On the morning of October 4, 1998, a determined Rabbi Shalom Greenberg woke up with only one thought on his mind—building a sukkah. He did not expect to get arrested, but that is nearly what happened.

The rabbi had only been in China for a short while, and was helping develop what would later become the Shanghai Jewish Center. He wasn’t looking for trouble. But as soon as the sukkah was built, trouble came calling. Neighbors quickly reported Greenberg to the local authorities. He was being accused of building an “underground church.” Thus began what has been Rabbi Greenberg’s twelve years of working for Chabad in Shanghai.

To understand this story is to understand what the political climate was like in China at the time—while the government had begun opening its doors to tourism several years earlier, they still heavily monitored and limited access to churches and other religious institutions. Thus, the newly erected sukkah had garnered the attention of a government agency known as the Public Security Bureau, which notified him that he was being called before a special hearing to investigate possible missionary activity. Faced with threats of prison and deportation, and having only a tourist visa at the time, he was warned that he was operating outside of his rights as a religious leader and could be prosecuted. So he agreed to dismantle the sukkah—which he did after the holiday ended.

Ohel Moishe the site of the Jewish refuge museum
Ohel Moishe the site of the Jewish refuge museum

The Shanghai Jewish Center

Today Rabbi Greenberg enjoys a much better relationship with the Chinese government, a relationship that has grown out of mutual understanding and respect over the course of several years. And with roughly five thousand Jews living and working in China, and tens of thousands visiting each year, this mutual trust allows the Shanghai Jewish Center to meet the growing demands for many much-needed Jewish services.

Located in the Hongqiao district, and nestled within walking distance of a Starbucks, the Center offers kosher meals, a meat market, adult and children’s classes, as well as counseling services and a small shul. Visiting on a Monday afternoon, I soon discovered that the Center also acts as a social hub, allowing tourists from all over the world to engage in dialogue and friendly conversation. In 1996 growing demands led to the creation of another Chabad Jewish Center in Pudong, which is hosted by Shalom Greenberg’s younger brother Avraham and his wife Nechamie.

The Chabad Center of Pudong

Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Greenberg had his own sukkah misunderstandings to deal with. “He thought it would be nice to use traditional Chinese materials like bamboo,” explains Nechamie. “Unfortunately, we didn’t know that some Chinese villagers build bamboo huts for the dead during funerals.” Local neighbors came out in droves to gawk.

Suspecting him of being some kind of powerful shaman, neighbors began referring to the Rabbi as a “magic man.” On another occasion, a landlord began to worry that the Greenbergs were facing a divorce, and asked why her husband was eating and sleeping in a bamboo hut. Had he moved out of their home? A week later, when the sukkah was taken down, neighbors rejoiced, believing the couple had resolved their differences when the Rabbi “moved back into the house.”

Rabbi Shalom Greenberg today
Rabbi Shalom Greenberg today

Lunch with the Rabbi

Arriving at the Center in Hongqiao just before noon, I found several children and adults enjoying a lunch of fresh salads, pasta, and homemade chicken cacciatore. I was quickly invited to one of the best meals I had had in days.

The truth is, I was starving. Kosher food is not easy to come by in China. And while I like to consider myself something of a seasoned traveler, a brief leisurely stroll through any of a dozen meat markets in Shanghai left me gawking and asking myself, “Do people really eat that?” To make a long story short—it is easy to go hungry. And I found the food and services available at the Center to be a welcome relief.

Sitting down to our interview, Rabbi Greenberg began to talk about some of the work he has done for Chabad over the years. In addition to providing basic services, like arranging hotel accommodations and Shabbat meals, he is also called on to help in occasional emergencies. “One of our major tasks here has been to help stranded tourists who have had their passports and personal effects stolen—this happens about once a month,” explains Rabbi Greenberg. “We pay for a taxi to bring them to the Center, where they are immediately given aid. We have also helped act as translators in hospital emergencies, and in helping foreign tourists find medical facilities they feel more comfortable with, like western-style hospitals.”

Rabbi Greenberg feels that helping people in such circumstances is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. “To see someone go from losing everything, their passport, money and documents, to being in a safe place where they have access to phones, where they can call loved ones, cancel credit cards, and do what they need to do, is one of the most satisfying things about my job,” he admits.

When asked about how he and his family have adapted to life in China since arriving, he is more circumspect. He acknowledges that cultural misunderstandings can happen, such as the 1998 sukkah incident. But he is quick to point out that today Chabad enjoys an excellent relationship with local authorities and that misunderstandings rarely occur.

So how did the rabbi smooth things out? “For several days I prayed for guidance,” he explained. “I wanted to help them understand what Chabad is doing here, and assure them that we work only with the Jewish community. And as I thought about it, I realized what I had to say.” At the Public Security Bureau hearing, Greenberg gave authorities a brief synopsis of Chinese Jewish history, pointing out that while Jews have lived in China for over one thousand years, they have remained such a small minority precisely because they have never proselytized. In fact, the Jewish community remains so small that Judaism is not considered one of the five officially recognized religions of China.

According to some historians, Jews may have begun immigrating to China as early as the Tang Dynasty, 618–907 AD. Drawn by early trade routes, they settled in the cultural center of the time—the city of Kaifeng in Eastern China. Today most of the Jews of Kaifeng are gone, and many have immigrated to Israel, but the Kaifeng Jewish community remains a subject of great interest to many academics.

The Shanghai Ghetto
The Shanghai Ghetto

The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai

In Shanghai, Jewish immigration appears to be much more recent, and is thought to have started roughly 150 years ago with an influx of Jewish merchants and tradesmen. In later years, the city would host nearly thirty thousand Jews who fled Europe between the years 1937–1947 in one of the most dramatic and fascinating stories of survival in Jewish history.

At that time Shanghai maintained an open port, allowing an escape route for Jewish refugees. Among some of the more famous immigrants to Shanghai include most of the Mir Yeshiva’s four hundred members, who emigrated from Mir, Poland, in 1939; former U.S. Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal; Israeli entrepreneur Shaul Eisenberg; and Hollywood film executive Michael Medavoy. Several popular books have also been written about the Jewish escape to Shanghai.

Immigrants soon began to settle in an area that came to be known as the “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees,” in Shanghai’s impoverished Tilanqiao district. They lived in communal dwellings called “helme,” in buildings known for their distinctive Viennese-inspired designs.

The district’s residents, crowded into an area of less than one square mile, experienced overcrowding, hunger and limited access to resources. And while the area was never walled off, the occupying Japanese required special permits in order to leave the area. Yet despite these hardships, a rich and vibrant community life developed in the ghetto, complete with schools, synagogues, sports teams, theaters and restaurants.

The Bima Inside the Refuge Museum, former site of Ohel Moishe
The Bima Inside the Refuge Museum, former site of Ohel Moishe

Today the former ghetto maintains many of its original buildings, and a Jewish Refuge Museum has been erected on the grounds of what was once its largest synagogue, the former Ohel Moishe. The museum remains open throughout the year, and hosts frequent visitors from all over the globe—it is a must-see for anyone vacationing in Shanghai. The recent reopening of the Ohel Rachel synagogue has provided further opportunities for Jewish life and practice in Shanghai to thrive. The synagogue, built by the Sassoon family in 1920, was recently reopened for services in honor of the 2010 World Fair.

However, in 1998, at the time of Rabbi Greenberg’s hearing, almost all of the Jews of Shanghai had left and moved on to places like Israel, the United States, and Canada—the city had virtually no real Jewish community left. And while China’s new policies allowed for openness to foreign business and tourism, the government did not have much experience with foreign religious organizations or with Rabbi Greenberg himself. In time, a greater sense of mutual trust evolved. The result is a stay in Shanghai that has lasted well over a decade, and continues to yield benefits both to China and to its Jewish residents and visitors.