Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Belated Hanukah Update

From Shanghai to the UK
JDC’s first official event in Shanghai, Ohel Rachel Ceremony and Limmud

For me, Hanukah began on December 4th, at the Community Hanukah fair. It was put together by Chabad in the Portman Hotel plaza, a big indoor hall, on a Sunday afternoon. I arrived on time to help set up for the Kids Kraft table, and ended up running the window-decorating booth. Aside from a wide-variety of crafts, there was a children’s winter coat sale, booth of community businesses selling their products and services, and of course, plenty of incredibly food.

I had a great time running my booth, as it’s been a while since I’ve hung out with kids. It also allowed me to marvel at the diversity of the community in Shanghai, and how nice it is that families have a place here to come celebrate a Jewish holiday. I ended up making a hanukia out of some weird colorful plasticky-playdough material, and it was awesome.

Around that same time, I was deciding what (if anything at all) I should do for Hanuka. In my activities with and for the community, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between what the community needs and what I am actually able to execute by myself. For example, obviously there is no need for a family event, and in any case, something like that is virtually impossible to plan and carry out alone.  So I decided that, in the spirit of Shanghai expat culture, I would find a Happy Hour rate (Shanghai is all about Happy Hours, Ladies’ Nights, promotions, discounts, and ways to go out to nice places for less or even nothing at all) at a nice, appealing club, and invite everyone I know. Everything was thought out – the date (as late as possible but before people leave on vacation, and without conflicting with other community events), the food (sufganiot and levivot from Chabad, both Kosher and festive), and the party favors (chocolate coins and dreidels). The club was a bit tricky to work with, though in the end I managed to get the Happy Hour rate and permission to bring the food in.

The Israeli Consulate and it’s wonderful employees helped me advertise the event (the picture in the flier below is from when I celebrated Hanukah in India with a group of friends), and through that and my own invitees, word got around through all the circles – Americans, French, Europeans, and of course, Israelis. People told me that they received the email from different friends, and that there was talk about it in Chabad on Friday. Other people told me, during the event, that there where people there who had not come for a Jewish event in years.

About 80 people came before 10 pm. I calculated a total of 150 people throughout the whole night. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the time is right to bring the Jews of Shanghai together. If there is a place and a reason (religious or otherwise), they will come. It was so simple; a good party with other Jews, and many people told me they wish this happened more often.  What surprised me was that there were people from all ages and backgrounds. Certainly plenty of young, single professionals, but also lots older couples. It was great. And it didn’t step on anyone’s toes, which only added to its success.

On the first night of Hanukah, the community was allowed to use the old synagogue downtown , Ohel Rachel. It was such a beautiful event. I am realizing now that all the Hanukah activities so far have all been so different yet all so fitting the holiday, and it has been so enjoyable. This event was for the entire family, and indeed, there were many children, but also plenty of younger peope. The one age group that continues to be conspicuous in its absence here is the teenagers. There are many, many under-5 year-olds, but no over-10 year-olds. There was a small candle-lighting ceremony, some song-singing, and a lot of incredible food. It was just a nice Jewish mingling event, but the context of the synagogue made it really special. It’s such an incredible building that I think reflects what the Jews of Shanghai must have been like in the early part of the 20th century, at their strongest.

Then, on the second night, the Liberal group threw a Hanukah thing at Haya’s, the Israeli restaurant downtown. It was a family-style sort of dinner, which many young people attended. It was a different group – plenty of mixed couples, but also people who want a different scene from the Jewish centers around the city.

The next day, I flew to the UK to attend Limmud, which this year fell on the remaining five nights of Hanukah. Limmud was an amazing, intellectually diverse experience, made only more interesting by the fact that, aside from both of my JDC bosses, I had never really been exposed to British Jewry (or really, British culture beyond the really famous stuff), and it was very enriching to be in that environment.

For an entire week, I attended sessions by incredible speakers, all having something to do with a crucial part of my identity – Judaism, Israel, or the diversity of the Jewish world. There was text study (which I actually really love. Nothing like a page of the Talmud to keep you intellectually humble), panels on journalism and politics, on Jewish identity and religiosity, theater and music workshops and performances, amazing lectures on topics in Judaism – sexuality, Hannah Arendt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring, and so much more.

Limmud is run by volunteers, and every presenter is also a participant. Some of the presenters are really high-level experts in their field, yet there is a sense of equality and openness about the whole experience.  Every evening concluded with the lighting of the candles – everyone together out in the courtyard, usually with musical accompaniment. It was a very intense, but also so fulfilling.

I also attended a lot of Limmud International sessions, with the hope of getting an idea of how other people around the world have made Limmud happen in their communities. I am very excited about helping make Limmud in China a very proximate reality. It will be so incredibly nourishing for both the communities and the individuals here. This is a great framework for people to give something to the whole, from which they can also take back a lot as individuals. And it’s something that is simple, uncomplicated, fully accepting, and intrinsically Jewish, because its fundamental cornerstone is something all Jews indisputably have in common – learning, in all its manifestations. 

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