I came to Beijing in 1979 (the early days of China’s commercial opening to the West) to explore business opportunities. Little did I know, at the time, that I’d meet my business partner there and together, we’d not only build a successful international firm but also lay the groundwork for a Jewish community which brings incredible meaning to our lives and to the lives of those around us.
Firsts are always memorable. At our first Seder in Beijing, we had to teach the Foreign Service International Club kitchen staff how to make gefilte fish, and were lucky enough to have visiting friends bring matzot. After that, we arranged gatherings for major Jewish holidays in various hotel or restaurant venues.
In 1982, we were contacted by an American couple whose college-aged son had contracted a disease in South China from which he likely wouldn’t recover. They wanted a Jewish contact in Beijing. When the young man passed away several weeks later, they contacted us again, asking us if we could gather a minyan to say Kadish with them as they passed through Beijing to make arrangements for their son’s repatriation. It was a deeply moving experience, and it felt so important to be a Jewish touchpoint in Beijing. Beijing was becoming an increasingly open city – with ever more visitors and sojourners from the west, including business people, journalists, lawyers, diplomats, tourists and students, and soon we became the contact for people who were looking for a place to “be Jewish” while visiting Beijing.
By the early 1990s, we had found a permanent location for our weekly Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings. A few years later, we founded a Sunday School and began celebrating various life cycle events for our growing community. At that point we made the organization a bit more formal, with a board and bylaws. Key to our bylaws was our value of inclusiveness and egalitarianism… gender blind practice was a critical value. Our prayer books are from the Reconstructionist Movement, but we have consciously chosen not to affiliate. We wanted to remain inclusive and welcoming for all Jews.
Although we enjoyed and often had musical instruments at our Shabbat services, when a more observant family showed up in the community, we put the guitars away for the time they stayed with us. It seemed that every Jew in Beijing knew about us and considered Kehillat Beijing their Jewish home in China.
We heard of a similar “liberal community” that had started gaining traction in Shanghai, but it disappeared shortly after the arrival of an enthusiastic Chabad Shaliach family. Therefore, when I received an email from a Rabbi Freundlich from Hong Kong, saying that he was considering moving to Beijing to start a Chabad house, I responded to the letter in a most unwelcoming way. I wrote, “Thank you for your offer to move to Beijing, but we have this Jewish thing under control. We already offer a home for the needs of Jews here, so no need.”
I was afraid that if Chabad came to Beijing with a full time Rabbi, Kehillat Beijing could be eclipsed as was the community in Shanghai. Rabbi Freundlich (who we later discovered goes by Rabbi Shimon) didn’t take no for an answer. He wrote that he had decided to come despite my advice that there was no unmet need, but that he assured me that he would totally respect the inclusive community and values of Kehillat Beijing. He said he was coming to offer things that we didn’t provide: kosher food and celebrations for holidays which were not in our activity calendar. He promised not to coordinate activities which conflicted with ours, in order to offer an elevated level of service and options to the community, rather than competition.
After Chabad came to Beijing, I was quite surprised find out that there were Jewish people in Beijing who did not attend Kehillat Beijing’s events because they were not comfortable with our egalitarian practices. There were a few long-term residents who had been spending Shabbat by themselves for years.
In the 15 years since Chabad has come, both Rabbi Shimon and I have stayed true to our promises of mutual respect. Many of those from Kehillat Beijing (including me) attend Chabad simchas, and Rabbi Shimon once walked eight miles in the snow on Shabbat, before services, to congratulate one of our Bar Mitzvah boys (whom he had taught) and then walked back to officiate at Chabad House services.
I appreciate that people now have a choice of how they want to approach Jewish observance and prayer. Kehillat Beijing exists for those who come from a liberal, conservative, reform, reconstructionist approach and for the many “mixed families”. On the other hand, there are now many people who live in or frequently visit our city who are more comfortable at Chabad services. We all celebrate the diversity we share and find it fulfilling that there are options.
There are many things that we (Chabad and Kehillat Beijing) do together as a community. Rabbi Shimon taught in our Sunday School. Together, the Chabad Rebbitsen and Amy Gendler (from Kehillat Beijing) decided to run a community Sunday school, open to children from across Beijing’s Jewish landscape. Chabad and Kehillat Beijing help each other out in many ways, and both groups value the other’s existence and openness.
Rabbi Shimon and I joke about that early, suspicious correspondence. We are now both proud of our friendship and our creation of a community that gives people choices but also exemplifies the oneness and unity of the Jewish people.
Roberta Lipson was brought up in Long Island, New York and attended Jewish camp associated with the Conservative movement. After moving to China in 1979, she and Elyse Silverberg co-founded Chidex, a premier American healthcare company in China, and United Family Healthcare – China’s International Healthcare network. Roberta holds an MBA from Columbia University and is active on the board of the United Foundation for Children’s Health. She is instrumental at the Kehillat Beijing community and can give advice on where to get the best dumplings in town.