I was lost outside the subway, searching for a bus to the Summer Palace, the old stomping grounds for the Emperor. I stopped the only Westerner I saw to ask for directions, but he was lost as well. As we talked, we established that we were both "MOT" (Members of the Tribe) and both from Washington, DC. As it was Friday, I told the fellow traveler about Shabbat services at Chabad in Beijing, and how the website offered printout directions in Chinese for a cab to the synagogue. We went on our respective lost ways.
Later that night I arrived at the Rabbi's house-turned-synagogue, leaving the unfamiliar Chinese world behind, and entering a far more familiar surrounding. My fellow traveler was there, as well as forty or so members of the Beijing Jewish community. Surrounded by Jews from Israel, Australia, Russia, Canada and America, together we celebrated the Sabbath and shared a delicious kosher meal. Ironically, I even ran into cousins of mine at the synagogue, proving once again how small the Jewish world can be.
The Beijing Jewish community numbers roughly one thousand people, hailing from the world over. This number includes 30 Jewish families at the American Embassy and the families of the Israeli Embassy. The community is growing and thriving, and that is in no small part thanks to Chabad.
I spoke with Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the veritable Chief Rabbi of Beijing, and he gave me the story of the Beijing community. Before Chabad came 5 years ago, there was little to no Jewish infrastructure. Today there is a Jewish day school, a community center, and a Chinese pagoda-style mikvah. Chabad of Beijing distributes kosher meat all over China, receiving it from either Israel or Australia. Meanwhile, once a year, a container of dry goods, kosher wine and long-lasting milk is brought from Israel. The Rabbi said that at the Western supermarkets, it is possible to get some kosher foods in the form of Western products that happen to be kosher.
In addition, kosher foods and kosher products are brought to Chabad Beijing by the many business people who pass through Beijing. More than two thousand business people come through Beijing, many bringing kosher products for Chabad. Many of them stay at hotels close to the synagogue or Jewish Community Center, and these hotels often have a relationship with Chabad as well. Rabbi Freundlich noted that they have ties with hotels ranging from backpacker hostels to 4 star hotels.
Those planning on visiting Beijing, who would like to bring food or stay close to the synagogue can find information on the Chabad Beijing website (www.chabadbeijing.com). The Chabad Beijing website, along with the Chabad Thailand website, are the most visited Chabad websites in the world.
Judaism is not one of the five recognized religions in China, but Rabbi Freundlich stated that the Jewish community has a good relationship with the Chinese government. The Jewish community is pushing for status as a non-recognized Western minority community, which will accord the Jewish community status as a community in China. He stated that the Chinese government understands that the Beijing Jewish community respects the Chinese culture, and the wishes of the government and the Chinese people. Chabad is not able to perform conversions of local Chinese people, and local Chinese are not allowed to participate in rituals unless they are married to a Jew.
Rabbi Freundlich mentioned that Chabad gets a call at least once a week from someone in a far-flung province who wants to convert to Judaism. They counsel them that if they are serious, they can do a conversion in Hong Kong or Australia, but not in Mainland China.
The gregarious Rabbi said that rebuilding the first Jewish community in Beijing since World War II has been tremendous. On the horizon is the construction of an actual synagogue building, and the establishment of a kosher restaurant. Meanwhile, they will continue building the community and imbuing the Beijing Jewish community with a sense of purpose. As the Rabbi noted, the survival of the Jewish people comes from both the physical community and the spiritual learning. Chabad of Beijing helps create that for the community. The Beijing Jewish community is growing at a frenetic pace, and is as enigmatic as the land in which it is found.