Unexpected Learnings from the Jewish Communities in Asia

back – l-r, Debbie Dadon, Simone Szalmuk-Singer, Tracie Olcha, Belinda Bardas
front – Sam Lipski, Angelica Berrie, Solina Chau (Executive Director, Li Ka Shing Foundation), Andres Spokoiny

By Simone Szalmuk-Singer

Jewish identity, communal continuity and Israel’s image abroad, are arguably some of the most important topics in the Jewish world today. Connecting with the Jewish communities in Asia provides fascinating perspective and clarity in these areas.

The recent Asia and the Jewish World: Intergenerational Leadership Conversation in Hong Kong, was the fourth annual Asia gathering convened by the Pratt Foundation, Jewish Funders’ Network and Australian Jewish Funders. Philanthropists, business people and communal leaders from Asia, Israel, Europe, the United States and Australia came together to continue the conversations that occurred previously in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. Each successive year the richness of insights gained and connections forged, provide endless opportunities for the global Jewish landscape.

The Jewish communities in Asia comprise a wonderful tapestry of Jews from all over the world. Many come to Asia to pursue career opportunities. In recent years, the success of Israeli technology and innovation has led to increasing growth in these communities.

Sam Lipski, CEO of the Pratt Foundation, observed that “it has become apparent that the ‘global Jewish mainstream’ remains largely isolated from the small but growing and vibrant Jewish communities in the Asian region. Not the other way around.”

By connecting with this thriving part of the Jewish world, we open ourselves up to so many learnings and possibilities.

1. Pluralism and tolerance are key factors in maintaining Jewish Identity

The conference opened with a panel of young entrepreneurs living and working in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. They described the unexpected discovery and development of their Jewish identity. They confessed that they found it easier to be a Jew in Asia than at ‘home’ in Israel, the US or Canada as the communities in Asia are generally pluralistic, successfully fostering collaboration between different streams of Judaism.

Larger Jewish communities and Israel can learn from this. Extensive Jewish infrastructure will fail to foster Jewish identity if the environment is divisive and polarising. By contrast, a collaborative, tolerant and welcoming environment is more conducive to developing and enhancing a sense of Jewish identity and engagement.

2. Providing impactful leadership opportunities leads to more engagement

With strong Jewish identity comes a desire to be communally active. Many of these young entrepreneurs were excited about their ‘communal’ potential in Asia. They recounted how ‘back home’ stepping up for communal leadership roles was not enticing as they had to join the ‘bottom’ of the pile and wait twenty, thirty or forty years to climb to the top where impact was possible. In the smaller communities of Asia, young people often have increased opportunity to have impact earlier.

It is not uncommon for leaders of larger Jewish communities to bemoan the lack of young people willing to assume community positions. Perhaps we would do well to reflect on how communal structures and leadership development planning, or lack of, may be acting as a barrier for future generations to meaningfully engage.

3. Israel as the Startup Nation is a very successful narrative for investment, philanthropy and engagement.

Asia has become a hub of Israeli business activity. Israel’s image in these countries is centred around innovation and hi-tech. Israel-focused investment and philanthropy from China and Hong Kong is booming. The relationships with top Chinese philanthropists, the Li Ka Shing Foundation and Ronnie C. Chan illustrate the enormous opportunities for cooperation and potential for far-reaching impact.

The Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology campus in Shantou in the Guangdong Province of South Eastern China is an outstanding example of collaboration. This partnership is a powerful combination of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of Israel and the scale of philanthropic resources in China.

Solina Chau, Executive Director of the Li Ka Shing Foundation and Professor Peretz Lavie, President of the Technion, described the journey that led to a transformational $US130 million gift to the Technion by the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Ms Chau referred to the deep connection with and understanding of Jewish values and culture that has inspired Li Ka Shing who believes that “education is the tool to shape destiny … it is the key to close the social gap.” Ms Chau explained that the Technion impressed the Li Ka Shing Foundation more than any other institution in the world as in China they were accustomed to finding answers to existing questions whereas at the Technion they sought answers to questions “we don’t know yet.”

Ronnie C. Chan, Chairman of Hang Lung Properties, captivated the conference with his knowledge of Israel acquired from leading business delegations to Israel where he introduces top Chinese business leaders and philanthropists to Israelis from different sectors. His enthusiasm and passion for the country’s innovative culture has been pivotal in generating significant Chinese investment in Israel’s social and business sectors.

The relationship and the ‘rock star’ status Israel holds in Asia has been cultivated over recent decades. It reflects the power of a positive Israel narrative embedded in an innovation culture. At a time when Jewish engagement and connectivity to Israel are declining, non-Jewish Chinese engagement is increasing. The relationship between Israel and the diaspora is a controversial topic which is outside the parameters of this article except to say that there is so much more potential for investment, philanthropy and engagement with Israel when the focus is on a positive narrative where Israel is not portrayed as a never-ending emergency cause but rather, a partner for innovation and solving world problems.

4. The power to grow comes from those who seek the growth

The case study of Moishe House guides us on how to bring the Jewish communities in Asia together and connect them to world Jewry by providing a template of how programming and experiences can be transferred effectively across communities. It shows that global programs can be adapted to local realities; every community does not need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ but rather, can benefit from existing global initiatives.

David Cygielman Founder and CEO and Jim Heeger, Chair of Moishe House described how Moishe House grew from four friends choosing to live together in 2006 to 108 houses in 27 countries around the world, serving more than 50,000 young adults each year through over 8500 programs. The key to its scaling success is that each house was generated by the community who need to want it, be prepared to fund it and put in the time required to run it.

The success of Moishe House is inspiring and illustrates what is possible with philanthropic vision, as well as highlighting the importance of the will and commitment of the people on the ground.

5. Building social capital around the globeanything is possible

Yaakov Lehman, an Israel based educator and entrepreneur inspired with his presentation on the relevance of social capital. He defined ‘social capital’ as the collective value of all social relationships within a network, as indicated by the individual and collective benefits generated from the trust, mutual reciprocity, knowledge transfer and collaboration. Social capital creates benefits for both those within the network and bystanders alike.

Lehman taught us how to build social capital in the new digital age. Whereas formerly one would rely on religion, family and geography, today the new model relies on vision, shared language and immersive experiences with authenticity, intimacy and vulnerability.

The Asia gatherings are facilitating the building of social capital. From year to year, connections are made, learnings exchanged and a global community is built. The anecdotes abound. Motivated by the 2016 conference in Shanghai, participants from Shanghai established a Jewish Young Entrepreneurs Group where older community members met with newer members to share experiences in China. A young American participant, Abe Sorock living in Beijing, ended up on a Jewish leadership experience in Israel at the illustrious ROI Summit, where he was then inspired to have a bar mitzvah as an adult having not had one at 13.

In the days following this year’s conference, as a result of new connections made, Yaakov Lehman from Israel enlightened the students at Carmel College in Hong Kong about the value of social capital. Hong Kong journalist Erica Lyons provided a wider audience an insight into Jewish life in Hong Kong by publishing her work on the Australian platform Jewish Women of Words. The inaugural Gen17 Asia survey commenced. This was adapted from the Australian Gen17 survey of the Jewish community in Australia. The information gathered will enhance our understanding of local Jewish populations in Asia, their backgrounds, level of Jewish education, values, level of religious observance and views on the importance of Jewish continuity and Israel.

At this year’s conference, the presence, enthusiasm and leadership of young people was palpable. They are pushing for action and change and stepping up to represent the new face of their communities. Global in outlook and “digital natives,” they will be the engine of a robust Jewish network that links Asia with the Jewish World. Together, we laid the foundations of a framework for how a regional network in Asia could develop and operate. We will now work towards building a roadmap to move forward.

Whilst the global Jewish community can learn from the communities in Asia, the possibilities for shared learning, impactful philanthropy and investment will be multiplied by building stronger connections with and between the communities in Asia. Weaving meaningful connections does not happen overnight, it is a long term process which relies on visionary philanthropy as well as a local groundswell of will to convert the enthusiasm of the conference into an exciting new reality for the whole Jewish world.

Simone Szalmuk-Singer is Co-Chair of the Australian Jewish Funders, the network of Jewish funders inspiring effective philanthropy and strengthening community. She is also a Board Director of Jewish Care Victoria and Co-Founder of Jewish Women of Words.