Discovering Jewish History in Shanghai, China

Docent Wang Wao Hua pointing to the Jewish Refugees Museum unique torah (Roberta Sotonoff)

The elegant three-story, white-columned Jewish Center surprises me with both its size and what it contains. Not only does it serve as a place of worship, but it also has a mikvah with a state-of-the-art Jacuzzi—pretty fancy for a ritual bath — a community center, and a gift shop. And the center’s Torah was donated by President Bill and then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during a visit to China.

I am warmly welcomed by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch (an Orthodox Jewish movement) and ushered into the building. Little kids wearing brightly colored belts swarm around me. The belts aren’t a fashion statement, they are part of the center’s school curriculum for for grades 1-3. In “Hebrew Karate,” each time a kid masters a different level of Hebrew he gets to wear a different colored belt. After 4th grade, the kids are home-schooled.

In Your Bucket Because

  • You are interested in Jewish history and fascinated by the fact the China has a history of Jewish culture.
  • You want to learn about Jewish life today in China.
  • Good for travelers interested in cultural history.

Brooklyn? Jerusalem? No, I am in China, and this is the Shanghai Jewish Center. As I am about to learn, the relationship between there two ancient peoples, Chinese and Jews, goes back a thousand years.

And it is still alive today: Every Friday night the center reaches out to the approximately 200 Shanghai Jews and to tourists by sponsoring a Shabbat dinner.

“Shabbat is a mixture of everything from Chabad and orthodox to conservative, Sephardic and Reform. Any Jewish person is welcome. To fill the Jewish Community Center on Shabbat is a beautiful experience,” says Mendy Alevshky, brother-in-law of the rabbi.

Driving up to Shanghai Jewish Center (Roberta Sotonoff)

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

But the Jewish center is only the beginning of my explorations. My next stop is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Located in the Hongkou District, this once-Jewish ghetto served as a refuge for Jews fleeing the Holocaust during World War II. About 30,000 Jews, including musicians, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, were protected here.

Part of the museum is the former 100-plus-year-old Ohel Moshe Synagogue. The Chinese government has taken great pains to restore the building to its former 1928 grandeur.

Docent Wang Wao Hua shows me some of the museum’s treasures, including the synagogue’s Ark and a very unusual looking menorah. A close-up of the candelabra’s pedestal reveals a face and a fish. Pictures of Chaim Herzog, Shimon Peres, Yitzak Rabin and Nancy Reagan — who visited before the museum opened in 2008 — grace the walls. An old matzo factory is right behind the museum.

A Quick Look at over 1,000 years of Jewish/Chinese History

Jewish history is long in this part of the world: Jews came to trade with China via the Silk Road as early as the 8th century. Later they settled in Kaifeng, near the Yellow River, south of Bejing and east of Xian. The first synagogue was erected in 1163.

Soon Jews excelled in business and finance. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) more than 500 Jewish families lived here, intermarrying and taking Chinese names like Zhao, Ai, Li, Zhang, Shi, Jin and Gao. After a while, the only trait that differentiated them from their Chinese neighbors was that they didn’t eat pork.

The Chinese government supported the Jews and referred to them as Youtai. But what I find most interesting is that Kaifeng‘s large Muslim community protected the few practicing Jews until the opening of China to the rest of the world. But once the Muslims established contact with other Muslims, the Jew/Muslim friendship was replaced by an anti-Jewish, anti-Israel attitude.

Harbin, a northern Manchurian city close to Russia, became a Jewish enclave in the late 19thcentury. Russian Jews migrated to China to escape anti-Semitism. They rapidly became a force in commerce and technology as well as in China’s community and economic development. By 1908, Harbin’s Jewish population exceeded 8,000.

But perhaps nowhere in Jews in China as successful as in Shanghai. Turn the clock back to the Opium War (1839-42). Sephardic Jews made their way to Hong Kong and Shanghai via the British Territories and Baghdad. They controlled Britain’s opium trade and developed import/export businesses. By 1903, the Shanghai’s Jewish population swelled to 30,000. They amassed great fortunes in manufacturing, public works, finance and real estate and were among the most influential and wealthiest groups in the Far East. One symbol of their riches is the opulent Marble Hall, the Sir Eli Kadoorie mansion built in 1924, which now serves as the Shanghai Children’s Palace, a school for gifted children, and a tourist attraction.

In 1937, the Japanese invaded and many Jews relocated to Hong Kong and continued to prosper. Others were ghettoized in Shanghai’s shabby Hongkew district. The formation of The People’s Republic of China was the nail in the coffin. Most Jews migrated to Israel.

What the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto looked like in Word War II

As I leave the center, I find myself marveling at the deep roots of Chinese/Jewish history. Who knew that here, almost as far from Jerusalem as it is possible to be, despite isolationism and communism, the same ancient words and traditions I grew up with are shared at the Friday night Shabbat.

Practicalities

  • The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is located at 62 Changyang Road, Hongkou District.; (hours: 9 am-5 pm daily;
  • Have your guide set up an appointment and take you to the Chabad. They need to know you are coming.
  • To pursue your interest in Chinese Jewry, check out The Jews is China. It is a comprehensive book on Chinese Jewish history. I got mine at the Shanghai Jewish Center, Villa #1, Shang-Mira Garden, 1720 Hong Qiao Road, (tel: (86 21) 6278 0225;
  • Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration (tel: +86 21 23115523; website: Email: Patrick Chen, woya@meet-in-shanghai.net)

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