Architect He Wei of Beijing has mapped out construction of government compounds for thousands of workers, choreographed the dizzying dance of steel I-beams and rebar by the ton to raise apartment buildings, but the details of assembling a mikvah at the Rohr Family Chabad Community Centre of Chabad of Beijing, the first ever in vicinity of the Forbidden City, and the first in China since World War II, nearly did him in.
Communicating the volumes of mikveh rules, starting with a “mikveh is not just a bathhouse” and down to the demanding Jewish legalities behind everything from pouring the concrete, pipes leading from cisterns, and the need to keep doorways from preparation rooms away from doors leading into the ritual bath itself were “completely overwhelming,” said Chabad of Beijing representative Dini Freundlich. Towards the end, Wei was in touch with the offshore rabbinical authorities every day.
Hammers swing, sanders whir as the finishing touches being placed on the mikveh echo behind David Galil. Formerly of Tel Aviv, now teaching e-commerce and design courses at a Beijing college for the past four years, Galil said the mikveh and Centre are “beautiful. It is amazing,” he said, and distinctly Chinese with a pagoda. Opening the mikveh within the next few weeks caps off the 10,000 square foot Rohr Family Community Centre. Filled with classrooms painted in warm tones, an industrial kitchen, restaurant, apartments for resident teachers, a children’s kitchen, parent lounge, nursery for teachers’ babies, and much needed communal space, the Centre is the new heart of Jewish life in Beijing. “Now we can have gatherings like barbecues because we have our own building,” said Galil. “It’s not just a building, it’s a compound.”
Bows to local norms of beauty are apparent throughout the Rohr Family Chabad Community Centre. Bricks fired to a regimental grey, the same shade favored by Chinese nobility, adorn the Centre’s facade. The Freundlichs commissioned Chinese artists to carve an intricate wooden pavilion dome for the mikveh ceiling. “There’s no way anyone would mistake this mikveh for one in Brooklyn,” said Rabbi Shimon Freundlich.
In Rabbi Freundlich’s view, embracing elements of Chinese life, not shunning them, is the way for Jews in Beijing to feel whole. “We are isolated here in China” from the rest of the world’s Jewish community “but there is a long tradition of a Jewish presence. The Centre is an expression of Chabad’s commitment to China’s Jewish community.” In The Jews of Kaifeng, China, Author Xi Xun cites historians who found evidence of Jewish settlers from Persia in China as far back at Emperor Ming Di during the Hon Dynasty (58-75 C.E.).
Along with the growing number of Jews living Beijing for jobs or education, tourists searching for China’s role Jewish history will find it at the Centre. A mural on the Centre’s walls will depict famous synagogues in China throughout the centuries, and Rabbi Freundlich has been purchasing Sino-Judaic artifacts for the Centre’s collection. A Torah pointer c. 1900 from Harbin, a clipping from a 1905 Pinjin newspaper, and an article from 1926 Baltimore paper about Chinese Jews will be on prominent display in the Centre’s showcase.
Traditional Chinese bathhouse rituals find their updated counterparts in the mikveh’s preparation rooms, a Jacuzzi, multi-jet shower, sauna and masseuse services are offered. “Women who come to mikveh should be able to relax,” said Rabbi Freundlich. The thought and details invested in this structure, he says, “conveys a sense of the importance of the mikveh and how beautiful the mitzvah is.”
Fancy touches are perks for women who had to endure a four-hour flight to Hong Kong to immerse in the nearest mikveh until now. Add in the standard two-hour pre-international flight wait and a simple visit to the mikveh took up to seventeen hours. Factor in the cost of airfare and it’s a small wonder anyone kept the mitzvah at all. The mikveh is a “dream come true,” said Dini Freundlich.
Completing the $1.8 million building, funded in substantial part by the Rohr Family Foundation, was helped along by the facts of life in China. When the Freundlichs sought luxury toiletries for the mikveh–personalized shampoos, towels embroidered with Chabad’s logo, comfy logo-bearing slippers–they patronized local manufacturers and purchased high end goods for a song. Throughout the rest of the Centre, more benefits of being in the thick of Chinese low cost labor take the form of hand-crafted Montessori style furniture in the Ganeinu school and the authentic, chef-prepared Chinese food in Chabad’s kosher restaurant.
Other realities temper the joys of being Jewish in China. Judaism is not an officially recognized religion in China, and simple kosher items–as basic as hotdogs–must be imported at great expense. As Beijing gets ready for the 2008 Olympics, Chabad’s relationship with Chinese officials is warming up. Olympic codes require host countries to provide places of worship and food for athletes. At present, Chabad hosts Shabbat services that are held in a separate location away from the Centre and close to downtown hotels where tourists and business travelers stay. Dini Freundlich expressed hopes that Chinese authorities will see the win-win of helping Chabad expand services in central Beijing–a boon for athletes, tourists and all those riding the seismic waves of the great Chinese economic boom.