We are so conditioned to think of Israel as a part of the Middle East, we often forget that, geographically, it is a part of Asia. And we certainly do not give a lot of thought to the fact that there are Jewish communities in parts of Asia other than Israel. Probably, this is because, of the 13-14 million Jews in the world, 80% of them live in the United States and Israel. They grow up there, they go to college there, and they fashion their adult lives there.
Current Jewish Populations in Other Asian Countries – Some Interesting Data
A 2014 report of world Jewish populations has indicated that, among the 40,000 Jews currently living in Asia, there are really two types of Jewish populations.
- There are traditional Jewish communities, small but long-term, most commonly found in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. There also remains a Jewish population in Iran, although it is largely older, as younger Jews have emigrated to either Israel, the U.S. or to some of the more modern countries of Asia.
- There are small but growing populations of Jews in Southeast Asia, S. Korea, and Japan (currently only 1,000). In China, including Hong Kong and Macao, the Jewish population now numbers 2500, but that is an increase over past years. And India is seeing a rise in Jewish emigres as well. And one of a continually rising group of Jews in Asia are students who have chosen to study abroad in Asian colleges and universities.
Reasons for the Rise in Interest of Jews in Modern Asian Countries
Recently, there has been a substantial amount of overtures between Israel and modern Asian countries in cooperation and collaboration, relative to mutual business and financial interests. With this new era of cooperation, Jewish businessmen and entrepreneurs are spending more time in India, China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea, as partnerships are being formed. Young people are observing this and considering what opportunities may lie ahead for them as they consider future career choices. And, as a result, they are choosing to take up their university studies in some of the established higher education institutions in the more developed nations of Asia.
Life for Jewish Students in Asian Universities
As foreign students, Jewish young people face all of the same challenges and cultural “shocks” that any other student studying abroad. These include the following:
- Obvious language barriers. This challenge is somewhat alleviated because English is spoken so commonly, but there are still issues. And Israeli students, just like those from any other country coming to Asia, must become pretty “quick studies” if they are to experience a culture outside of the university.
- Finding local opportunities to be a part of a Jewish community of students. Foreign students from many other countries have been traveling to Asia to study for years. And there are student associations on campus that have been well established, so that they have a solid support group of individuals from their home countries. Jewish students do not have this support, because there are still so few of them. Feelings of isolation can be impactful for a young person in a strange land without fellow comrades in the same situation.
- Finding synagogues and local Jews with whom to practice their faith is indeed a huge challenge. Fortunately, in the major cities of Asian countries, there are at least small communities of local Jews, and connecting with them is really of critical importance.
- Reception of Jewish students in Asian colleges and universities has been a real plus. There is a strong and pervasive belief among Asians that Jewish people are smart, and they welcome Jewish students into their educational communities. So far, Jewish young people have not disappointed. They are motivated and studious and anxious to learn.
- Jewish students are about 2 years older than their counterparts in Asian universities, because of their required army service. This does not, however, seem to be a drawback in any way. If anything, Jewish students are more mature and more ready to take on the rigorous challenges of being foreign students.
- Food can sometimes be an issue, given the dietary restrictions of Jews, particularly those students who are orthodox. However, there are plenty of great fresh fruits and vegetables available which of course provide healthy eating. And fortunately, Indians eat no meat, and Orientals consume lots of chicken and seafood.
The “Draw” of Asian Universities Will Continue to Grow
Jewish young people have two primary reasons for choosing Asian universities:
- Because Israel has adopted the European model of higher education, Israeli universities, while outstanding, offer targeted programs in a chosen major from day one. Many students are coming to see that there is value in some liberal arts coursework which will expose them to other cultures and prepare them for the globalization that is to come. Israel has only one liberal arts college.
- Young people are looking ahead to careers that will involve partnerships and collaborations with foreign countries. They want to be prepared for the many career opportunities that will present themselves.