Destination Shanghai

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JDC conference in China emphasizes need for global Jewish outreach.

By Kelli Saperstein
By Kelli Saperstein

I recently  had the opportunity to travel to China with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee young professionals group Entwine. JDC, or the “Joint,” is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. Detroit’s own Penny Blumenstein is the current president. Entwine encompasses young Jewish leaders, influencers and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues.

While JDC may be known best for caring for the aging population in the former Soviet Union or coordinating Operation Moses, the largest covert evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, it impacts millions of lives in more than 70 countries.

The need in China can be summarized as follows: thousands of transient young professional Jews living in Communist China where Judaism is not a recognized religion. These individuals are spending a formative period of their lives in an area where it is difficult for them to gain exposure to Jewish community and Jewish identity.

JDC, along with Limmud, an international organization based in the UK working to foster Jewish community and identity, hosted Destination Shanghai, a conference geared to bringing together young Jews all throughout East Asia. Enwtine’s role was to help facilitate networking, education and community building during this conference.

As part of Destination Shanghai, we were able to tour the city and learn about China’s relationship with the Jews. There are two synagogues in Shanghai. Ohel Moshe Synagogue is a government-run museum dedicated to the Jewish refugees of the Hongkou ghetto. Between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai received more than 25,000 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. This number of Jewish refugees was equal to the total taken in by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa.

Ohel Rachel Synagogue, the other synagogue, is only open to the public on a limited number of days each year (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Yom HaShoah) because it is a government building and not a traditional working synagogue.

It was interesting to be in Shanghai for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In addition, to our 200 Destination Shanghai participants, there were hundreds of people who joined the service at Ohel Rachel Synagogue for Yom HaShoah. There is a lot of philo-Semitism in China, a huge positive opinion of being Jewish. Even with philo-Semitism, it is difficult to understand that you cannot openly practice your religion in your local synagogue but three times a year.

This is what makes JDC’s work so important. The Jews living in China don’t need subsidized medicines as did the Jews in the former Soviet Union, or to be evacuated from slavery and forced baptism as the Jews in Ethiopia. JDC recognizes that the Jews living in China need an opportunity for a vibrant Jewish life and to be able to connect with others who have similar interests.

What  does the mean for Detroit? Part of the Federation’s budget is allocated to JDC as an overseas partner. During the economic and financial crisis of 2007-2009, the Federations of many other cities significantly reduced or eliminated their allocation to JDC. The Detroit Federation maintained its allocation to JDC during this most difficult time. This is because Detroit knows that, as Jews, we are part of a global Jewish community with a responsibility to care for others.

So now when I’m preparing for the Shabbat dinner I host monthly at my home in West Bloomfield, I can ask Rachel in Shanghai about that kugel recipe she gave me. Or I can brainstorm about recruitment for TribeFest, Federation’s national conference, with Jonathan in London who is on the Limmud executive board.

Our world is really becoming smaller, and we should find strength in being a part of a global Jewish community.  

Kelli Saperstein and Roberta Lipson, president of United Family Healthcare (private hospitals in Beijing) and founder of Kehillat (Beijing’s Reform movement)
Hongkou Ghetto
Ohel Rachel Synagogue
The Entwine Group at Jade Buddha Temple
The Bund in Shanghai
Ted Plafker, foreign correspondent for The Economist, and the author
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