HONG KONG — Along the Great Wall of China, about ninety minutes outside of Beijing, a landmark gathering is about to take place. Some 80 Jews from all across the Far East will be studying and breaking bread together in a one-day Taste of Limmud event on June 3, what many are calling an optimistic beginning towards connecting this isolated, some say neglected part of the Jewish Diaspora.

Historically Jews have lived in China for many centuries throughout the country. But the Diaspora in China is marked by each individual community’s relative isolation from the other communities in China, the region and the major arteries of world Jewry.

And this isolation is not just endemic to China. An estimated 20,000 Jews live in the Far East in places that include China, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan and despite the connectivity that the Jewish world generally builds on, the Jewish communities of the Far East, for the most part, continue to exist in separate pockets. On many levels this is counterintuitive, though, as the Jews that make up these communities today are no strangers to travel and likewise often find themselves on an expat Asia track, physically moving from city to city within the region. Yet there is no sense of regional unity.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), with its roots firmly planted in the region, recognized this gap and Taste of Limmud China was born. It will take place near Beijing.

‘By harnessing the passion, dedication and creativity of Jews in Asia, and working together to create Limmud China, we’re contributing to the Jewish renaissance in Asia’

As Judy Amit, Global Director of JDC’s international development program, stated, “With so many Jews in this part of the world – we wanted to contribute to the growing sense of connectivity among these Jewish populations. We at JDC believe that by harnessing the passion, dedication and creativity of Jews in Asia, and working together to create Limmud China, we’re contributing to the Jewish renaissance in Asia.”

And in true Limmud spirit, this first Far Eastern Limmud gathering will bring together very diverse individuals joining together Jews living in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Shanghai, Beijing and Mumbai, some born in Asia, others passing through, some newly settled and others well established in their respective communities. And as diverse as the individuals are in terms of their own Jewish paths and experience, the communities are equally diverse themselves in the histories they represent. These histories span from the historical Jewish populations of India, living on the subcontinent for over two thousand years, to the relatively young but well established communities of Hong Kong and Singapore, established nearly one hundred-fifty years ago, to the relatively newer communities like Beijing and Tokyo.

“Limmud China is an exciting addition to the Limmud International family,” said Limmud International Co-Chair Uri Berkowitz. “Limmud is great at bringing people from diverse backgrounds to learn together. Limmud China is surely one of the most diverse Limmud communities in the world. How inspiring that Jews from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Cambodia, Japan and Singapore, Israel, the UK and the US, have chosen to take a step further in their personal and communal Jewish journeys through the Limmud approach to learning.”

A couple confers and the recent Jerusalem Limmud. (photo credit: Rocco Giansante)

A couple confers and the recent Jerusalem Limmud. (photo credit: Rocco Giansante)

And while Limmud China was born out of this collaboration between the JDC and Limmud International, very true to the spirit of Limmud, this was just the spark. The event itself represents the efforts of on-the-ground lay leaders from both Shanghai and Beijing.

Roberta Lipson, President CEO and Director of Chindex International Inc. and co-founder of Kehillat Beijing, Beijing’s Reform community, proudly stated, “I’ve been in Beijing for 33 years. For all this time the Jewish community of Beijing has mostly been lay-led by our members, depending entirely on internal resources. It is very exciting for us to be able to hold an event, with the help and support of JDC, which can bring people from other Jewish communities around the region to share experiences.”

Lipson’s Kehillat Beijing will take center stage in Taste of Limmud, planned for June 3, as the event has been tagged onto their community’s Shabbaton retreat. This collaboration, between the Shabbaton and Limmud, helped ease many initial logistical hurdles, including finding a suitable venue and building a critical mass for an event with no regional track record on which to build. There are approximately eighty participants signed up for the entire weekend Shabbaton and the expectation that others will arrive specifically for the Limmud event.

And while a Taste of Limmud, as the name itself implies, is but a tiny taste of things yet to come, all great things start small. There is the intention for this modest start, a one day event with three sessions, to springboard into a larger scale full Limmud in the near future.

“We all hope this event, whether in its ‘taste of’ form or a larger event, will become a permanent, perhaps annual or bi-annual fixture on the regional calendar. It may even generate new, Jewish grassroots initiatives on the local level or connect Jews in Asia to one another in ways that have not be imagined before. In either case, it will be a wonderful Jewish journey we are taking together, and that is something to look forward to,” says the JDC’s Amit.