I had the privilege this past May of serving as the Rabbi-in-residence for Kehillat Beijing – Beijing’s progressive Jewish community. Overwhelmingly comprised of Americans who are pursuing business ventures in China, I found the community to be incredibly warm and welcoming. Inevitably, when transported to a new situation, folks tend to extend warmth, as they’re experiencing (or have experienced) the same discomfort that comes with arriving to a new place (think about the shared experience of the first week of college, or the first day/night at overnight camp). The families comprising Kehillat Beijing are committed to one another, to supporting each other, and to welcoming newcomers while maintaining meaningful relationships with those who have left (it’s inevitably a transient community).
Judaism is not recognized as an official religion in China, and as a result, there are certain limitations placed on the Jewish community there. For example, they are very conscious about avoiding the appearance of proselytizing, as the Chinese government wouldn’t stand for it. And yet, in addition to the facility where Kehillat Beijing rents space, there’s a significant Chabad presence in Beijing, with its own huge facility and attached kosher restaurant. One of the most intriguing features of Jewish life in Beijing is that Kehillat Beijing and Chabad actually run a joint Hebrew school program. It’s one of the few examples I’m aware of where a progressive community and an Orthodox community have their children attend supplemental school together. Similar to many small towns across America, where families support and/or belong to more than one denomination of synagogue in order to help provide a broad tapestry of Jewish life to choose from, you’ll find that some supporters of Kehillat Beijing also support Chabad, and vice versa.
One of the greatest challenges facing Beijing’s Jewish community is poor air quality. Every day folks check the Air Quality Index in order to determine whether or not it’s safe to go outside without a filtration mask. Families with young children are sometimes homebound depending on how comfortable they are exposing their kids to the air around them. Needing to be concerned about the most basic of life requirements – breathing clean air – inevitably takes a toll on you. For this community to meaningfully grow, it will take significant measures by the Chinese government to eliminate air (and other) pollution.
One of the most fascinating steps already taken by the government to try and decrease pollution (and traffic) is to restrict cars from driving in certain parts of the city of Beijing on certain days, depending on their license plates. For example, your license plate number may dictate that you are not allowed to drive downtown on Fridays. If you need to get to your job on Friday, you’ll need to carpool or use public transportation. Needless to say, it can make running errands leading up to a bar or bat mitzvah weekend a bit stressful! Perhaps as part of a future collaboration, there’s a chance for a government imposed day without driving? Perhaps we could convince the Chinese government to choose Saturday…!
If nothing else, it was incredible to see vibrant Jewish life exist in a part of the world where no one would really expect it. Folks are living meaningful, content-rich (it likely could be richer if there were more families and resources to utilize) Jewish lives as part of a community in Beijing. Their warmth and devotion are an inspiration to me, and I count myself humbled and blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of their community for a couple of weeks. If you’re looking to make the move to Asia, and aspire to be part of a wonderful Jewish community, keep Beijing in mind!