demanding jews "living large" in Beijing.
- From: "Heinrich" <Heinrich@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 5 May 2006 16:19:07 +0200
Architect He Wei of Beijing has mapped out construction of government
compounds for thousands of workers, choreographed the dizzying dance of
steel I-beams and rebar by the ton to raise apartment buildings, but the
details of assembling a mikvah at the Rohr Family Chabad Community Centre of
Chabad of Beijing, the first ever in vicinity of the Forbidden City, and the
first in China since World War II, nearly did him in.
Communicating the volumes of mikveh rules, starting with a "mikveh is not
just a bathhouse" and down to the demanding Jewish legalities behind
everything from pouring the concrete, pipes leading from cisterns, and the
need to keep doorways from preparation rooms away from doors leading into
the ritual bath itself were "completely overwhelming," said Chabad of
Beijing representative Dini Freundlich. Towards the end, Wei was in touch
with the offshore rabbinical authorities every day.
Hammers swing, sanders whir as the finishing touches being placed on the
mikveh echo behind David Galil. Formerly of Tel Aviv, now teaching
e-commerce and design courses at a Beijing college for the past four years,
Galil said the mikveh and Centre are "beautiful. It is amazing," he said,
and distinctly Chinese with a pagoda. Opening the mikveh within the next few
weeks caps off the 10,000 square foot Rohr Family Community Centre. Filled
with classrooms painted in warm tones, an industrial kitchen, restaurant,
apartments for resident teachers, a children's kitchen, parent lounge,
nursery for teachers' babies, and much needed communal space, the Centre is
the new heart of Jewish life in Beijing. "Now we can have gatherings like
barbecues because we have our own building," said Galil. "It's not just a
building, it's a compound."
As Beijing gets ready for the 2008 Olympics, Chabad's relationship with
Chinese officials is warming up.
Bows to local norms of beauty are apparent throughout the Rohr Family Chabad
Community Centre. Bricks fired to a regimental grey, the same shade favored
by Chinese nobility, adorn the Centre's facade. The Freundlichs commissioned
Chinese artists to carve an intricate wooden pavilion dome for the mikveh
ceiling. "There's no way anyone would mistake this mikveh for one in
Brooklyn," said Rabbi Shimon Freundlich.
In Rabbi Freundlich's view, embracing elements of Chinese life, not shunning
them, is the way for Jews in Beijing to feel whole. "We are isolated here in
China" from the rest of the world's Jewish community "but there is a long
tradition of a Jewish presence. The Centre is an expression of Chabad's
commitment to China's Jewish community." In The Jews of Kaifeng, China,
Author Xi Xun cites historians who found evidence of Jewish settlers from
Persia in China as far back at Emperor Ming Di during the Hon Dynasty (58-75
Along with the growing number of Jews living Beijing for jobs or education,
tourists searching for China's role Jewish history will find it at the
Centre. A mural on the Centre's walls will depict famous synagogues in China
throughout the centuries, and Rabbi Freundlich has been purchasing
Sino-Judaic artifacts for the Centre's collection. A Torah pointer c. 1900
from Harbin, a clipping from a 1905 Pinjin newspaper, and an article from
1926 Baltimore paper about Chinese Jews will be on prominent display in the
Traditional Chinese bathhouse rituals find their updated counterparts in the
mikveh's preparation rooms, a Jacuzzi, multi-jet shower, sauna and masseuse
services are offered. "Women who come to mikveh should be able to relax,"
said Rabbi Freundlich. The thought and details invested in this structure,
he says, "conveys a sense of the importance of the mikveh and how beautiful
the mitzvah is."
Fancy touches are perks for women who had to endure a four-hour flight to
Hong Kong to immerse in the nearest mikveh until now. Add in the standard
two-hour pre-international flight wait and a simple visit to the mikveh took
up to seventeen hours. Factor in the cost of airfare and it's a small wonder
anyone kept the mitzvah at all. The mikveh is a "dream come true," said Dini
Completing the $1.8 million building, funded in substantial part by the Rohr
Family Foundation, was helped along by the facts of life in China. When the
Freundlichs sought luxury toiletries for the mikveh--personalized shampoos,
towels embroidered with Chabad's logo, comfy logo-bearing slippers--they
patronized local manufacturers and purchased high end goods for a song.
Throughout the rest of the Centre, more benefits of being in the thick of
Chinese low cost labor take the form of hand-crafted Montessori style
furniture in the Ganeinu school and the authentic, chef-prepared Chinese
food in Chabad's kosher restaurant.
Other realities temper the joys of being Jewish in China. Judaism is not an
officially recognized religion in China, and simple kosher items--as basic
as hotdogs--must be imported at great expense. As Beijing gets ready for the
2008 Olympics, Chabad's relationship with Chinese officials is warming up.
Olympic codes require host countries to provide places of worship and food
for athletes. At present, Chabad hosts Shabbat services that are held in a
separate location away from the Centre and close to downtown hotels where
tourists and business travelers stay. Dini Freundlich expressed hopes that
Chinese authorities will see the win-win of helping Chabad expand services
in central Beijing--a boon for athletes, tourists and all those riding the
seismic waves of the great Chinese economic boom.