My Seder here in Beijing conjured up notions of freedom- acknowledgement of my own and those who sadly today are not free. This photo I took that morning symbolizes our associations with this time of year and those of the festival of Pesach- renewal, growth, opportunity, change, beginnings. Another chance we have to reconnect and rethink where we are personally, what we do and how we go about doing it, how do we contribute, what is going on around us, what impact do we want to have?

A pre- Pesach note

No two Seders are the same. Every Seder has its own essence and character.

Passover Seders are the complete opposite to the other widely celebrated festivals in the Jewish calendar. The Seder takes place in the home, not in the public sphere and most people have never been to a Seder other than their own family Seder. This year I celebrate far from my family, friends and community in Israel and in the UK, but here in Beijing- I am grateful for my current Limmud family, new friends and warm community. It will certainly be a Seder to remember! Myself and another 50 or so yo’tai’ren are about to come together in the home of a true matriarch, Roberta Lipson, to share this meaningful reliving of our Exodus from Egypt.

The Seder is a marvel of Talmudic wisdom. It’s an incubator of religious and social identity, Torah thought, and innovative energy (Rabbi Eliyahu Fink). What I love about the Seder- is though it invokes an obligation to follow the specific “order” of the Hagaddah- we are encouraged still to be diverse and individual in our exegesis of it. I look forward to the unique form my Seder will take tonight with the diverse range of people who will be around the table each bringing their own custom, story, telling and re-telling. This is also what I love about Judaism- it requires conformity and obedience but also requires, in fact it’s survival relies on, creativity and originality. Our traditions are constantly being enhanced by innovation. It is the nature of Judaism’s flow to evolve, to observe the old and infuse it with the new… and here we are today celebrating exactly this.

Tonight we relive- we do not re-enact. My Rabbi in Hong Kong, Rabbi Stanton Zamek, taught me this week that, Exodus is a state of being.  As individuals, as a people, we are still on this journey of seeking freedom. We still seek to go free from Egypt; to liberate ourselves from the shackles around our heart and from what enslaves our mind. “Freedom from self-sabotage; which may also be a kind of slavery, slavery to our inner narratives that are unhelpful to us in reaching our full potential”. This is my brothers’ drasha from excerpts of Exodus- his reading of G-d hardening Pharoah’s heart so that he would not let our people go.The breakthrough though is rationale, growth, development and promise. We are constantly realising our potential, our individuality, our nuance. If we have found the month of Nissan challenging- I certainly have! We must take this on and remind ourselves to always strive towards becoming.

Even in our diverse practice, ritual and belief- we will all be sitting around a table with our loved ones tonight, new and old- reliving our past, not forgetting that we have a chance to make a difference today, individual and communal. I hope you are inspired by your accomplishments and achievements to date and as we take a moment to think about aspects of ourselves and the world around us that we would like to work on and to improve- for it is a constant journey- I wish you all a meaningful and creative adaptation of the Seder. Your very own. 

Chag sameach!!

100 Years of Impact

JDC celebrates 100 years this year and I am proud to be serving with this particular organization; learning about Jewish history in China and working with a fascinating global Jewish community that exists in China today. This is undoubtedly an experience I will never forget, whilst it is impacting on my life and my Jewish identity, I hope that I am impacting on people’s connection to Jewish life through the role entrusted to me here.

It is a true honour.  

In typhoon-ravaged Philippines, Jewish relief effort comes full circle. Jews found refuge from the Holocaust in the Philippines - now they are repaying the debt.

Article from Haaretz online edition, written by Yardena Schwartz, 21 November 2013.

When disaster relief expert Danny Pins arrived in the Philippines this week, it wasn’t his typical aid visit. Pins is on a mission of gratitude, repaying the ultimate debt. 

“The Filipino people saved my family,” says Pins, of Teaneck, New Jersey, looking at the devastation surrounding him. “This is an opportunity to give something back to help them in their time of distress and sorrow.”

Exactly 75 years ago, Pins’ mother and grandparents fled Nazi Germany and took refuge in the Philippines. His family was among more than 1,000 European Jews who found a safe haven in the island nation during the Holocaust. They were part of a historic rescue effort taken on by Filipino president Manuel Quezon, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to shelter Jewish refugees at a time when few others would. 

“The Philippines opened its doors when everybody else closed their doors,” said Pins. “If it wasn’t for the Philippines, I wouldn’t be here.”

Today, Pins is part of another rescue effort by the JDC in the Philippines. This time, he is leading a team of disaster experts from the United States and Australia to deliver life-saving medical care and emergency relief to the ever-growing number of typhoon victims.

To date, Typhoon Haiyan has killed more than 4,000 Filipinos, injured nearly 19,000, and 1,600 people are still missing. The powerful storm, named Yolanda in the Philippines, has left more than 4 million people homeless.

The JDC is just one of many international relief organizations that have descended upon the ravaged islands of the Philippines in the wake of the typhoon. But unlike the other missions, the urgency to act is heightened by a sense of appreciation − and not just for the brave acts of the Philippines during the Holocaust.

“The Philippines also voted for the UN resolution to create the State of Israel,” notes JDC chief executive Alan H. Gill. “So there is a sense of indebtedness and gratitude for the people of the Philippines, and that’s why it makes it even more of a moral imperative to join forces and help give relief in this terrible tragedy.”

Since the typhoon touched down in the Philippines nearly two weeks ago, the JDC has raised $1.2 million for its aid efforts. The organization expects that figure to rise as more donations come in from JDC’s Jewish Federation partners. 

When Philippine president Quezon welcomed European Jews during World War II, he was quoted as saying, “The people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a welcoming hand.”

Today, Pins and his team of experts are fulfilling that prophecy.

When they arrived in Manila, they worked with the Philippine government to distribute emergency supplies such as food, water and sanitation items to victims. In devastated Cebu province they delivered toys and books to schoolchildren, and provided medical care and equipment to local hospitals. In Bogo City, they assisted in the life-saving work of the IDF field hospital, which has received much of its equipment from the JDC. The team will soon be traveling to Roxas City in the Capiz Province, which sustained heavy damage, to identify new local agencies to partner with for long-term rehabilitation programs. 

While the team’s focus at the moment is on emergency aid, their goal is to ensure that once they leave the Philippines, strong ties are in place to continue the work they’ve begun on the ground. In all of the JDC’s disaster relief missions, about one third of the aid goes to emergency efforts, while the rest goes to local sustainable projects. 

In Haiti, for example, after the 2010 earthquake, the JDC’s relief team started a rehab center and a prosthetic clinic that is now run entirely by Haitians. This working model establishes local sustainability, so that when the JDC leaves a disaster zone, there are local organizations and people who can continue to run their programs indefinitely.

In its current mission, the JDC is working with several organizations on the ground, including the Afya Foundation and the Catholic Relief Services. As Pins and his team continue their visit through next week, they will meet with more prospective partners. They are also engaging the local Jewish community, estimated at about 1,300 people who predominantly live in Manila, to get involved in what is expected to be a very long road to recovery.

For Pins, who has been with the JDC for 16 years, giving back to those in need is in his blood. His mother, now retired and living in Jerusalem, also worked for the JDC and took part in aid missions in Rwanda and Uganda. Being there for the Filipino people means the world to her.

“My mother is very, very excited,” he says. “She wanted me to take her in my suitcase.”

image

My boss, Danny Pins, distributing toys and books to school children at an elementary school in the devastated Daanbantayan in Northern Cebu. 

To make a donation to help the JDC’s efforts in the Philippines please go to: http://www.jdc.org/where-we-work/asia/philippines-relief.html 

Serve with the World’s Leading Jewish Humanitarian Aid Organization

Applications for the 2014-15 JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps are now open!

The Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) is a year-long, paid opportunity for Jewish young professionals to volunteer overseas with JDC, the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization.

Responding to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, JSC fellows facilitate and create innovative programs using their unique skills and talents.

Currently, fellows are serving in locations like Argentina, China, Ethiopia, Germany, Haiti, India, Israel, Latvia, Estonia, Turkey, Ukraine and Rwanda.

Apply if you: 

  • Have an interest in global Jewish issues and international humanitarian needs 
  • Have experience in formal/informal education or international development 
  • Want an opportunity to be a part of a community of young, Jewish volunteers, from all over the world

Qualifications of an applicant:

  • College degree or equivalent and proven academic achievement 
  • Strong leadership, communication skills, and capacity for independent work
  • Knowledge of other languages is valuable in many placements

The Global Jewish Service Corps is open to young Jewish professionals all over the world!

Application timeline:

  • Applications for the 2014-15 JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps are now open.
  • Deadline: December 31, 2013
  • Email globalservice@jdcny.org for an application

Our 2013-14 cohort was just in NYC for orientation! Read about their week in this short blog post

Unable to serve for a year? Check out our multi-week program!

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” - Henry David Thoreau.

One amazing month in Shanghai.

Thanks Ron for the great quote, more on http://ronschrag.wordpress.com/

Missing you all around the world.

Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of this festival. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and unity. Thus, the sharing of round mooncakes among family members signify the completeness and unity of families.

Mid Autumn Festival - Moon festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival (traditional Chinese: 中秋節; simplified Chinese: 中秋节; pinyin: zhōngqiū jié) is a popular harvest festival celebrated by the Chinese and fell on the same days as Sukkot this year. I thought it was a wonderful coincidence and then I learned that the Chinese too go by the lunar calendar. The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, during the Full Moon. In light of this, I was sure there must be some parallels that can be drawn between the Moon Festival and Sukkot.

Here are some loose similarities that I could draw between the agricultural festivals two:

The Moon Festival celebrates three fundamental concepts which are closely tied to one another: Gathering, such as family and friends coming together, or harvesting crops. Thanksgiving, to give thanks for the harvest, or for harmonious unions. Praying (asking for conceptual or material satisfaction), such as for babies, a spouse, beauty, longevity, or for a good future.

Traditions and myths surrounding the festival are formed around these three concepts, although traditions have changed over time due to changes in technology, science, economy, culture, and religion. I myself heard three different variations of stories surrounding the legend of the well known lunar deity, Chang’e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality, who is associated with this holiday.

Other than seeing people excitedly meet friends and family, carrying elaborate gift boxes filled with Moon Cake (see photo) and enjoying the time off, the city did not really halt its day to day hustle and bustle. There was not much else in the way of symbolic observance or worship- well not that one could easily be exposed to in Shanghai.

The festival is a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the Moon. Much like ‘Chag Ha’asif’, the other name for Sukkot, which originates from it also being a harvest holiday when we ‘gathered’ the yields of our fields. The Moon Festival is an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives to eat mooncakes and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity. Much like how we are commanded to sit with our loved ones in the Sukkah and eat beneath the stars, altogether, as a symbol of unity.

It gives a sense of universal harmony when two very different festivals from peoples from two very disparate cultures converge in parts of their core meaning and values.

Appreciating Earth’s natural beauty and experiencing new fruits here in Shanghai

Sukkot and the Essence of Temporariness

As Sukkot came to an end and Hoshanah Rabba’s supplication for rain was adhered to with a heavy, much needed, downpour that has finally broken the suffocating heat of recent weeks and lent itself to perfect autumnal days; we have sealed our decrees made on Yom Kippur and now prepare for the joyous celebrations of Simchat Torah.

Tabernacles - We sit in a Sukkah to remind us of when we, as a people, nomadically wondered the desert in search of the Promised Land. As a people we commemorate this journey still. Sukkot is the festival of Jewish unity. But how often are we able to really connect to what that means? Never before was the symbolism of what it is to sit in a Sukkah with friends/family/community during this festival so meaningfully felt for me as this year.

As I currently wander the globe, not in search but rather in purpose, I am evoking the experience of this very temporariness that the observance of Sukkot demands of you. I currently don’t have a permanent dwelling. I have my Eretz, though it is far from me physically and I don’t know when I will live there…. What makes home? What makes permanence? What makes stability?

Many things contribute to finding a personal sense of balance, fulfilment and contentment when we attempt to answer these questions for ourselves. I will answer these questions with direct relation to my experience in Shanghai right now.
For me, home is where I am- where I am present.
The permanence of this experience lies in the value of my achievements and the hopefully long lasting effects of my work in and amongst the communities in Shanghai and East Asia this year.
What makes it stable? The ability we have, as Jews, to connect to our people through religious sentiment and expression. It is in this act of connecting that we establish a form of stability. As we spend seven days observing the laws and unique customs in the Sukkah, our temporary home, we connect to Judaism and ourselves. We act on this connection in a number of ways; Decorating the Sukkah with the Earth’s bounty, blessing the seven species and expressing much gratitude. We spend time with our loved ones in our temporary home. We experience a sense of stability in coming together in practice. It is this feeling that we can tap into anywhere on our globe; here I am tapping in from China! For a dispersed and wondering people, it is an amazing attribute. To achieve such stability through unifying amidst such a widespread diaspora we not only understand belonging but we embody it. It is an undoubtedly special experience.

If Sukkot is there to remind us of this searching, physically and spiritually, the Sukkah is the perfect place to crystallise the feeling of belonging and permanence. Ironic as it is a flimsy, temporary construction, but it is here that we cement ourselves to our past and in the future. It is further enhanced by fulfilling the mitzvah of Ushpizin. This commandment demonstrates the way in which Jews approach this concept of wondering and homelessness - by being obliged to receive and honour a guest/s, especially an outsider, with food, shelter and a shared spiritual experience in the Sukkah.

The emphasis is in unity and the elevating force is durability.

I was taken aback by the turn out and diversity of the people who joined Rabbi Greenberg and his family, happily crammed into their large sukkah over the holiday. Jewish life here in Shanghai is thriving and it is fascinating to see the young children growing up here in China, being given the opportunity to see these holidays and wonderful customs in practice. By cultivating a vibrant community here we have the ability to provide a spiritual and traditional context for the children of the community and their future generations to be raised and live in, despite being in a country of vast cultural difference. It is here, in such a foreign place, that the Kehilla finds the stability it yearns for, during the festival of Sukkot, celebrating together in this colourful, temporary hut.

Further to the theme of temporariness and wondering is transience.

Shanghai has a transient nature to it, especially among the expat contingent, due to the fact that many people come and go the whole time. People pass through, some of them stay and some indeed return but many come here for some months or years and eventually move on. That gives this place a very impermanent feeling. I see how it can be unsettling for such a small, relatively young, community who are also active participants in the expat life here.

What part does that play in the community’s attempt at stabilising itself? I think that is something that I will continually observe and assess throughout my time here but for now I return to notions aforementioned; the community I see finds its stability through acting on the foundations of Jewish life. In roots, culture, tradition and heritage combined it serves to ground and unify those who seek it out. Jews in Shanghai today are harnessing this sense of unity borne from the universal observance of this holiday and in unifying themselves here they embrace their connection to the wider Jewish community. Stability is found in belonging.

The old Ohel Rachel synagogue just before erev Rosh Hashanah services began and people filled the seats. Below, Kehilat Shanghai, the liberal community, enjoying the evening service. Kids making ‘hamotzi’ and all taking part in the mitzvah of eating together.

Remnants of the past: The Ohel Moshe synagogue, now the Jewish Refugee Museum in the old Jewish Ghetto, Hongkou District, Shanghai.

Past and present: Outside the JDC building in the Hongkou District. A true honour to be here on behalf of the JDC.

Reflections on Rosh Hashanah

A new year, a new city. A new community and so much to discover.

It has been a wonderful and fascinating experience spending the High Holy days here in Shanghai. Seeing the communities in action. It has reaffirmed for me what a special, unifying time the chagim are and being so far from where I usually celebrate these festivals, I realise ever more now, how close we all are. As a universal community, connected through our spiritual practice and traditions in ways that transcend time and place. Hearing the penetrating sound of the Shofar, knowing that it is not just me, here and now, taking in the symbolic notes of this ancient instrument but that all my loved ones and more, around this ever-shrinking globe, were joining me in standing and connecting to their past, present and future.

I began erev Rosh Hashanah with a visit to the old Jewish Ghetto in the Hongkou district and the Ohel Moshe synagogue, now the Jewish Refugee Museum in Shanghai (where I will be working in conjunction with my other projects) http://www.shanghaijews.org.cn/english/ . It was a fitting induction not only to my arrival and my work in this new city but also in preparation for the new year celebrations and the new year ahead. An opportunity to learn and physically connect to the place where modern Jewish life began in Shanghai. All routes and roots converged here for me in the atrium of the old Ghetto, on a glorious sunny day, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I felt a great sense of history and a big part of the JDC’s narrative which began in that very spot and continues now, through me and the work I look forward to partaking in not only in the museum but in Jewish life in Asia and in Shanghai more specifically. The visit to the museum and the old Ghetto (more on that to come) that day prepared me for my Rosh Hashanah celebrations and my work ahead.

In Shanghai today the Jewish community is represented by various denominations with a vast range of people, lead by rabbis from Europe, the Middle East and South America with members spanning Panama to Australia. Community members of all races and with diverse degrees of religious expression. It really is so very unique, refreshing and inspiring.

I have been welcomed so warmly by all and have been comforted by the universal customs, mizmorim- new and old, apple and honey, sweet challah bread, honey cake and the sound of the shofar. Though I should have been jet-lagged and culturally overwhelmed, these festive expressions of Jewish spirit and celebration enabled me to embrace and engage with the spiritual introspection this time is intended for. Despite being so far away from everything that is familiar to me in the physical world, being embraced by community like this when so far away from “home”, because we have come together to collectively honour a shared re-connection to our heritage, was very uplifting. No matter where you are in the world and who you are with, commemorating the High Holy Days with community, however big or small, you are at ‘home’ too.

For Yom Kippur members came together at the old synagogue in down town Shanghai, Ohel Rachel, which the government only opens for use for the High Holy days. Despite a torrential monsoon’esque downpour, booming crashes of thunder and sweltering heat, honouring such weighty prayers in this temple served to further deepen the community’s’ sense of history and connection to this city and country. It is wonderful to see the community come together and practice in this historic synagogue, something which until I realised that I would be coming to China, I had not yet discovered the depth of which Jewish life extends here in history and in practice.

I experienced some new customs, which all added to the excitement of being in a new place with a new kehilla. Namely the Sephardic style of prayer and song and the mid- service auctioning off of honours such as opening the Ark and holding the Sepher Torah. I remember my grandfather. Hearing Saba Yehudah lead the congregation in Willesden synagogue in North West London growing up and how he so beautifully evoked Kol Nidre, which, if you were fortunate enough to experience, is something that you will never quite be able to revisit without him. I can fortunately tap into those moments and memories when desired and it makes me so proud of my heritage and thus able to fully embrace these new melodies and customs.

Shanghai is a fascinating place. Western by Chinese standards, cosmopolitan and traditional in kind, exotic and familiar all at once. Like I said in the beginning, there is much to discover. So many layers to living here as an expat in Shanghai, in China. As an active member of the Jewish community here in Shanghai, in China. And what an exciting time to be here doing what I am doing! There is so much momentum and positive energy coming from within the community- I have no doubt that together we will build on these wonderful foundations of Jewish life here from centuries before and the current Jewish life that is strengthened by the leaders and members of the community here today.

I look forward to sharing my experiences with you.

Shana tova!!

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