Monday, November 28, 2011

An overview of the Shanghai Jewish Community

Whether you’re visiting, living in Shanghai, or just curious, here is the panorama of Jewish happenings around Shanghai. 

Shanghai has a long history of being home to international citizens. In the last fifteen years, there has been a renewed explosion of expatriates from all over the world, who come to Shanghai for work and often stay permanently. The expat community is incredibly diverse, and the Jewish community reflects this as well: there are American and French Jews, Israelis, European (British, Spanish, Dutch, Eastern European) Jews, and even a handful of Latin and Canadian Jews.

Though there are many students and young-professionals (ages 22 – 30), most of the long-term residents are young families. There is a noticeable lack of two age groups among Jewish expats: people over the age of 60, and teenagers. It is quite possible that, because Shanghai’s permanent expat community is relatively new, there will be many teenagers within the next five years, and even more ten or fifteen years down the line. There is currently no lack of pregnant women, or children under the age of six.

What will it take for people to stay here when their kids are in their late teens, or even when they leave for college? Until now, most families leave when their kids reach high-school age. The problem, of course, is that families require more complex community institutions that individuals. With a rise in population, there might be a rise in educational opportunities for Jews. Shanghai already has a wide variety of excellent international schools; perhaps soon the Jewish institutions in this city will match them, and people will have the option to raise their kids here as Jewishly they would like.

In terms of institutions, there are a wide variety of them. The community has three Chabad Centers and a Sepharadic Center. The Jewish Center in Hongqiao is the biggest and oldest ( The Rabbi and his wife have been in Shanghai for about 13 years. They have opened their door and their hearts to the rising number of Jewish families, travelers and temporary residents who arrive every year, and they have truly built a community here. They hold Shabbatot, have holiday services, run a growing pre-school (now up to 1st grade), sell kosher food, run a kosher café, hold occasional fun community events, and are raising five children.

They also opened the other two Chabad Centers, one in Pudong (, meant mostly for families who live there, and the other in downtown Shanghai (, run by a French-Sepharadic family.

 The Sepharadi Shanghai Center ( is a nice alternative. It is also orthodox, like the Chabad Centers, but has a somewhat different atmosphere. It is run by an Israeli guy on behalf of the Shehebar Sepharadi Centers, and the Rabbi is a young Argentinean man, educated in a New York Yeshiva.

Though all the centers are open to any Jew, it seems that they go through different trends in the crowd that they attract at any given time. I think this depends on who is running the centers, but also seems to be somewhat random. Broadly speaking, the center in Hongqiao attracts (aside from most of the families in the community) American students and professionals, Ashkenazi businessmen, and the occasional Israeli.

The downtown center attracts mostly young professionals and couples from France and Europe in general, as well as Israelis (who seem to synagogue-hop just like I do). And the Sepharadic Center, which usually has more intimate gatherings, seems to cater to Sephardic businessmen, though this is where most of the Israelis usually go, and there always seem to be French Jews as well.

There is also a budding liberal community in Shanghai ( It is interesting to note that the development of the Shanghai Community has not thus far included a more liberal form of Judaism, as it has in other Asian expat communities (Beijing, Hong Kong, etc). A possible reason for this is that the first rabbinical couple who came to Shanghai (from Chabad Hongqiao) had the right approach to building the community, and they have really made their best to make people feel welcome. This shows just how much community is about individuals, and how good leaders can really unite people under the umbrella of caring for each other.

Now, however, it seems that there are enough people who need what only liberal Judaism can provide, beyond belonging to a community, or simply being with other Jews. People are looking for pluralism; they’re looking for a place that welcomes their non-Jewish spouse (and children) without conversion. Others just like the prayers, services, and general way of being Jewish that is part of liberal Judaism. But unlike in other places I’ve encountered, it generally does not stem from “not feeling welcomed” in the orthodox community. It is simply a matter of preference, which in my opinion as an observer, gives it a very different focus.   

My role in all of this – as the JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Shanghai – is to supplement all the communities, to help provide aspects of the Jewish world that are not already being provided. That is why I am working on creating a formal network of young-professional Jews, through informal events and casual gatherings. I want to provide an alternative to religious Jewish events, of which there are plenty in Shanghai, so that people who just like having Jewish friends can hang out together. Through my work with the Museum (, I hope to also provide cultural events with a Jewish theme.

If you would like more information on any of the above information, please leave a comment!

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