Shanghai

Shanghai’s Jewish community grows

 

When the rest of the world closed its doors to Jews escaping persecution during World War II, an unlikely saviour emerged.

Shanghai accepted the Jewish people without question.

They arrived in their thousands by boat. An estimated 20,000 refugees came to the city this way.

Nina Admoni, who fled Poland as a six-year-old with her family, recalls her life in Shanghai as a different world from the horrors of Europe.

She played hopscotch with Jewish and Chinese children, and would walk along the iconic Bund every day on her way to and from school.

“The Chinese people in Shanghai were very kind,” she told The Times of Israel. “That’s what I remember.”

After the war, during the Communist China era, most Jews left. But now that China has opened up to the world, the Jewish population of this multicultural city is growing again.

“[China] is one of the very few countries that the Jewish people feel totally welcome,” says Rabbi Shalom Greenberg.

“They don’t understand religion based hate.”

He was brought to Shanghai in 1998 to help the small Jewish community there. A jovial man, Greenberg instantly stands out in the heart of Shanghai with his beard and Israeli accent.

In the 18 years he’s lived in the city, he has established three Jewish centres for the growing Jewish population.

“The reason we came here was because Jewish people started to live here in the 1990’s,” he says.

Jewish people such as Amos Benjamin, who has been working in China for 19 years.

He started in 1997 as a kosher inspector and is now the Asia-Pacific director of Star K Kosher Certification.

Emma and Amos Benjamin in their Perth home

Emma and Amos Benjamin in their Perth home. Photo: Rhiannon Arnold

Now based in Perth, Benjamin travels to Shanghai around 12 times a year. But like a growing number of Jewish families, he did live there. He, his wife Emma and their four children called Shanghai home between 2004 and 2007.

“We were happy in Shanghai,” Emma says.

The melting-pot culture of the city was a great experience for the family.

“The Shanghai community is really a community of people from everywhere else,” Amos says.

“Perth’s Jewish community has a broad tradition that goes back hundreds of years but Shanghai’s is an amalgamation of people from all over the world.”

The Shanghai population is estimated at just over 24.1 million people. The Jewish population sits around the 2000 mark so they don’t make up a huge, or even noticeable, percentage of the population.

But this figure is increasing.

“We came here in 1998 and there was about less than 200 people, and now [there’s 2000] so it’s growing but very slowly,” Greenberg says.

It may seem strange that there is a solid Jewish community in the Asian city at all.

However, in a country rooted in Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, and a city with a history of cultural disquiet, a small group of Jewish migrants have made Shanghai their home today.

And while China may not be the first country that springs to mind when Judaism is mentioned, Shanghai has a strong Jewish history.

 

It’s a history few outside China are aware of. Even Greenberg – a Rabbi, prominent in the Jewish community – had no idea of the Chinese ties to his faith.

The first Jewish settlers arrived in Shanghai in 1848. However it was before and during World War II that Shanghai became an important city for the Jewish population.

“Once I came here I realised quite a few of the teachers I’d had lived in Shanghai in World War II,” Greenberg says.

It’s a story we’re seeing right now. People under attack, fleeing their countries and trying to find refuge. Just as people from the Middle East are now seeking asylum, the Jewish people of Germany and other countries fled their homes to find a safer place.

Shanghai offered a unique possibility. The city, owned by five different countries at the time, did not require any paperwork to enter. No visa was necessary.

Because of the lack of documentation, it’s difficult to say how many Jews sought refuge in Shanghai.

The Shanghai Jewish Centre says from 1938, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escaped to Shanghai, but the number has been estimated to be as high as 40,000.

And then Japan invaded China and all Jews who were citizens of Germany, Austria or Poland were relocated to the Shanghai Ghetto.

 

Shanghai was closed to further immigration.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 the Jewish population dwindled to almost nothing.

For years after the Cultural Revolution, China had closed its borders to outside influence.

Greenberg says in the 1990s the Chinese government changed its policy from a closed door country to one opening up.

When China decided to reopen it chose Shanghai as a model city, Greenberg says.

“More and more Jewish people started coming and many other foreigners started to live in Shanghai and do business here,” he says.

The city is proud of its Jewish history, and signs of it can be seen throughout the old Jewish districts.

Jewish tours are available in the city, explaining the history and highlighting important sites, including the Shanghai Jewish Museum.

Once a synagogue for the Jewish community, the museum now gives a brief history of Jewish immigration to Shanghai.

Tour guide Jasmine Chang explains the cultural shock the first Jews would have experienced, and says that shock helped to grow friendships between the two different cultures.

“I think this is the place where the fusion of the two cultures can happen and they can also mix up and they will cultivate a friendship here,” Chang says.

The tours take you past the museum, also known as the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue.

But even though they’re called synagogues, they are not operational.

“The Ohel Rachel Synagogue is actually closed. It’s historic,” Greenberg says.

The beautiful building, covered in green foliage now stands behind impressive electric gates.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue is closed to the public. Photo: Rhiannon Arnold

“In the 1950s when the Jewish community left, the government took it over and since then it belongs to the government. So we go in there as a symbolic connection. We only go in there for major Jewish holidays.”

Instead, the synagogues for today’s Jewish community are in the centres established by Greenberg. The main centre in the Hongqiao area of Shanghai is more than just a synagogue or meeting place for the locals.

“There is a preschool, we have a Hebrew school, Sunday school. We have a synagogue and a restaurant,” Greenberg says.

The centres are built to help the community “continue their Jewish lifestyle, even in China”.

When the Benjamins lived in Shanghai, they lived near the main centre and were instantly welcomed into the Jewish community.

“There’s an automatic support group which is sitting there which is nice. And you find your feet,” Amos says.

Emma adds: “When we first arrived we were taken in by the Jewish community [ and shown] this is where you go shopping, this is where the doctor is … Whereas other people arrive and they don’t have a community already there.”

Even though Amos is the director for a kosher company it was difficult to find kosher meat. The Jewish community was not yet big enough for kosher to be in high demand.

And so visiting friends would come in from Hong Kong, or America and bring suitcases of kosher food.

“[Our friends would] bring us some cheese, or lollies for the kids,” Emma says. “We had pretty much an open house.”

When asked if it is difficult to practise his religion in a country that doesn’t cater for Judaism in the form of holy places, Greenberg laughs and says it’s no more difficult than in any other country.

“The only difficulty here is that it is all newly established. Newly established means that you have to start everything anew,” he says.

In Shanghai Greenberg has had to build the centres, and buy the venues to create functional synagogues for the community.

“But when you go to Perth they’ve already had their synagogue for 100 years,” he says.

Right now Greenberg and his wife who is the education director in the centres, are focusing on how to engage the students coming to their Sunday School.

“If you want people to be more connected to the history, more connected to the heritage you have to make it fun, you have to make it exciting, you have to make it something that they will desire,” Greenberg says.

“And that’s not just by opening the textbook and reading from it.”

The gates to ECNU

The gates to ECNU. Photo: Rhiannon Arnold

It’s this attention to education that has earned the Jewish community their ‘positive stereotyping’ in Shanghai.

Greenberg says: “There’s a certain amount of admiration when you tell them, ‘I’m Jewish’.

“They have this assumption that Jewish people are very smart.”

Amos agrees there’s a good perception of Jewish people in China.

“They don’t carry some of the broad perceptions of Europe … you’ll never find the Chinese people associating Jews with money,” he says

“It’s nice to be hit over the head with a positive stereotype for once.”

East China Normal University has recently partnered with Israeli Haiffa University on a research project, the first of its kind.

The university’s director of international exchange Yunxuan Zhou says Shanghai and Israel have a good relationship because the two places share a similar history.

“We had a very common history – we suffered,” Zhou says.

“The Chinese suffered invasion from the Japanese … the Israelis, also they had a very tragic history during the second world war. I think, probably, the two people had a very painful history.”

It’s this shared pain which, according to Zhou, has allowed their partnership to bloom and a relationship between Jewish people and Shanghai to grow.