Chabad of Beijing Opens Jewish Museum

Elijah’s chair—now 70 years old—that sits on display in the Sino Judaic museum housed in the Bet Yaakov Chabad House and Community Center in Beijing, China used to belong to the ancient synagogue in Tianjin. Along with many other historic artifacts in this museum, like the Siddur printed in 1933 for the synagogue in Shanghai, the chair bears testimony to the continuity of Jewish life in China.

But the chair’s new home in the Bet Yaakov Chabad House is an important part of its story. Over the last decade, Chabad has played a critical role in ensuring the future of Jewish life in Beijing. Arriving here in 2001, Rabbi Shimon and Dini Freundlich have nurtured a Jewish community which today includes a school, Ganenu with 60 children enrolled in nursery through seventh grade, a Chinese themed mikvah, a kosher restaurant and a Kashrut service that provides kosher meat and dairy products for locals, as well, of course, as Shabbat and holiday services, and Jewish educational classes.

In 2001 there were several hundred Jews in Beijing. But this past March, many among the community’s 2,000 Jews joined the opening celebration of the 15,000 square foot Bet Yaakov Chabad House and Community Center, a $3 million building located in the heart of downtown Beijing.

“The new facility is in tribute to the goodwill of the Chinese government toward its Jewish population,” explained Rabbi Fruendlich. “The façade of the building is designed like the façade of the synagogue in Ping Jin; walking through the building is like walking through the history of Jews in China, because the architecture of the interior and exterior mimic the design of parts of other synagogues in China.”

In recent years, the Chinese government has renovated several historic synagogues. With this building, said Freundlich, Chabad of Beijing is showing its thanks to the government “ for preserving the Jewish life and allowing Jews to thrive in China.”

Freundlich embarked on another ambitious project that would become a vital link to the history of Jews in China. Aided by supporters who financed the project, he curated hundreds of Jewish Chinese artifacts which he acquired from collectors around the world.

“Since I moved here, I’ve been in contact with collectors who have antiques that have to do with China,” he says. “In the museum, we now have hundreds of artifacts, from a newspaper clipping about Jews in Shanghai and a Kiddush cup shaped like a Chinese dragon, to a pointer from 1905 inscribed with the words, ‘Ki Mizion Tezei Torah.’”

Jews have lived in China as far back as 58-75 CE during the Hon Dynasty, writes Xi Xun in The Jews of Kaifeng, where he documents early Jewish settlers from Persia. The twentieth century saw large waves Russian and German immigrants who sought a safe haven from both world wars that bolstered the numbers of established Jewish communities already living in China for centuries.

The exhibits in the Sino Judaic museum make a substantial contribution to the rich history Chinese Jewry. The museum will be a way for us “to teach visitors and locals about the history of Jews in China and recognize the hospitality of the government,” said Freundlich.

The state-of-the-art facility will also house the Joseph and Stera Gutnick Shul, offices, an indoor playroom for kids, an internet café for students and Israeli tourists and Dini’s Kosher Restaurant (meat) and Café Miniature (dairy). Ohel Dov, a study hall with a library of over 2,000 titles is also located in the building.

The weekend-long celebration included a Torah dedication, Shabbat services led by popular Chazzan Yitzchok Meir Helfgot, cantor of Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, NY. On Sunday, the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Bet Yaakov Chabad House and the Joseph and Stera Gutnick Shul was followed by a gala dinner.

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