1997-08-08: Beijing Jews
By Donald H. Harrison
Beijing, China (Special) -- The June 30 handover of Hong Kong back to China was still more than a month away when Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of the Reform congregation of Hong Kong made a trip to Beijing at the request of the Jewish community here.
The Beijing Jews, mainly Americas assigned by their companies to a tour in the Chinese capital, pooled money for expenses so that Weiman-Kelman could lead them in a weekend of Yiddishkeit. The Friday night Shabbat services were followed by philosophical and religious discussions over the rest of the weekend -- a Shabbaton in Beijing!
At the oneg Shabbat, it was clear Weiman-Kelman had something he wanted to talk to the Beijing Jews about as well.
"I will tell you something that freaked me out a little," Weiman-Kelman told Elyse Beth Silverberg, a lay leader of the Beijing Jewish community. "My first trip out of Hong Kong into China, I went to get my visa, and on the form where it said 'profession' I said 'rabbi.'
"It doesn't bother those of us who have been here a long time because they are not influencing us in any way," she added. "I would imagine for people who come for the first time that would be a problem."
My wife Nancy and I hadn't seen anyone who looked like a Chinese government observer on the Friday night we attended the Shabbat services at their regular location at the Capital Club in the Chao Yang district of Beijing. But perhaps that was because the crowd had fallen short of 100 persons?
"We have been doing this so regularly, for about a year and a half, that we don't even cause a blip on the screen," Silverberg replied. "For the bar mitzvah (of Silverberg's son Ari last October) they had some people, not taking pictures or anything but making sure nothing happened."
"There is a general rule in China, not about religious affairs, but any time there is an assembly of foreigners over a certain number, you just have to alert the authorities," she said. "It is as much a security issue as anything else."
We had been to Tiananmen Square which the world remembers as the setting for a massacre of democracy-seeking students--and where, in what perhaps was an unfortunate juxtaposition, a large clock now was ticking off the seconds, minutes, hours and days until the British handed back Hong Kong to China.
Unlike Beijing, where informal services at the Capital Club are the only sign of Jewish life, Hong Kong Jewish life thrives with four synagogues and a new Jewish Community Center.
Besides Weiman-Kelman's Reform congregation, there is an Orthodox congregation, a Chabad congregation, and, across the border in Kowloon, another Orthodox congregation.
The Jewish Community Center completed about a year ago "is doing a booming business with a program director, executive director, and a restaurant filled with activity," the Hong Kong rabbi said.
Weiman-Kelman, who came to Hong Kong after spending three years as a Reform rabbi in Jerusalem, said he was particularly pleased to see that all the movements in Hong Kong are united behind the JCC.
"They are really trying very hard for everyone to share a space and
respect each other and live together and sometimes that works and sometimes
it doesn't, but there are an awful lot of people trying to make that happen,"
Weiman-Kelman said like the tinier Jewish population in Beijing, the Jewish community of Hong Kong consists of people from other countries who have been sent by their companies. Foreigners usually plan to stay no longer than 2-4 years in Hong Kong, he said.
"That means it is difficult to develop communal ties, but on the other hand the Jewish community is a substitute family in a way that is unusual," Weiman-Kelman said.
When she realized the Chinese didn't know bagels from doughnuts, "she saw a business opportunity," Silverberg said. "She met a partner, a Chinese local business partner, and said 'let's get together and do a joint venture and try to make a bagel shop.' They not only became good business partners, they fell in love and got married."
The Chinese husband's name is Shan En, and the Brooklynite now calls herself Mrs. Shan En -- a name Silverberg and Lipson have Yiddishized to Shayna (pretty). So Beijing bagels also are called shayna bagels.
"When she got into small batch production, she would send a few dozen bagels to us on Friday night and ask 'were they good; were they hard on the outside and soft on the inside?' and we would critique them and that is how you get such good bagels now," Silverberg said.
Silverberg said she had been a student at the State University of New York at Albany in 1979 when she decided to take advantage of a Chinese language exchange program in Beijing and to also intern with the National Council for U.S.-China Trade.
"I was assisting delegations, translating for delegations, and then one Chinese guy said to me 'you know there is a Jewish girl just like you who lives on the other side of Beijing and you should really meet her,' Silverberg recalled.
Lipson had come to Beijing that same year with a trading company which was selling medical equipment and other industrial products. "How he knew Roberta was Jewish I will never know," Silverberg said. "He gave me her name card, and I went to find her, and she got me an interview with her company and we started working together for about a year.
"Then, in about 1980, Roberta left China and we kept a long distance relationship discussing going into business ourselves as the company that we had worked for was winding down its activities."
Whereas that company was concerned about warranty issues, Silverberg and Lipson decided "this was the time to get in, not get out, and we started up a company, the two of us, in 1981."
Initially their company, U.S.-China Industrial Exchange Inc., consisted of Lipson working in New York while Silverberg worked in Beijing, with the two women occasionally trading places.
"And then the business started to grow and very soon we both needed to be here, and now we have more than 150 employees." The company maintains offices in Washington, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other cities.
Silverberg and Lipson tend to focus their efforts on introducing small and medium-sized companies in two sectors to the Chinese market: biomedical products and heavy industrial products.
Meanwhile, Michael Lee -- a Chinese-born friend whom Silverberg had dated while she was in high school in New York -- returned to China after obtaining his American business degree. He went into the textile business, and soon he and Silverberg were married.
In 1989, Silverberg's cousin, freelance journalist Ted Pflaker, came to Beijing for a visit. Silverberg introduced him to Lipson and in 1990 her business partner and her cousin were married. "So now we really do have mishpuchah (family) in Beijing, and our kids have real cousins."
Silverberg and Lee had a son--Ari Lee--whose arrival prompted Silverberg's mother, Elaine Silverberg, to become a frequent visitor.
"She's called the bubbe (grandmother) of Beijing," Silverberg said.
Ari's bar mitzvah was the first for Beijing's Jewish community, which calls itself Kehillah (Community) Beijing. Beginning about 30 months before the ceremony, Ari learned Hebrew from an Israeli student who was studying Chinese at the university. The Silverberg/ Lee family also spent a summer in Israel.
As the bar mitzvah approached, Silverberg fretted whether to hold it in New York, or in Israel, but on returning to New York for a visit realized that most of her friends had long since moved away from there. Israel didn't feel like home either, so she decided to have the ceremony right in Beijing.
At a Hadassah convention in Hong Kong, Silverberg attended services led by Rabbi Howard Kosovske (Rabbi Weiman-Kelman's predecessor) and Cantor Robin Helzner, and decided to ask them to officiate at the bar mitzvah. As it turned out, by the time the ceremony was held, both clergy members had moved back to the United States. So Kosovske had to be flown in from Boston and Helzner from Washington.
The services which attracted 170 people were held at the Capital Club, a private dining and recreation facility which is a joint venture between a Chinese corporation and the Club Corporation of America.
"The cook who is a Canadian-Italian has done two yearly cycles- culinarily speaking--of the Jewish calendar, and he even has the guts that this year he wants to have 'the great rugelach cook off' with my mother, which is incredible," Silverberg said.
As the service was being prepared for, the cook ran up to Silverberg and anxiously inquired, "So, where should we put the kiddush?" He was relieved when there proved to be enough room for a buffet downstairs.
A bar mitzvah party that evening was held at a nearby hotel where Helzner and a Chinese band, which had several days to rehearse, led a mixed crowd of Jews and Chinese in klezmer music, Israeli folksongs and horas. When it was time for a chair dance, in which Ari was lifted in a seat of honor, his Chinese friends from International School further enlivened the moment by performing Russian-style kazatskes.
Besides the bar mitzvah and regular Shabbat services, "we have done a tour to Jewish Harbin (a city in Northern China, which once attracted many Russian Jewish refugees) and to old Jewish Tianjin (a port city a few hours drive from Beijing)," Silverberg said.
"The other thing we are trying to do on Friday nights is to have speakers - for example we recently had an expert in architecture talk about some of the old Jewish buildings in Shanghai."
Being a Jew in Beijing can be a lonely experience for newcomers, Silverberg said.
"I am lucky. I have my mother. I have my cousins. I have nephews. My extended family is here," she said. "But for most of the people, especially the single ones, they are very much alone." As a result of the creation of the kehilla, she said, "it has been great for them to feel that they have a family."
Membership in the kehillah usually hovers around 100 Diaspora Jews, of which 80 percent are Americans and the rest are from Europe, Australia or Canada. Israelis participate in children-oriented events like Purim and Chanukah but otherwise tend to remain aloof from the kehillah. Most are not religious.
Up to now, the community has not been interested in building a permanent synagogue nor in affiliating with any specific movement within Judaism. "The beauty of this is that we get to pick and choose from the various traditions," Silverberg said. "We have people who come from a fairly Reform background, some Conservative and some who are Orthodox, so we have a bit of a mix, which is nice for us."
Nevertheless, she said, there is another thought tugging at her: "We are very eager to build something that will outlast those of us who are here today. The real question is what should we build? We are not really that clear. "
Whatever the answer, she said, "we will continue to enjoy the holidays and the festivals, have the opportunity to meet, educate our children and have them have a sense of a very loving community."