With its sprawling academic quarter, dizzying pace of life and rich Far Eastern culture, Beijing can pose a challenge for Jewish college students to maintain connections to their own identity and religion. But a new husband-and-wife team of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries are seeking to make the transition faced by the hundreds of Jewish foreigners who take courses at city's many universities a bit easier.

Rabbi Nosson and Miriam Rodin arrived last fall after being invited to the city by Rabbi Shimon and Dini Freundlich, the longtime co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Beijing. While the newcomers' mission included helping with supervising that portion of China's growing kosher food industry, their primary task was to coordinate and improve outreach to Jewish students at the metropolis' 18 universities. They quickly organized classes and reached out to the collegiate population – a mixture of primarily American, Israeli and European students, with other nationalities mixed in – through a coordinated system of SMS text messages, neighborhood walks and word of mouth.

According to Nosson Rodin, they've made a lot of headway, even though its very difficult to cater to a student body essentially made up of visitors. Most come as part of a one-semester study-abroad program in coordination with their universities back home; rarely do they stay for more than a year or two.

"They are very transient," explained the rabbi. "You just meet someone, and they're gone. At the beginning of each semester, you hustle to find more students."

It's a problem facing anyone focused on campus outreach, to be sure, as any of Rodin's colleagues at the more than 100 universities worldwide served by campus-based Chabad Houses can attest. The case in Beijing, though, is further complicated by the fact that Judaism is not a recognized religion by the state authorities. The law and atmosphere is such that the rabbi can only advertise for events online.

Students appreciate their dedication.

"I looked up Chabad at least a year before I came here to see what kind of Jewish community there is," said Jonathan Gorden, 23, who hails from S. Louis. "Whenever I go to synagogue, it's Chabad."

Questions Answered

Tsinghua University in Beijing is one of 18 universities in the city where Jewish students are reaching out to Rabbi Nosson and Miriam Rodin, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries there.
Tsinghua University in Beijing is one of 18 universities in the city where Jewish students are reaching out to Rabbi Nosson and Miriam Rodin, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries there.
Gorden, who studied accounting at the University of Missouri before coming to Tsinghua University in Beijing to study Chinese, plans on staying one more semester before returning to the United States. He said that his family has been close to Chabad since his bar mitzvah, and that the Rodins provide a crucial Jewish link for him while he's abroad.

They "do a lot to keep people informed of things they're doing," said Gorden, who frequents the rabbi's "Hot Topic" class at Tsinghua.

It was at the class, which tackles such questions as "Who is a Jew?" and the Divine origin of the Torah, that Gorden spent a lot of time focusing on the issue of intermarriage. That session "really hit home," he said, "because there's a lot of inter-dating and intermarriage in China.

"It's hard to find other Jews," continued the student. "For the most part, there aren't many Jewish girls here."

The Rodins' response to the problem is to provide copious opportunities for Jewish involvement for students like Gorden. One benefit is that the question of dating non-Jews doesn't even present itself.

Students are invited to gatherings at Beijing's one kosher restaurant, a project of the Freundlichs' called Dini's. In addition, the Rodins learn one-on-one with them, distribute care packages, Chanukah menorah kits, Purim food baskets and specially-baked matzah for Passover. More than 70 students attended the Rodins' Sukkot and Chanukah parties this year.

For his part, Gorden tries to spend Shabbat with the local Jewish community once a month; he normally stays with the Rodins when he goes.

"Their doors are always wide open," he said. "Shabbat is pretty amazing, warm and welcoming. There's always great food and I have a good time."

The Rodins are currently planning to rent out a meeting room in a nearby hotel so that they can host some 50 students and more for a large Shabbaton. They hope to one day open a center near the academic quarter, a sprawling complex that takes up a full 25 percent of Beijing and houses all of its universities.

Personal Attention

While Gorden raved about the Shabbat experience, several students said that what really impressed them was Nosson Rodin's side job as a kosher supervisor. He frequently takes students along with him on trips to factories all over the region.

"They find it fascinating," said the rabbi. "I explain to them what goes in kosher food and what a factory has to do to get kosher certification."

Max Klein, 21, a senior at Cornell University, was one of the students who got to go with Rodin.

"I asked the rabbi if I could accompany him, because I was interested in what's behind the O-U symbol of the Orthodox Union on food," said Klein, an Asian and Pacific Studies major who took courses in China's modern economic and social development, international relations and advanced Chinese last summer. "The collision between two ancient cultures, Judaism and China, struck me as a sign of a new era in history, when even non-Jews in Asia are involved in the continuation of timeless Jewish traditions."

The Potomac, Md.-native said that he wants to return to Beijing after graduation to work in a private investment bank.

"I am excited to know that I have a strong Jewish community to return to, especially in a place like China," said Klein. "Along with their colleagues, the Rodins provide Jews from all over the world a home away from home in Beijing."

Sports events, like basketball, indoor skiing and bowling, also draw people in, as do the Rodins' weekly barbeques for young professionals.

Turning to this August's start of this summer's Olympic Games, Rodin said that he expected many people to come by. He added that he wants to organize kosher food for any Jewish athletes that are competing.

"There will be a lot more students," he said, noting that many have timed their study abroad to coincide with the international sporting competition. "All the schools are already full."

Gorden asserted that it's the Rodins' personal attention that makes students so responsive.

"Rabbi Nosson goes up and out of his way to help me whenever I need it," he said, recalling a time when he posted on his Facebook page that he was sick and the rabbi called to invite him to a class that night. Rodin gave him chicken soup.

Said the student: "That made my month, or even my year."