Exploring Jewish Identity in Shanghai, China

Jeanine Buzali

For Shanghai’s up-and-coming Jewish ex-pat community members, pluralistic ways to explore and strengthen their Jewish identity are in demand. JDC aims to bring small communities across Asia like this one into the global Jewish family, and the city’s second-ever Global Day of Jewish Learning event helped to further this goal.

This was the first event organized by JDC's new Activities Committee, a volunteer group that I put together to help plan and execute our programming.

The mere act of dividing up the work among a group of Jews living in Shanghai made the event even more successful than last year’s. By providing an opportunity to organize an event like the Global Day – to make logistical decisions, to order food, to run the content, to host people at home - JDC is engaging Shanghai's Jews in an unprecedented way.

Another reason that this year’s Global Day was an incredible experience lies in the diversity of the participants and in the content discussed.

The Global Day took place in a Committee member's apartment, on what turned out to be a gorgeous (albeit slightly chilly) November Sunday. The Committee had decided to organize the event as a brunch since this is an activity that people in Shanghai—like those in New York or Tel Aviv–seem to love.

About 25 people showed up around noon, and we began by introducing ourselves and talking about what we wanted for Chanukah. More than one person expressed their concern about the current situation in Israel, and it was in that atmosphere that we began looking at the texts. The initial subject that we had chosen was, "Is there a recipe for prayer?" (The broader topic was blessings and gratitude).

When we split up into groups, I had a few minutes to look around and take it all in. One group was comprised mostly of Israelis, of diverse backgrounds and ages, joined by a woman from Turkey. Behind them were a couple of Americans chatting with an Israeli and his Chinese wife. Next to them were a group of students: Mexican, Colombian, and American. The last group was the most diverse: two Americans—a 70-year-old teacher and an 18-year-old student on his gap year, along with a British-Nigerian convert and a British-Israeli, both in their late 30s. 

The event played out as a long conversation that ebbed and flowed around the topics of faith, prayer, tradition, and one's relationship with G-d.

Later, as we all came together at the close, I saw that Jews in Shanghai are eager to explore their Jewish identity in new and different ways. Most Jews who come to China are not particularly observant, but that doesn’t mean they don't have a deep and meaningful Jewish identity. At an event like the Global Day, we’re providing an outlet for that identity to be nurtured and uplifted.

Jeanine Buzali, now in her second year as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Shanghai, has found “the interconnected nature of the Jewish world to be truly remarkable.”

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