Lubavitch shluchim move to all sorts of exotic places in their effort to ignite Jewish souls around the globe. But there’s exotic, and then there’s very exotic. Shanghai, China, can safely be said to fall into the latter category.
To learn what it’s like teaching Judaism in the most populous city in the world (24 million people), The Jewish Press recently spoke with Dina Greenberg. Greenberg –the daughter of shluchim and the sibling of nine others – runs the Shanghai Jewish Center alongside her husband.
The Jewish Press: How does a girl raised in Cleveland, Ohio, wind up in Shanghai, China?
Greenberg: In 1998, shortly after I got married, my husband brought home a report from Chabad headquarters, where he was working, that stated that the Jewish community in Shanghai was requesting a permanent Chabad presence. Very nonchalantly, he showed it to me and asked, “What do you think?”
I said to him, “You’re kidding, right? There are Jews in China?” There were several other shlichus options available to us, but this one was the most intriguing.
How does a frum couple move to a place that, at least initially, has no daily minyan, no mikveh, no Jewish schools, etc.?
The [Lubavitcher] Rebbe taught us, “Be’makom sh’ein ish, hishtadel liyos ish.” He wanted us to make sure that Judaism is thriving in every corner of the globe and demanded that each of us share our knowledge with others.
He also often mentioned that [sharing Jewish knowledge] is not just the job of Chabad; it’s required as part of the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael. Every Jew should try to influence his surroundings positively wherever he or she may be, bringing the light of Yiddishkeit to that place and thereby bring our world closer to the ultimate goal, which is Moshiach.
What kind of Jews do you service in Shanghai?
There are over 2,000 Jews living in Shanghai. It’s a very international and transient community. We service consular personnel, professors, students (we have an NYU in Shanghai), businessmen, executives of large companies, startups… We really have the whole gamut. And by now we have three Chabad centers in Shanghai.
Each one has its own infrastructure, but we all work together. We each have between 50 to 100 people every Friday night, and on Yamim Tovim we have triple that amount – at least 150. On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, we prepare for 600.
What do you do for kosher food? How about chalav Yisrael milk?
Our motto is, “If you don’t have it, find a way to get it or make it.” Our children learn to be happy with whatever we can improvise.
We bring in a shochet for the chickens, and for meat, we import from Uruguay.
We don’t have chalav Yisrael products since there isn’t sufficient demand for it. But we make soy yogurt – which is delicious – and we have almond milk. Chabad of Beijing once made a chalav Yisrael milk run, so that was a tremendous simcha, but it only lasted a short while.
How do you manage your children’s chinuch?
We actually have a full-time gan that goes till 1st grade. The numbers range from 20-50 children depending on the number of families we have in a particular year.
After graduating the gan, our children go to a special school online for shluchim’s children who live in far-off places. They sit before a computer, in a live classroom, for about six hours a day.
The students actually become very connected to each other because everyone is in a similar situation – no Jewish school, no Jewish friends in the area, etc. – and they share with each other things that are going on in their Chabad Houses during recess.
Our children’s ages range from 19 to one-and-a-half, and the four high-schoolers are already away from home, k”h, learning abroad in England, Israel, and the U.S.
Weren’t you concerned before moving to China that you wouldn’t be able to raise frum children?
So this is where our fundamental strength comes from. We sincerely believe that, as the Rebbe’s shluchim, we have the Rebbe’s beracha for all our needs, and that includes succeeding in raising our children in a Yiddishe and Chassidishe environment, even in Shanghai.
Actually, our children are, baruch Hashem, very strong in their Yiddishkeit. Because they live on shlichus, they have the opportunity to overhear answers to questions they might not feel comfortable asking. They hear discussions about Yiddishkeit, emunah, Moshiach, mitzvos, and they have the answers right in front of their eyes just by virtue of being on shlichus.
One day in Hebrew school the subject of belief in G-d came up, and our nine-year-old actually started explaining to children her own age that Hashem created the world and that each one of us has a special mission in this world. It was a truly a beautiful moment!
Do your kids speak Chinese? Do you? If yes, how do family members and friends react to hearing you speak the language?
We all speak Chinese – or at least enough to get by – and everyone gets a kick out of hearing us speak it. They’re always asking our kids to say different words in Chinese, and the best part is that we have our own secret language.
The truth is, though, that our main language doesn’t have to be Chinese because we are servicing an international community and the primary languages are English, Hebrew, and even French, believe it or not.
I’ve heard that many Chinese people touch your children’s head when they walk down the street because they’ve never seen curly or red hair before. Is that true?
We definitely stick out! When we stop to watch people doing an activity like Tai Chi, for example, very quickly everybody turns around and watches us!
For centuries there was a Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng. Have you ever come across descendants of this community? Are there any remnants of it?
Today there are only descendants of Kaifeng Jews who have some vague distant memories that they have Jewish ancestry. I don’t know how many and I’ve never met any of them. Kaifeng is far from Shanghai. Unfortunately, there’s no real Jewish presence in Kaifeng anymore. They’ve completely assimilated.
China is a communist country and communism historically has not been friendly to religion. Is the government okay with Chabad operating in Shanghai?
The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. The practice of any other faith is formally prohibited but tolerated. So they allow foreigners to practice their religion privately, and we are very careful to respect their policies of not proselytizing or missionizing. Only people with foreign passports can attend our functions.
We once met a young Chinese girl who had a Jewish boss and became very interested in Yiddishkeit. She very much wanted to attend our functions but [we couldn’t let her] because she was Chinese. Eventually, though, she went to Israel, became a ger tzedek, married an Israeli, and had two children. They all ended up spending a wonderful Shabbos with us in China – totally legally – as they all had foreign passports by that time.
As a shlucha in Shanghai you must have some highly unusual stories. Can you please share one or two?
When we first arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1998, we informed all the hotels, consulates and stores that catered to foreigners about out upcoming High Holiday events. I guess we were a somewhat “too visible” because the government became suspicious, and one day the inevitable happened. We heard a knock at the door.
We had built a sukkah on the 29th floor of our building complex, and the government demanded to know: How dare we build an illegal house of worship. My husband replied, “As a sign of good faith, we will immediately take the structure down.” Baruch Hashem, it was the day after Simchas Torah.
But a beautiful relationship began between us and the government. We respect their wishes and operate according to their rules and, in turn, they help us function the best way we can under the circumstances.
Any other interesting stories?
Well, we speak Chinese, but people don’t always understand what we mean. For example, one Pesach we finished making the chicken soup and were putting up rolls of gefilte fish to cook. We asked the kitchen help to take the pot off the fire and let it cool.
I must have turned away for a second because the next thing I know the Chinese worker is telling me proudly that he took care of my soup. “To save space, I even combined both of them together!” he said.
So into the chicken soup had gone the gefilte fish and into the garbage went both! Things like that do happen and we have to take a deep breath, smile, laugh it off, and move on.
Any inspirational stories?
Well, when we first arrived, people were worried that we were going to try to turn them into people that look and act like us. So I felt that maybe we should go easy, at least in the beginning. So I decided for my ladies “Lunch and Learn” program, I would not address subjects they were worried about, specifically taharas hamishpacha.
So I spoke about candle lighting, challah, yamim tovim… everything except mikveh. I said to myself, “If these ladies stick with me the entire year and see we are teaching out of love and not trying to force them to do anything they don’t want to, I’m sure during the last class they’ll be ready to hear about the special beauty of mikveh.”
So that’s what I did. But when I finally raised the topic at that last class, a woman suddenly started crying. “Oh no, what have I done?” I thought. “Maybe they weren’t ready, after all.”
When I looked at the woman, she blurted out, “How dare you?” At that point, I was ready to go under the table, but she continued: “How dare you keep this treasure to yourself all year? Why didn’t you tell us about it? And why didn’t anyone tell me before I got married? Do you know how many years our relationship could have been enhanced had I known? How I could have connected to Hashem?”
From then on, every single year we have a “spa for the soul” celebrating the mitzvos of the Jewish woman – specifically mikveh.
What would you say is your biggest challenge as a shlucha in Shanghai?
Challenge? What challenge? My great-grandmother in Russia – she had challenges. Her husband was shot for being a mohel, but she didn’t know what happened to him and remained an agunah for 21 years.
She risked everything just so that her children not have to attend atheistic schools and be mehallel Shabbos. And today, baruch Hashem, she has over 1,000 descendants, many of whom are shluchim. That was a challenge!
How about more mundane challenges, then?
One of the greatest is constantly covering our growing budget. Every Chabad center is independent, so we have to fundraise to cover the costs of our extensive activities. Baruch Hashem, we are very grateful to the wonderful partners that Hashem constantly sends our way.
Another challenge is being far from family. I think the hardest thing for my children is missing out on family simchos, bar and bas mitzvahs, weddings, etc. but baruch Hashem with the advent of Skype we’re able to tune into them virtually, and we try to make it as exciting as we can.
Any regrets at having moved to Shanghai?
Absolutely not! Baruch Hashem, we can see the blessings of being on the Rebbe’s shlichus every day and we look forward to continue growing so we can finish our mission and end up in Yerushalayim with Moshiach.