With 70 million visitors expected to descend on Shanghai, China, throughout the summer, this year’s World Expo is set to be the largest in history. Last-minute preparations across the city – the world’s largest – have taken on a feverous pace, including for its 1,500-strong Jewish community, which expects tens of thousands of people to need its services over the coming months.

Leading that community’s efforts is the Chabad-Lubavitch run Shanghai Jewish Center, which is coordinating with government officials to both provide kosher meals, classes and Shabbat services to visitors, and highlight the region’s century-and-a-half-long Jewish history.

Since the first Jewish settlers arrived in the city from Baghdad and Bombay in 1848, thousands more have passed through the internationally-minded port in search of trade and investment opportunity. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi led the community from the 1920s on, and during World War II, Shanghai absorbed about 30,000 refugees from Eastern Europe. Many of the refugees were Lubavitch yeshiva students who had been granted transit visas by the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara.

Today, the Jewish community’s members hail from 12 different countries, primarily the United States, Israel, France, Argentina, Venezuela, Russia, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, while thousands of seasonal visitors – whether on business or as tourists – take advantage of its infrastructure.

Rabbi Shalom and Dina Greenberg, directors of the Shanghai Jewish Center, arrived in 1998. Since then, they’ve established a synagogue; opened a Hebrew school and preschool; instituted a series of children’s and adult education classes, including Bar and Bat Mitzvah training; opened a kosher restaurant; and constructed the city’s Jewish ritual bath.

“Shabbat here is a really beautiful experience,” attests Rabbi Mendy Alevsky, Dina Greenberg’s brother, who arrived two weeks ago with his wife Sara to help with the onslaught of World Expo patrons. “Every single type of Jew comes here, from all over the world and representing all types of backgrounds. It’s really a phenomenal experience.”

The Jewish growth has been so staggering that two additional Chabad-Lubavitch emissary families moved to the area in recent years to serve the community’s increasing needs.

Robin Kaptzan, a New Yorker who has been living and doing business in Shanghai with her family for more than 12 years, was a part of the committee that worked to bring the Greenbergs to Shanghai.

“It has been great for my children to be learning [about Judaism] though participating in community events,” said Kaptzan. “One’s identity is very important and the Jewish learning helps my children to be proud of who they are. When I first met Dina Greenberg, I explained that my goal for schooling my son was that he would have a Bar Mitzvah and be proud of being Jewish.”

One French émigré recalled the time 17 years ago when there were “less than ten Jews in Shanghai.” Since those days of meeting in hotel rooms or private apartments for Shabbat or holiday celebrations, she came to appreciate the Jewish Center as a place where everyone in the community can come together.

“Step by step, the community has come to be really huge,” said the woman, who moved to Shanghai with her husband and children for business. “We’re extremely fortunate to have such a big community now. If it weren’t for Chabad, I wouldn’t have been able to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter. Its presence has made me participate more.

“There’s really something special here,” she added. “The Jewish Center brings Judaism closer to you. The sense of needing community is stronger when you live abroad. You miss what you had at home. Their presence is extremely important; it brings stability that would otherwise be missing.”

Jewish children in Shanghai learn at the community’s school.
Jewish children in Shanghai learn at the community’s school.

Better City, Better Life

Shanghai will officially open for the world on May 1 for the exposition and its theme of “Better City, Better Life.” Representing more than 190 countries and 50 international organizations, the gala event is expected to bring some 100 foreign leaders to the city through Oct. 31.

According to Alevsky, Shanghai could see upwards of 20,000 additional Jews over the course of the summer. That group is bound to include a host of Jewish diplomats, as well as employees of the international pavilions.

“These visitors will be looking for the Jewish aspect of Shanghai,” said Alevsky. “We are hoping to provide for all of their Jewish needs, from food to lodging to prayer services.”

Among other programs, the community will host Shabbat services at a location near the exposition – as well as at the Jewish center – throughout the summer. In addition, a new kosher restaurant will provide meals and frozen packed food to visitors.

Alevsky will also be posting up-to-date information, including the availability of tours of historic sites, such as the city’s Jewish Refugee Museum, to the community’s website at ChinaJewish.org/Expo.

“There’s a real potential for the Jewish people here,” said Alevsky. “The whole country is talking about the Expo.”

Max Stange, a South African who has lived in Shanghai with his family for the past seven years, agreed and added that the Jewish Center was uniquely suited to the task of welcoming the Expo’s Jewish guests.

“The Shanghai Jewish Center has been responsible for many innovative and worthy causes, and what they have accomplished here, in a relatively short space of time, borders on the miraculous,” he explained. “The center is a binding force amongst the members of our community.”