by Vivian Wineman, Former president, Board of Deputies
When I received an invitation to attend a Limmud weekend organised by the Jews of China, I immediately assumed it was a spoof. Jokes about Jews who look Chinese came to mind.
On inquiry, I found that not only was the invitation genuine but that this was one in a series of Limmud conferences which have taken place in China over the past few years.
They have been drawing together not only the bigger communities of Beijing and Shanghai but also Jews in many of the other parts of China, some of them mega-cities of which we may know nothing, as well as in other parts of East and South Asia where Jews, whether as individuals or in small groups, have made their homes.
I went, and found it fascinating. I love Limmud with its enthusiasm, its camaraderie and its wide range of eclectic lectures on all kinds of subjects. Here we had sessions on Taiji from a Jewish perspective, Bollywood dancing, the halachic crisis in Jewish marriage and the well-known chestnut about the Jews of Uzbekistan.
It is impossible to come away without having one’s knowledge improved on some unexpected aspect of Judaism or life. In this respect, Limmud China was like Limmud UK.
Similarly the warm atmosphere, friendship and hospitality was what we are used to here. There was more, however, as there were insights into life in China.
My last visit to China was 33 years ago. Beijing in 1982 was the primitive capital of a communist police state.
The streets swarmed with bicycles, cars were a rarity, the population was disciplined, the hotels drab and western influence noticeable by its absence. Now, in 2015, Beijing was overrun by the worst traffic jams and smog pollution I have seen.
Capitalism was everywhere, from the hustling taxi drivers to the opulence visible particularly in the gaudy American-style hotels and the fact Christmas had come early with ubiquitous Santa Claus and Christmas trees.
Here was a clear demonstration of one of the greatest developments of our time – the rise of China and its integration into the world economy.
There is a Jewish aspect to it as well. China hosts a substantial expatriate community, of which a large proportion is Jewish. As China becomes more a part of the developed world, that community will only grow.
In a sense, the communities in China resemble our regional communities, where people far away from centres of Jewish life start to rediscover their Jewishness in various creative ways.
There is the same tolerance and warmth as well as a remarkable creativity and a readiness to experiment with their Jewishness and tolerate experiments in others.
Unlike our regional communities, however, there is no demographic crisis, as these are growing centres.
Kehillat Beijing (as it describes itself) has a kindergarten (ganeinu), a Sunday school and a very substantial Orthodox synagogue with a Lubavitch rabbi but also a strong Satmar Hassidic presence.
Unsurprisingly, there is a progressive community as well but, perhaps more surprising, the communities get on well and work together. Uniquely in my experience, the synagogue has no security.
There is no threat of violence against Jews and such feelings as the Chinese have about Jews and Israel are strongly philo-Semitic.
Kehillat Shanghai is larger and better resourced than Kehillat Beijing, and Hong Kong even more so, with three Chabad houses, an extremely opulent synagogue and a community numbering up to 5,000 people.
Above all, there is my memory of the fascinating people there – the financial consultant in Hong Kong, the former Fulbright scholar working as a stand-up comic on Chinese television, the former Yeshiva student working on a fish farm in Sichuan.
The Chinese community, like many Jewish communities, is a rich tapestry. World Jewry will be richer if we see more of it.