Reform, Chabad join forces in Beijing
Members of Kehillat Beijing put on a Purim spoof titled “Shushan Idol” as part of their weekly Friday night service, March 21, 2008. (Alison Klayman )
BEIJING (JTA) – The two Purim celebrations seemed worlds apart.
At the Chabad-run service, a Lubavitcher rabbi chanted the megillah to an audience segregated by gender, and Beijing’s kosher restaurant catered the meal after the reading.
At Kehillat Beijing’s service, women and men participated in a speedy reading rendition of the Megillah rendered almost entirely in English. The dinner afterward included non-kosher meat and dairy products.
Yet the celebrations of Purim in Beijing highlighted how this city’s Jews support each other despite divergent religious ideologies. Organizers said the events, which took place on successive evenings, purposely were scheduled on separate nights to give Jews here the opportunity to attend both celebrations.
Max Parness, 23, was among about 15 people who took advantage of the scheduling to attend both events.
“There are two main communities here, and I’ve found that both are really welcoming, regardless of what your background is,” he says.
The Purim celebrations were one sign of how Beijing’s divergent Jewish religious denominations have developed a relationship marked by an unusual level of mutual respect. That’s because in a community as small as this – Beijing has about 1,500 Jews – it’s important for the Jews to stick together, particularly if they want Jewish life in Beijing to thrive, members of the community say.
“The result of being such a minority in China means that the Jewish community here seems pretty tight-knit,” Parness says.
Kehillat’s Hebrew school uses the Chabad day school building and even shares its teachers. The Chabad’s rabbi, Shimon Freudlich, often meets with the head of Kehillat’s school, Elissa Cohen, to discuss curricula.
“We sit down together just to work out the concepts and ideas of Judaism that we have in common, and that’s what we teach, as opposed to the differences,” Freudlich says.
Cohen recognizes that it’s rare for liberal and Chabad communities to do so much together.
“Rabbi Shimon is really open minded and tries to be as inclusive as he can,” she says.
As recently as just a few years ago, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that harmony would be the rule in Beijing’s Jewish community.
The organized Jewish community here really began in 1979, when Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, two women from New York’s Long Island, met each other in Beijing, started a business and began celebrating Jewish holidays together.
The pair hosted their first seder together in 1980, with more than 25 people at a Beijing hotel and matzah brought over from Taiwan.
Two years later, Lipson and Silverberg organized High Holidays services. They advertised in the new English-language newspaper, the China Daily, but their ad was cut. They feared it was because Judaism is not an officially recognized religion in China, but it turns out the editor was concerned about security: Beijing has many Palestinians and a PLO delegation.
“He told us, ‘We need to keep you safe. Don’t disclose your location,’” Lipson recalls.
Over the years the women organized regular Shabbat and holiday services, adult classes and a Hebrew school. By 2000, Kehillat Beijing had a home, a Torah and a core group of congregants. It was an egalitarian lay-led community that blended Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative beliefs and traditions.
Then Lipson heard that a Chabad rabbi in Hong Kong wanted to talk about coming to Beijing.
Lipson was not pleased. She says her e-mail response to him was, essentially, “We don’t need you, stay away.”
“It was the most impolite I ever was in my life,” she says.
Lipson feared Beijing would see a repeat of what happened in the Shanghai Jewish community, where she says a liberal Jewish community was “subsumed” by the arrival of Chabad.
In 2001, Freudlich came to Beijing, met Lipson at a Starbucks and assuaged her fears.
“He said, ‘You have a vibrant Jewish community. There are things you are not doing that we will do, and we will be respectful. However, if we can help you, we will,’” Lipson recalls.
Freudlich says he understood their perspective.
“They didn’t want to divide their little community,” he said. “I reassured them this wouldn’t happen, and so far, so good.”
One way they avoid fragmentation is by scheduling holiday events to maximize attendance. As with Purim, Passover celebrations are scheduled for successive nights: Chabad puts its advertising energy into the first seder, while Kehillah hosts its community seder on the second night.
Although some Orthodox organizations might not choose to cooperate with liberal ones, Freudlich says he considers the dedication of Kehillat’s leaders “a blessing.”
The support goes both ways. When Chabad first came to Beijing, Chinese authorities asked Lipson and Silverberg if Chabad was fanatical or if the authorities should be concerned. Both women reassured them that Chabad was kosher.
Today, Lipson acknowledges the Chabad’s contribution to Beijing’s Jewish life. Chabad has supported a kosher restaurant, opened a small Hebrew day school mostly for preschool and kindergarten, and built a mikvah facility.
“We thought we were meeting everyone’s needs, but it turns out we were not,” Lipson says.
At the Chabad Purim celebration, many participants said they rely on Chabad for their religious needs.
French native Gilles Perez said that when he was offered a job in Beijing, “the first thing I did was open the Jewish travel guide to find if there was a day school.”
If not, Perez says, he would not have come. His son Raphael attends the Chabad school.
Americans Akiva and Liora Pearlman have been in Beijing for two years, and Akiva often orders lunch at work from the local kosher restaurant.
“We’re not Lubavitch but observant,” Liora says. “Our only choice is Chabad.”
The Russian Jewish community in Beijing also has benefited from Chabad’s arrival. Mostly from Azerbaijan, the community of some 300 people was living in Beijing for about 10 years but never knew a Jewish community existed there.
A member of the Azerbaijan community stopped Freudlich on the street, and the rabbi decided to bring an additional rabbi to Beijing, Rabbi Mendy Raskin, “to cater to them and perform their customs and speak to them in their language.”
“Every community,” Freudlich says, “has their own challenges.”