A Challenging Time for Asia’s Jews

Even in normal times, it is quite a challenge to be a Jewish ex-patriot in Asia. Communities are small, Kosher food is often (outside of Hong Kong) challenging to obtain, and Jewish life and infrastructure are weak.

There are also political and social challenges that are absent in much of the world. Religion is often regulated, not only in Communist countries but even in secular states like Singapore, and the Asian work ethic (and lack of knowledge about things Jewish) leaves little room for traditional Shabbat and holiday observance. Even more than in North America, Europe, or Israel, one has to make the positive choice to be Jewish in Asia and to seek out both opportunities and other Jews with which to share them. This year, however, has been far from normal, and so far, 5780 has and continues to pose almost existential challenges to Jewish communities across Asia. Sadly, for our Asian communities, the ongoing crisis has been virtually ignored (or perhaps invisible) outside Asia and Australia.

Just about a year ago, on March 15, the current round of human rights protests in Hong Kong began. The Chinese government has progressively infringed on the relative independence of Hong Kong, leading to a fear by many that its democratic institutions will become mere puppets for the Chinese Communist Party. A proposed change in the extradition law led to massive protests, which to an extent, continue to this day. These protests disrupted life across Hong Kong, and even access to the international airport. The protests, and especially the disruptions at the airport, led to the cancellation of many of our community international events and conferences, as Jews across Asia were concerned about travel into and out of Hong Kong.

For the most part, ex-patriots across Asia tend to be diffident about speaking out on issues of local politics (in some places, it is absolutely forbidden). Therefore, only a few members of the Jewish community participated and or spoke openly on the issues facing the people of Hong Kong. Yet, like all its residents, they faced the realities of the disruptions. A protest could pop up anywhere, leaving people stranded, without easy access to public transportation. Many feared to travel much beyond the home, work, and school. None the less, with somewhat smaller numbers, the cycle of Jewish life – services, events, and programs – continued throughout Hong Kong. My colleagues in Hong Kong were hopeful that as soon as the protests ended, life would return to normal.

Everything changed in December as the Coronavirus (now known as COVID-19) appeared on the scene. The fear and panic engendered by the current epidemic (and perhaps soon to be declared pandemic) has already severely disrupted life first in the Jewish communities in China and Hong Kong, and latterly within Singapore, Japan, Korea, and beyond. In some communities, people are leaving, and in all the others, there is a fear of crowds, public transportation, and even participation in significant communal events. International travel is also drying up as countries (such as Israel) close their borders, and people fear the possibility of contagion on the airplanes. Many companies are working on staggered shifts (to avoid rush hour) and are encouraging their staff to work from home. One company is even requiring twice-daily temperature checks for all their staff. Here in Japan, it was notable, within the broader community, that all public observances of the Emperor’s birthday and even the Tokyo Marathon were canceled (it is not yet clear what will happen with the Summer Olympics).

All of our major Asian Jewish communities – Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo – have been significantly impacted by the fear and, to a degree, panic engendered by the virus, and this has been most significant in Shanghai and Hong Kong.[1] China has been the hardest hit by the disease, and Shanghai, in reasonably close proximity to Wuhan, had a large number of cases early on. The very understandable fear of the new and unknown disease led many ex-patriots to the difficult decision to leave China. Those who stayed, in the words of one community member, went into “self-imposed quarantine.” People stay in their homes as much as possible, and when they leave, masks are an absolute requirement. Malls and shops require multiple temperature checks, and in many places, guests are not welcome. These and other safety regulations make community life nearly impossible. Some have participated in virtual Shabbat experiences (often including community members who have temporarily fled China). Others gather in small numbers for Shabbat dinner and respite from the fear and isolation. It is hoped that community members will return from abroad once the fear of contagion has passed.

Hong Kong has, of course, been hit twice, first by the protests and now by the Coronavirus. While some have temporarily left, Hong Kong’s Jewish community is far more stable than that of Shanghai. People are, for the most part staying home, and all of the schools, colleges, and universities (including Jewish day schools and supplementary synagogue schools) are closed until April 20. This, of course, is of great worry to the older teens, who are currently preparing to apply and enter university somewhere in the world. Hong Kong has also been hit by a shortage of masks, sanitizers, toilet paper, and cup noodles. While significant Jewish community family events, like the Purim Carnival, have been canceled, regular services and smaller adult education programs still continue. Foodservice on Shabbat, however, is quite a challenge. Apparently, everyone now gets their own set of serving utensils.

Here in Tokyo, despite the cruise ship quarantine, there has been a long period of relative calm, which suddenly in the last days has vanished into a sense of crisis in the Jewish and general communities. Even without reading or listening to the media, it would have been apparent. Up until this week, the streets have been full, though not with the usual mass of Chinese tourists, and the number of surgical masks was low, reflecting the beginnings of allergy season. Suddenly, over the last few days, the numbers of masks have grown exponentially. Today, I estimated that about 80% of people were wearing this sadly relatively useless form of protection. Notices from the international schools have also grown increasingly restrictive. This morning nearly all sports and interschool events were canceled. This was trumped tonight as it has now been announced that all schools (Japanese and International) will be closed until at least the end of March.

For our Jewish community, Jewish life is quickly being restricted to the home. Significant events like Purim have been canceled, as have Hebrew School and all synagogue programs. Our two big Pesach communal Sedarim are very iffy as of this moment, as the peak of the epidemic is expected at the end of March. We will still celebrate Shabbat, but I suspect few will brave the streets to come to Shul. The virus and its effects are like steam roller moving over all the Asian Jewish communities, one after another, snuffing out (hopefully only temporarily) all communal life, and restricting everyone to their own “self-imposed quarantine”.

As this crisis unfolds, we have to look to creative ways to build the connections so essential in times of stress and uncertainty. Social media is, to me, an unexpected comfort, allowing for people to touch base, and to create virtual spaces for community members young and old. Yet, Judaism is a visceral religion, and food plays a central role, especially during the Spring holidays of Purim and Pesach. It also can be of comfort during times of crisis. Our kitchen, therefore, will still be busy baking hamentashen, and cooking a variety of Pesach foods. These will be sent out to our community members. Instead, however, of enjoying them together in Shul. This year we will have to enjoy them together as a virtual community across Japan and throughout Asia.

[1] Please note that for the most part, I will discuss the effects on the non-Orthodox communities, as these are the ones with which I have direct contact.


About the Author
David serves as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and leads the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He also works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse." His interest in human diversity has also shaped his passion as a successful photographer
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