An insight into the Shanghai Jewish Community
The Jews in Shanghai are redefining the meaning of community. This city, like many other Asian cities with a substantial expat population, attracts a wide range of ages, nationalities, occupations, and personalities. Most people are here on a long-term temporary basis, but everyone seeks to make this place home. People are committed to socializing and building healthy support systems. Even though community-building has happened in a rather top-down fashion so far (there are four rabbis for about 2000 people), Jews are taking their individual responsibility to contribute to their community quite seriously. The question is, what will this community look like?
Through planning, and executing the first-ever Global Day of Jewish Learning in Shanghai, I learned a lot about what “the community” – used here as the population of people s who self-identify as Jewish - wants and needs. It started out as a small thing, in my mind. I have been here for less than two months, networking solidly within the expat world and building a relationship with the all-Chinese staff at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. As the first JDC person in the region in a very long time, and the first long-term foreign volunteer the Museum has ever had, the time was still unripe for me to swoop down on the Museum with an event that centers around discussing Jewish prayer (another layer of complication is the fact that Judaism is not recognized as a religion in China).
Or so I thought. I had called and texted about fifteen people whom I thought would be interested in the event. Word got around, and on Sunday morning, my Chinese colleague (who very kindly ignored all the less-precise details about what was happening) and I watched as 25 people poured into what used to be the Women’s Gallery of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, in the Hongkou District of Shanghai.
Brunch was a great success, a mixture between a family-style breakfast and a buffet. As we started the session and I read the Shema prayer out loud, a chill went through me. I had been so busy with the preparations for the event, with worrying who would come and how it would go, that I had barely stopped to think about what it was that I was organizing. I had planned the session and had read the texts and the facilitator’s guide, but it was only in that moment when I said the prayer that I realized how many people in the last century, under a wide-variety of conditions, had said that prayer in that same building.
The interconnected nature of the Jewish world is truly remarkable. Here I was, sitting in an old synagogue that once was the heart of a ghetto of Holocaust refugees, in China, reading Rashi and Maimonides, with 25 other Jews, ages 20 to 75, from Australia, Israel, France, the US, Mexico, Brazil, the UK, Turkey, Canada, and South Africa. We had some Chinese guests who participated in the session and kept us entirely aware of where we were.
It was such an unexpected success that I had to wonder: all other things aside, what is the Global Day offering that people are craving so much? Expat communities tend to focus on the basics. Holidays, Shabbats and births are the predominant things that unite people here. The community is based on religious aspects of Judaism. But Shanghai Jews want to interact on a much more social level. This is what is missing in the community, an outlet for cultural Judaism, an exploration and questioning of Judaism with other Jews. And that is exactly what the Global Day of Jewish Learning helped to provide.
After the session, my colleague gave the group a tour of the Museum. Many of the participants had never been to it before. It was wonderful to learn the history of the place where we had the session, and it gave the event additional depth.
On my part, I learned a lot: about the community, about my strengths and weaknesses as a community organizer, about what is difficult and what is easy in the situation I am in. Above all, I realized that I am in a position to collide worlds. Yesterday I felt the potential of that, the magnitude of being in such a position.
There are things to be done.