In Expat-Heavy Shanghai, Rewiring the Jewish Community

May 6, 2015

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It’s a simple but powerful question: Why not — or, in the Hebrew, “Lama Lo?”

That’s the name of a new JDC initiative in Shanghai, helping members of the city’s transient Jewish community, largely expatriates and corporate workers, create meaningful social and cultural programming year round.

“Lama Lo is fresh, playful, and strong,” said Lulo Jaimovich, a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow serving in Shanghai. “Why not connect to ideas and to each other?:

Jaimovich and his partner Allie Kotliar most recently worked for JDC in Cuba. Despite the obvious parallels of working in two Communist nations, they stressed that the Jews of China have unique needs — and unique opportunities.

“If there is something that field work has taught us, it’s to be patient. As outsiders, we must be good listeners who are sensitive to the local community,” Kotliar said. “It takes time to understand local needs, wants, hopes and frustrations.”

Lama Lo, she added, is an answer to needs raised by Shanghai’s Jews — not a “preconceived idea Lulo and I brought in our backpacks.”

“Some things are universal, no matter the language, the purchasing power, the historical context — and that’s that we all need to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves,” she said. “The Jewish community offers that opportunity to connect. We hope Lama Lo can be a gateway for that connection, to fellow members, to Shanghai’s Jewish community, and to the larger Jewish world.”

As Jaimovich and Kotliar prepared for Lama Lo’s launch, they met with community members in a series of one-on-one meetings, held dinners with target focus groups, and hosted a brunch where Shanghai’s Jews could share their hopes and dreams for their city’s Jewish life.

An important aspect of these discussions was the desire to foster relationships with other Jewish institutions in the city, like Chabad or JDC’s Limmud educational seminar.

From those meetings came two concrete activities — weekly “Women On the Move” dance classes — and monthly after-work social gatherings — and a host of other possibilities: Hebrew and Spanish language classes, Tikkun Olam community service projects, supper clubs featuring cuisine from different Jewish communities around the world, tours of historic Shanghai, a community garden, and more.

Jaimovich said Lama Lo’s efforts have proved successful so far, but he knows continuing to attract expatriate Jews is no easy feat.

“The texture of a multicultural, transient community makes long-term planning difficult. Engaging them to use their time to choose and dedicate themselves to a Jewish activity takes a lot of work,” he said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to engage these individuals, providing people with cultural, social and volunteer opportunities in a Jewish context, and just as importantly, allowing them execute their own ideas and visions for Jewish life in Shanghai.”

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