Nourishing Jewish Connection Across Asia’s Communities

July 11, 2012


Stacy Palestrant is originally from Phoenix, Arizona where she grew up affiliated with the Jewish Conservative movement. But for the past four and a half years she and her family have lived in Beijing, China, where they are equally involved in both the local Chabad and the “unaffiliated” community, Kehilat Beijing. Her daughters, ages 5 and 3, speak fluent Chinese, Hebrew, and English; and she believes that just as being proficient in multiple languages helps people traveling from one country to the next, fluency in diverse forms of Jewish expression holds advantages for Jews traversing different communities.

She recently shared her philosophy at the inaugural Limmud China event, a pan-Asia Jewish learning fest that took place outside Beijing last month and attracted participants from Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, the Philippines, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as the UK, Israel, and the US. Convened by JDC in partnership with Limmud International, it was the first ever gathering of this kind in the region.

Limmud originated in the UK over 30 years ago and is designed to be an interactive and engaging Jewish learning experience. It is organized by volunteers and is founded on values of diversity, pluralism, and inclusivity. Most recently, Limmud China became part of this global phenomenon of Jewish learning, which endeavors to take people one step further on their Jewish journey.

Stacy signed up to be on the team of organizers of Limmud China precisely because she supports the philosophy of Limmud. “We all live in Asia and realize the importance of learning whatever the local language is. Why don’t we think about the different types of Judaism as different types of languages? Why don’t we make an effort to learn how to ‘speak’ Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism? Then, when we find ourselves in a town with only one synagogue nearby, we can know enough to feel comfortable because we speak that language.”

For the growing number of Jews moving to the region, Jewish “fluency” is a very real question—and just the kind of quandary Limmud was formed to address. The completely volunteer-organized and peer-led event brought together over 100 participants, joining communities on five continents. Not only did the event further expand the Limmud concept, value, and family, it also introduced a new dimension of Jewish experience and provided a framework for raising the level of involvement and activism of Jews across China and East Asia.

“It was all about Jewish learning and was very diverse, creative, and lively. I loved the idea that it was cross-denominational so people from all different backgrounds of Judaism would feel comfortable. I also loved the idea that it was pan-Asian,” Stacy said.

From Bible and Talmud study to experimental theatre to a charoset-making workshop (attended by Stacy’s 5-year-old), the event had something for seemingly everyone. “The word I would use to describe my experience is nourishing,” Stacy said. “It was nourishing in terms of intellectual development and in terms of social connection…. You could see that it was really satisfying and rewarding for everyone who participated. All of us are hungry for these kinds of discussions or connections with people, with other Jews, and with Judaism, so there was a real sense of solidarity. It is really exciting to feel that we are part of something larger.”

JDC has supported Limmud endeavors in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South America, and was eager to bring the model to Asia. “This is probably one of the best Jewish events that I have experienced in China since I arrived,” Stacy said. “I am so grateful to JDC for providing us with the idea, the financial support, and the staff expertise, time, and energy that made this event possible. I really appreciate JDC playing this role in Jewish community building and revival.”

Adina Leiber is a more recent transplant to Beijing. She grew up in Israel in an orthodox family but took a departure from her neighborhood-based community. After majoring in East Asian Studies and Business Management at Tel-Aviv University she moved to China to improve her Mandarin. She longed for a sense of home, though—and that’s where Limmud came in.

“Limmud brought me closer to community and an important understanding: Being Jewish is not just about religion but about shared culture, heritage, and values—about being part of something greater than you,” she reflected. “Being Jewish is about belonging to a worldwide network of people who share a history and dialogue and about being able to feel at home wherever you go.”

Adina points out that Limmud also helped her see China’s Jewish community as a major contributor to Jewish life in the region. “The sky is the limit, and it’s basically up to any Jew from any community to just want to get involved,” she says.

Jon Goldberg agrees. He’s been living in China since 1992 and has been based in Shanghai for the past two and a half years, working as an International Business and Corporate Finance Consultant. “There are more and more people, especially young people, coming here each year. Many of these folks are Jewish and would love to have a way to experience Jewish culture.”

There are approximately 20,000 Jews in East Asia. An estimated 5-6,000 Jews live in mainland China, and another 4,000 live in Hong Kong. Some communities, such as those in India, Hong Kong, and Singapore are long-standing and well organized. In China, the communities are newer: all of Shanghai’s Jews are ex-pats and most of them are fairly transient; in Beijing, on the other hand, a large contingent are Jewish students from American colleges and Israel, as well as a small community of people who’ve set down roots, like Stacy. Still, the opportunities for Jewish experience are limited at present.

“There is a need for our local community to be more inclusive and to keep things going in an organized fashion. It was special for me to meet people from all across Asia and exchange ideas and learn why people moved to where they are,” Jon says. “It’s clear people in communities across Asia are looking for larger connecting and networking possibilities.”

He got involved in building the content for the event and, after seeing the fruits of his labors come alive, has become inspired to take a leading role in his community. “What I appreciate about Limmud is that everyone needs to be both a participant and an organizer. I think if you start with that message from the beginning it is very powerful.”

Jon is looking forward to building the next Limmud already. “After attending (and helping organize) the event and learning about its history and structure, I am 100% confident this will continue in the Shanghai and Greater China communities. There was definitely a bond and interest between the communities that I am sure will continue on.”

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