Most people don’t know what to picture when I tell them that I was very active in the Beijing Jewish community when I lived in China from 2006 to 2010. They can’t seem to envision what Jewish-in-China looks like. Is it a minyan of all Chinese Jews? A Chabad rabbi wrangling businessmen and college kids together for a free Sabbath meal and shots of schnapps?
Beijing is a unique outpost. There, the liberal Kehillat Beijing community has been around since 1979, more than two decades before Chabad arrived. Kehillat Beijing is a diverse community of expats from all over the world. Some families have Chinese members, too. Its egalitarian services mean that a girl can read from the Torah, but its lay-led organization means there isn’t a rabbi to teach her.
That’s how I became the Bat Mitzvah Tutor of Beijing. My four years in China overlapped with the bat mitzvahs of five amazing young women who for one reason or another were living in Beijing as they came of age. I am so proud to have taught them to lead services and chant their Torah and haftorah portions.
Each of their families had a different story for why they came to Beijing. The Lindheimers came from Seattle when father David was doing a stint in Microsoft’s Beijing office. Sisters Mia and Sophie have a lot of energy. During the Beijing Paralympic Games we went together to see track and field events in the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. Our faces adorned with heart-shaped American flag stickers, we snuck down to the lowest level with a giant flag in tow. But by the end of the night, the girls were leading the local fans in “Let’s go, China!” cheers in Mandarin.
Their few years in Beijing were a great family adventure, capped by a joint bat mitzvah with a nighttime party at the Wall. Not the Kotel — the Great Wall of China. Their mom, Lauren, spent months putting together the event, which included a cantor flown in from Philadelphia and a local Samba band.
The Lindheimers had attended Hebrew school in the States and had been to other bat mitzvahs at their synagogue back home. Iana Weingrad, who in February 2009 was the first of my students to ascend the bimah, didn’t have that reference point. The daughter of a Chinese Buddhist mother and an American Jewish father, she was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Beijing her whole life.