Monday, August 3, 2009

Greeting and Meeting China-Jewish Pioneers

When I left Beijing on July 19th I was under the impression that for the next two years I would no longer be involved in advancing ties between China and the Jewish world. I thanked Seth for giving me the chance to attend the Israel Studies Seminar at Peking University. And then I carefully packed away the business cards from the many Chinese Jewish scholars I had met in Beijing and said goodbye to China.

China, it turns out, is not ready to say goodbye to me! The four weeks since my return to Israel have been chockfull of happenings related to the burgeoning realm of China-Jewish ties. There are the fascinating individuals I have met, from Israel’s top academic on China to a passionate activist filled with ideas for developing the China-Jewish relationship. And then there are the professional opportunities that have come my way, including unexpected invitations from the midst of Iraq and the depths of the Prime Minister’s Office here in Jerusalem.

Before I had even returned from China, the founder and director of PresenTense, a magazine and summer institute devoted to fostering incipient Jewish social entrepreneurs, reached out to tell me I had to meet two young women, both whom were participants in this summer’s institute. I met the first of these remarkable women, Manuela, shortly before she departed Jerusalem for Beijing. Manuela is a Brazilian-American reporter based in China’s capital, where she mostly writes on food and environmental issues for Newsweek and other publications. She came to Israel this summer seeking support for an online information-sharing platform called Agritech that would promote the exchange of agricultural technologies between China and Israel. We spoke of how I could advance the project, settling on a vague role that if nothing else will keep me in touch with Manuela.

The second PresenTense fellow, Rebecca, was far more ready to have me suit up and contribute to her cause. Like Manuela, Rebecca comes at her interest in all things China-Jewish from an international background, having been raised in Liverpool and studied in Japan and China. In October 2008 she helped start the Israel-Asia Center, an advocacy organization providing better understanding and maximization of strategic partnerships and cooperation between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia - with a particular emphasis on China. The Center’s work, most of which currently involves education and the media, is right up my alley. And in Rebecca’s words, “the next two, maybe five, years are when everything will happen.” I have my doubts that in three years time there will be nothing left for me in the dynamic realm of advancing China’s ties with Israel and the Jewish world. Regardless, Rebecca’s offer is another sobering reminder of what I am sacrificing in enlisting in the army for the next two years.

Rebecca’s involvement in the Israel-Asia Center began after she met perhaps the most intriguing individual (quite a title, considering the folks attracted to this line of work!) active in developing ties between China and the Jewish world. Australian born, Israeli by choice, and with academic experience at a slew of universities (Bar-Ilan, Sydney, Cambridge) and yeshivot (Har Etzion in the Gush, Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba, Tomchei Temimim of Lubavitch, a Satmar Hasidic beit midrash, the Hartman Institute—you get the idea, everywhere!), Avrum E. was a pretty intriguing guy before he fell into the China game. And so when he accepted an invitation to teach Jewish mysticism and philosophy at Shandong University in 2005, advancing China-Jewish ties quickly became his new driving passion.

Avrum’s passion was on full display when we spoke until late into the night on July 27. After stating in no uncertain terms that I had to stay in Jerusalem rather than move to kibbutz for the next three months, Avrum spoke with lighting in his eyes about a seemingly endless number of ideas to jumpstart China-Jewish relations. As much as his ideas appealed to my own interests, the most lasting impression I have of our meeting is the man himself. Innovative scholar, pioneering activist, and most of all, a man afire with big plans for the future. Role-model, anybody?

The next person I met with may lack Avrum’s vast academic background. But her incomparable personal history and unusual insight made meeting Vicky W. a highlight of my final week in Jerusalem. Vicky’s story starts in southern China but really got going when she moved to New York from Switzerland ten years ago. “Once I was in New York it didn’t take me long to take the next natural step and become Jewish,” Vicky joked in describing how she become fascinated by Judaism and promptly converted with an Orthodox rabbi seven years ago. Her next decision was equally courageous: Vicky moved to Israel shortly after her conversion, having concluded that there was no better place to live a Jewish life. Over the course of our two hour meeting, Vicky spoke to me at length about how to succeed as a new immigrant to Israel. I found the advice deeply compelling, although eventually I got Vicky to speak about her professional experience over the last few years in the China-Israel scene. Vicky spoke of having to reassure Israelis that was not an illegal immigrant. She also described visiting her parent’s home in Guangzhou when she realized that Israel is now the only place in the world she feels truly at home.

I imagine that my own path down the road of China-Jewish ties will not bring me into conflict with quite the same challenges faced by my new friend Vicky W. Whatever my path is, however, I have no doubt that the folks I met in my last week in Jerusalem will prove integral in the road ahead.

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