Lifestyle | Musings

Jews in the ‘Jing: An Interview with Roberta Lipson

October 24, 2018

Passover Seder at Kehillat Beijing

Beijing, a bustling metropolis of 21 million, is world renowned for its Peking duck, imperial architecture, long history and booming tech scene. Yet, amid the hustle and bustle, Beijing is also home to one of the most vibrant and active Jewish communities in China, Kehillat Beijing.

My first time living in China, in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics, I learned about the congregation through a Rabbi at my temple in Los Angeles. Years later, during the spring, I attended a Kehillat Beijing seder at the Capital Club in Chaoyang district, located just inside the third ring road. Since then, I have attended Passover at Kehillat Beijing three subsequent times, and, at each instance, was impressed with the strength and dedication of the primarily ex-pat community.

This past spring, before Passover services began, I had the pleasure of meeting Roberta Lipson, one of the founders of Kehillat Beijing and a resident of the Northern Capital for almost 30 years. Roberta graciously agreed to an interview to discuss her journey in China, the history of Kehillat Beijing, and Judaism, in general, in China. Below is her story.

Julien: Would you introduce yourself a little bit?

Roberta: I am, Roberta Lipson, a Jew, born in America, and now a permanent resident of Beijing China.  I am the founder and CEO of United Family Healthcare (a healthcare services provider across major cities in China) and the co-founder of Kehilat Beijing – China’s first modern liberal Jewish community.  I am also the wife of Ted Plafker of the Economist and mother of three children who grew up in China.

Julien: What got you first interested in China?

Roberta: I first became curious about China when I met my first Chinese American friend in high school.  I became passionate to learn about China after my first Chinese history course, freshman year in college.

Julien: When did you first arrive in China?

Roberta: I arrived in China in the late fall of 1979.  I have been living here pretty much consistently ever since.

Julien: How have you seen China change since you have been here?

Roberta: China has changed more in the almost 40 years since my arrival, probably more than any other country has changed in the last 100 years.

Julien: Can you talk about your background with Judaism a bit? I grew up in a proud Jewish household.

Roberta: My parents transitioned from the orthodox identity of their parents’ generation to Conservative affiliation – expressing their enthusiasm for the young Jewish state as much as for occasional religious practice.  Friday night dinner was special with motzi and Kiddush, but synagogue attendance was more associated with Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations and major holidays.  I attended after school Hebrew school through my high school years, and had the privilege of attending Camp Ramah where Judaism came more “alive” for me.  As an adult Kehilat Beijing is a big part of my life.  Our practice is more eclectic and inclusive, but could probably be recognized as Reform or Reconstructionist to the casual observer.

Julien: Where did you get the idea to start a congregation in Beijing?

Roberta: As I said my Jewish identity was always important to me and I did not want to give up the possibility of having a Jewish community, just because I lived in China.

Julien: When and how was Kehillat Beijing founded?

Roberta: We started organizing services and holiday celebrations right from the beginning (1979).  However weekly Kabalat Shabbat services and our Sunday school did not start until the early 90’s.  I was lucky to meet and eventually start my company together with another Jewish woman from the U.S.  It was helpful to have a partner who was as enthusiastic about creating a sense of community as I was. Early on, we were asked to form a minion for a couple whose 21-year-old son had died of encephalitis in south China.  They were on the way to retrieve his body and passed through Beijing.  It was wonderful to be able to offer some comfort and community to those grieving parents.  It became immediately clear that it was important to be here for Jews whether they were living here or passing through.  That experience was very important to our founding and to our persisting over the years.

Julien: How has Kehillat Beijing evolved over the years?

Roberta: The membership ebbs and flows.  Up until around the year 2000, when the Beijing Chabad was started, we were the only Jewish community in Beijing.  So, it was really important for us to be inclusive and try to be a Jewish “home” to all comers.  Now there is Chabad for people looking for an orthodox alternative.  We continue to serve the needs as best we can for everyone else.   Because the expat community is very fluid, and many people stay on average five years or so, the community changes all the time.  Some years we have more families with children.  Now we seem to have many younger single adults.  However, for many ex-residents of Beijing, KB remains their global Jewish home.  For many people who have sojourned with us, Beijing is where they found, or became most comfortable with, their Jewish identity.  Maybe because we are a great community, or maybe because when you live and work in a “foreign” culture finding a part of your central core heritage becomes more important.

Julien: How do you keep the community alive in Beijing, which is such a different place culturally than the West?

Roberta: As I said, perhaps precisely because Beijing is so different culturally that people cherish the opportunity to have a separate community in which they can explore their core heritage and identity.  We are a lay led community, our service leadership, torah reading, dvar deliverers, Hebrew school teachers are all volunteers from the community.  We do invite a Rabbi for the high holidays. And we are blessed to have input from visitors from all over the world coming to attend our services, or give talks and teachings.

Julien: Can you share a story of one of the best times at the Kehillat Beijing?

Roberta: Of course, celebration of my children’s’ bar mitzvahs made me really proud and happy to have this community-but more recently my husband celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at 53 years old.  He is one of those guys who came from an extremely secular back ground and found meaning in his Jewish identity through KB.

Julien: One of the toughest or most challenging experiences for Kehillat Beijing?

Roberta: Of course, we worry every year about whether or not there will be enough critical mass for our community to remain vibrant.  We hope more interested Jews will come to our city, than those that leave.  Happily, many of our members retain a relationship with China and usually join us for services when they pass through.  One interesting event was the first time we were able to place an ad in the China Daily inviting anyone who wanted to celebrate the high holidays to join us.  The ad ran for two weeks when I got a call from the Editor saying they could no longer run the ad.  After much probing I found out it was at the insistence of the PLO office, and the paper felt it was for our own safety.  Although the ad did not continue, we had a great turn out.  Moreover, we have never had a problem with security, never felt threatened and always had offers from the Chinese authorities to offer security to our larger events- although we have never felt we needed it.

Julien: How is Judaism different, or not, in China than in the West?

Roberta: No matter where in the world there are endless varieties of Judaism.  I am not sure that there is anything particularly Chinese about our community.

Julien: How does the work of Kehillat Beijing fit into the greater narrative of Jews in China?

Roberta: There have been Jews in China for at least a 1000 years.  As far as we know there has never previously been an organized community in Beijing.  We may be the first.  Many of the past communities have disappeared through assimilation or emigration.  I hope that we will stay around as a long-term community in China with our own special identity.

Julien: What do you think the future of Judaism in China is?

Roberta: Although Judaism is not one of the officially recognized religions, China has been very welcoming to us.  China was also welcoming to Jewish traders in the Tang and Song Dynasties, to Russian Jewish refugees at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and Jews running from the Holocaust in the 30’s and 40’s.

Julien: Any last comments on Jewish life in Beijing as a whole?

Roberta: Beijing is an important global city.  I am pleased that there is Jewish life here for all comers, be they interested in our inclusive egalitarian community or in Chabad’s more traditional style of worship.

About Kehillat Beijing:

While the first members of Beijing’s Jewish community arrived here as early as the 1930s and 1940s, the history of Kehillat Beijing dates back to 1979, the year Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy went into effect. In those early days, the members of the community were primarily North American business people, journalists, diplomats and students, and efforts focused on getting together for Passover and the High Holy Days, which were usually celebrated at the homes of members. The community’s first seder took place in 1980.

By the early 1990s, in addition to people from the U.S.A. and Canada, Beijing’s Jewish community had grown to embrace Jews from Australia, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Luxembourg, Poland and Russia. We coalesced as a community in 1995 and began regular Friday night services in that year, courtesy of the Capital Club of Beijing, which continues to provide the venue today. Dr. and Mrs. Jordan Phillips of the U.S.A donated a Sefer Torah, we began to celebrate all major holidays, and we put together a class for younger children and a discussion group for adults. In 1996 we celebrated our first bar mitzvah, and in 1997 our first b’rit milah–no mean feats in a city with neither a rabbi nor a mohel.

Contact Information:

Website: http://www.sinogogue.org/

Email: info@sinogogue.org

Address:

Capital Club Athletic Center

3rd Floor Ballroom

Capital Mansion,

6 Xinyuan Nanlu

Chaoyang District, Beijing

Tel: (+8610) 8486-2225

*Images Kehillat Beijing