Amid Beijing’s Boom, a Jewish Community Blooms
Beijing — The Chabad House here sits at the end of a quiet street in an upscale gated community just inside this city’s Fourth Ring road and down the block from the Israeli Embassy. A caged duck and a stroller guard the entrance, as does a small army of young Chinese men who patrol the neighborhood of gaudy McMansions.
Ask a local to describe Shimon Freundlich, Beijing’s Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, and that person probably will raise hand to chin and stroke an invisible huzi, or beard.
“Sometimes they call me Bin Laden as a joke,” Freundlich told the Forward. “They used to call me Santa before September 11. Then it changed.”
Change defines much of Jewish life in Beijing. For nearly 30 years, ever since China opened its doors to the West, the world’s Jews have been coming to take part in the rapid transformation and surging economic development of its most populous country. Where a handful of Jewish communists landed decades ago, a growing number of secular and then Orthodox Jews have settled, and they have brought their families and traditions with them. Today, roughly 2,000 Jews call this city of 17 million home. Yet, building a thriving Jewish community in Beijing takes patience, humor and flexibility, especially as the capital has been gearing up for the Olympic Games.
“We try to fly below the radar,” Freundlich said.
As preparations for the Olympics have made clear, China is still a very centralized state — and one that has not historically had an easy relationship with religion of any color. Jewish locals take great care to work within the system, given that Chinese authorities are on constant alert against proselytizing and Western spiritual practices. Chabad allows only holders of foreign passports to attend prayer services and cultural activities, and refrains from public advertising. The synagogue is technically in Freundlich’s home, since free-standing religious buildings are forbidden. Even bringing in Hebrew prayer books requires government permission.
Some Chinese have, in fact, expressed interest in conversion, according to Freundlich, who firmly discourages such inquiries.
“When you come to live in a country that has vastly different rules and regulations, you have to pay close attention to the government to make sure everything you do is respectful,” Freundlich said. But “at the end of the day, they’re not worried about us. We’re not Mormons.”
For many Chinese, the fascination with Jewish tradition and history is not driven by religious belief, according to Xu Xin, a Nanjing university professor who founded the Center of Jewish Studies there.
“In China everyone wants to get rich now,” he said. “Many Chinese have heard that Jews have money, and this they respect. They think Jews know the secrets of success.”
The success of Beijing’s Jews, as a religious community, has come from many years of toil. Much of the groundwork was laid by a small group of liberal North American Jews who first came to Beijing in the late 1970s.
“When I first got here there was nothing but a few Jews living in hotels,” said Roberta Lipson, one of the founders of the Kehillat Beijing congregation, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.
Lipson arrived in 1979 with the first handful of Western entrepreneurs, students and journalists. Along with some friends, Lipson, CEO of the medical technology company Chindex, organized the first Passover Seder in 1980 in a member’s home and then High Holy Day services in a hotel conference room, starting Friday night Sabbath open houses shortly thereafter.
Over the next decade, they were joined by Jews from Europe and the Soviet Union, and in 1992, when China and Israel established diplomatic relations, Kehillat Beijing held a joint Seder with the Israeli Embassy. In 1995, the community began holding regular Friday night services in a local activities center, followed by the first brit milah in 1997, the same year that Kehillat Beijing established a Sunday school. Today that school, Ahavat Yitzchak, teaches 40 children. Despite never employing a permanent rabbi, Kehillat Beijing now has around 50 families.
Yet because Kehillat Beijing was a progressive community that held egalitarian religious services and lacked kosher food, Beijing (and China) remained a major headache for halachically observant Jews, who were coming in increasing numbers as China was becoming a major source for kosher-ingredient manufacturing and Jewish-owned businesses.
“When we were the only outlet for Jewish religious practice in Beijing, we felt a lot of pressure to be all things to all people,” Lipson said. “We knew we weren’t fulfilling more traditional religious needs.”
Indeed, Orthodox Jews were forced to schlep suitcases of kosher food with them from abroad and to live and travel amid a society that was by and large ignorant of Judaism. To address these pressing issues, Chabad’s Freundlich arrived in Beijing in 2001.
“My goal was to build a Jewish infrastructure starting from almost scratch,” he said.
Freundlich’s presence has provided a place for Jewish children of all stripes. In 2002 his wife, Dini, opened Ganeinu International School an accredited Montessori school that today educates 50 children, up to age 12, from a diverse range of Jewish backgrounds and various levels of observance. This openness is a major theme that connects Chabad and Kehillat Beijing.
“We focus on what unites us, not what divides us,” Freundlich said. “I’m God’s agent, not his policeman. I need to be able to balance a Satmar in a shtreimel with a guy who brings his non-Jewish girlfriend to Shabbat dinner.”
Chabad provides teachers for Kehillat Beijing’s Sunday school, which shares both Ganeinu’s building and the financial responsibility for it, Lipson said. The two also come together for religious holidays and coordinate their Seders to avoid schedule conflicts.
“I’m sure some visitors will look askance at our close ties,” Lipson said, “but we realize Jews come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and we are very grateful to Chabad for helping us make a community where all Jews can feel at home.”
In the past seven years, the Jewish community has grown to 1,500 people from 700, Freundlich said, and Chabad has established a downtown location in the city’s central business district as well as a community center, in addition to the Chabad House, that holds a synagogue. Satmar Hasids donated the funds for Mei Torah, a women’s-only mikveh and spa complete with massage, showers and manicure and pedicures.
Just as vital for the observant community is a readily available supply of kosher food. A ritual slaughterer flies in from South Africa every three months to shecht beef and chicken for the Jewish community, including those who are customers at Dini’s, Beijing’s only kosher restaurant, which opened in March 2007.
Before the Olympics, it appeared that kosher food for participants and athletes could be a problem. But Freundlich dismissed such claims, saying that there has never been a shortage of kosher food in China under his watch and that Chabad has 7.5 tons of beef and 9 tons of chicken waiting for kosher visitors.
The restaurant, Dini’s, will be open 24 hours, six days a week, during the Olympics and will provide kosher food for athletes in the Olympic village, as well as snack baskets for spectators. And just to be sure, five student rabbis are flying in for the games to help with kosher certification.