"Destination Shanghai" Creates a Jewish Buzz in China

Simon Caplan

There is an explosive spark of life-affirming Jewish energy still percolating in Shanghai, China this week, following our just-concluded four-day “Destination Shanghai” experience. Only 18 months after establishing a modest contemporary foothold in mainland China, JDC has nurtured a setting in which a major international Jewish educational conference became an exciting reality.

In a year marking the 70th anniversary of the Hongkou ghetto, where Jews who’d fled Nazi Europe lived out the war under Japanese occupation, one can only imagine what JDC’s Laura Margolis and the Shanghai refugees she helped care for would say if they could only feel this new enthusiasm.

The novelty of holding an international Jewish life and learning event with nearly 200 participants from China, India, Singapore, Japan, the UK, and the US—including a global cohort of young adult activists organized by JDC Entwine—in the unlikely setting of China’s main commercial metropolis attracted the attention of the Jewish media (see articles in eJewishphilanthropy and the Jerusalem Post) even before the week’s activities got under way.

On the surface, East Asia would not seem to exhibit the characteristics normally identified with JDC's classic role as a responder to basic humanitarian needs. But JDC's core values and operational strengths actually have surprisingly much to contribute here, and East Asia provides an arena for JDC as the torchbearer for global Jewish responsibility, a role much in evidence throughout Destination Shanghai.

The economic dynamism of China and the region’s five other leading economies has brought an increasing, if transient, population of young Jews to East Asia; over the next 10 years, perhaps as many as 40-50,000 are likely to spend a short but very formative period of their lives in this area of the world. JDC, by providing diverse and creative opportunities to connect them, even here, to the global Jewish world, can well have a significant impact on how they choose to be Jewish, moving forward.

Though many, even perhaps the vast majority, of these young people generally do not seek out the organized Jewish community, now that they have been sought out by JDC, some are finding themselves instant leaders of the more fluid, “virtual” types of activities of which Destination Shanghai was the latest expression.

An outgrowth of the fact finding, policy planning, and pilot initiatives of JDC’s Africa/Asia department, and implemented under its supervision and guidance, this major regionwide Jewish happening was run almost entirely by volunteers. Jeanine Buzali, one of JDC Entwine's young Jewish Service Corp Fellows, led a local task force that she herself established and recruited, ably assisted over the past two months by Ralph I. Goldman Fellow Shaun Goldstone.

Not only did this volunteer team not exist 12 months ago, but it would be fair to say that almost none of its members had any ongoing active connection to Jewish life prior to making contact  with our Jewish Service Corps Fellow and enjoying her constant flow of fascinating “boutique” Jewish activities.

A milestone along the way happened last year when the first-ever Limmud China took place (literally) on the Great Wall of China outside Beijing, attended by 100 participants and drawing on small teams of activists from Beijing and Shanghai, in cooperation with Kehilat Beijing and Limmud International.

That one-day event set the stage for this year's four-day happening, which incorporated a two-day Limmud conference held in Qibao, a water town on the outskirts of Shanghai; a Shanghai community Shabbaton; and a day dedicated to Shanghai’s World War II Jewish history, with a seminar on global Jewish responsibility and the role of JDC that was staged in the former ghetto, in what is now the government-run Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. JDC’s current work in Japan and Indonesia was a focus of that discussion, which helped to engage people in our broader humanitarian efforts.

While we’d initially assumed that the Limmud China content would have to be provided from without, in reality the majority of its 50+ workshops and sessions (including children's program, movies, and a concert by the appropriately named "Yid Yang" band) were presented by East Asia locals of all stripes and hues! And the offerings were a spirited, eclectic mix:

Professor Pan Guan, Director of the Shanghai Center for Jewish Studies (there are, believe it or not, many thousands of Chinese students studying in 14 or so Institutes of Jewish Studies across China) spoke about the Chinese people and the Jews, while the Director of Security at the Israel Consulate provided lessons in kickboxing and self-defense. Anna Greenspan, a philosopher interested in urbanism and digital culture who teaches at NYU Shanghai gave us "Shanghai Future, Modernity Remade;" while Anna Sophie Loewenberg talked about the making of her internet series, a Jewish version of “Sex in the City" set in Beijing; and Rebecca Kanthor, media journalist and Limmud China program chair, discussed the challenges and dilemmas of raising a culturally double identity child. And if none if that appealed, participants could always attend the Chinese and Jewish pickle-making workshop, an ever popular choice!

Networking was a central theme of Destination Shanghai, and it is a concept that underpins our work with communities and young adults throughout East Asia. For younger adults as individuals, the world of social networking is the world they inhabit. But networking is also important at the community level, especially in East Asia, where all Jewish communities are small and isolated and JDC works to nurture an environment of mutual assistance.

The partnership and generous support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network was an essential ingredient in Destination Shanghai’s success, providing travel and participation subsidies to some 40 young people from throughout the region so they could make it to Shanghai. Seth Cohen, who directs the Schusterman networking initiative, assisted the Shanghai planning team and presented at the conference, and the regionwide connections nurtured here this past week will carry the spirit of global Jewish responsibility forward in this area of the world for many years to come.

Africa/Asia Department Senior Project Director Simon Caplan has responsibility for developing JDC’s work in East Asia.

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