limmud China is one of the latest Jewish initiatives. The first Limmud took place in Beijing in May 2012 with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and direction from JDC Entwine Fellow Jeanine Buzali in Shanghai. One hundred people – mainly from China and Hong Kong – took part in the learning festival held alongside the Great Wall.

The next year, Buzali and a host of volunteers organized Limmud in Shanghai, which drew more than 150 people. This time participants came from an even more diverse array of countries, including India and Japan.

Looking back on those first two Limmuds, Buzali believes that the volunteer effort of China’s Jewish community is what makes Limmud China so special. “There aren’t many opportunities to become a leader in the Chinese Jewish community,” Buzali said. “Limmud China is a space for volunteers to come together and respond to the needs of the Jews living here.”

In 2014, the third Limmud returned to its roots in Beijing, attracting over 160 participants.

This year’s Limmud China will again take place in Beijing: November 27-29. Registration is still open until November 15, 2015.

“At Limmud China, we celebrate what makes Jewry in China special,” explained 2015 Chair Leon Fenster. “As a community in which almost everyone has found a new home far from where they were born, China’s Jews are a naturally diverse bunch.

“This year, we will feature the most variegated group of presenters yet, with sessions ranging from the impact of Shanghai’s World War II era Jewish community on its present identity to translating Arabic literature for Jewish audiences to an account of the Jews who joined Mao’s Communist Party.”

The biggest challenge facing the local Jewish community is its transient nature. Long-time community members like Lipson are rare. The community is largely made up of diplomats, business people, and young professionals thousands of miles from their families. There are very few people looking to make China home for more than five to ten years.

Given the community’s constantly shifting numbers, there is no official statistic for the current number of Jews in China. Unofficial statistics place the number at 2,500 and some may say the number is closer to double that. In reality, the number of active Jewish community members is not more than 1,000.

Yet, the amazing result of living in a country as far away as China, is that many people become closer to their Jewish identity. Whether they first found the community because they were looking for a Passover seder, a Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, or just a taste of challah on Friday night, many cherish the traditions and tastes of home. And once they discover that comfort in the community, many find themselves more appreciated and connected to their Judaism than when they arrived in China.

It’s that connection to Jewish identity while living so far away from home that makes Limmud China truly unique.

Jamie Fleishman spends his days in Beijing as a college counselor with Elite Scholars of China and dedicates most of the rest of his time to Moishe House Beijing or trying new food.