The conference ably and professionally organized by the UHC (United Hebrew Congregation of Singapore) highlighted and celebrated both Asia’s diverse communities and twenty-five years of Progressive Judaism in Singapore. From the opening at Singapore’s Old Parliament building (now Art House) to the concluding Gala at the American Club, we experienced a warm Singapore welcome, as we interacted with Jews from across Asia, and indeed from across the globe.
Though they have ambitious plans for the future, the UHC currently is housed in a small office. While just large enough for their normal Thursday morning minyan (though not when joined by conference attendees from across Asia), all other services are held at a variety of venues, from The Dutch and American Clubs, to homes and hotels. Nearly all of these were on show during the weekend. Despite their ad hoc nature, members of the UHC made their disparate venues, sites of truly upliftingly Jewish experiences.
At the opening Simone Halperin, the Israeli Ambassador, shared her commitment to Jewish diversity. She called on us to build a strong Progressive Jewish community in Asia, which welcomes diverse Jews and works to create a commitment both to Jewish life and to the Jewish people. The interfaith presence at the opening was also a telling reminder of the religious diversity that is found all across Asia. Rabbi Nathan Alfred of the UHC has worked to create good relations between traditions, providing an important model for the rest of Asia and indeed the entire world.
The conference sessions themselves were held at the Dutch Club. The four exciting panels examined nearly all of Asia’s diverse Progressive Jewish Communities. Many of Asia’s communities are comprised largely of expats. Some communities, like Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo are long established fully functioning expat synagogue communities with rabbinic leadership, while others like Beijing, Shanghai, Bali and Bangkok are still largely lay led. The Korean and Vietnamese communities, on the other hand, are much smaller. These communities are slowly coalescing, deciding how they wish to function, while very isolated and distant from the larger communities and existing rabbinic leadership. Despite these differences there are many similarities between these expat communities including a younger demographic, and an openness to diverse streams of Jewish life. Many also face challenges both in legality of the practice of Judaism (or any religion) and cultural differences within their countries.
Yet, expat Jewish life is neither the only nor indeed the oldest expression of Progressive Jewish life in Asia. Asia’s oldest communities, represented at the Summit, were Myanmar and Mumbai. Both communities have a long history of Jewish continuity. While, however, the Myanmar community stems from colonial times, the Mumbai community is ancient, with roots in early migrations of Jews to the east. The Progressive community, drawing from this ancient population, has its roots in the early twentieth century. Like other Asian communities, isolation poses a great challenge to Myanmar and Mumbai, while they also face the challenge of dwindling populations.
Asia is also the home to at least two re-emerging Jewish communities. Members of these communities are rediscovering their Jewish ancestry after decades, or even centuries of loss. Members of United Indonesian Jewish Community claim descent from at least four distinct Jewish communities (Netherlands, Spanish Conversos, Baghdadi Jews, and the ten lost tribes). Together they are creating a vibrant new united Jewish community. The speaker from the Kaifeng community presented a very different picture. China’s Kaifeng Jewish community is ancient, there before Christian Missionaries or even Marco Polo. Indeed, its synagogue still stood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, after persecution and suppression little is left. Yet, there are still individuals that wish to reclaim their religious heritage.
All in all, twenty-four speakers shared their stories and experiences. Some, like Stan Zamek were rabbis who now lead Asian communities, while others were lay leaders, like Philip Rosenfeld, with long years in one of the Asian expat communities. Ben Meijer, of the UIJC shared his excitement at building a community which spans Indonesia, while David Li Wei shared the challenges of reviving the Kaifeng community. Two young speakers, Charlotte Leong (Hong Kong) and Souks Soukhaseum (Queens, NY) movingly shared their experiences living simultaneously as Asians and as Jews. Each panel also included a prominent academic, who helped lend a theoretical basis within which to situate our discussions.
While the conference itself ended Friday afternoon, Shabbat, celebrated together by Jews from across Asia was unforgettable. The wide-ranging talent of cantors from Bali (Dan Kohane), Hong Kong (Ayal Ben Or), Melbourne (Vered Harel) joined with musicians under the direction of UHC’s Gabriel Szulanski to creat uplifting services and musical experiences throughout Shabbat. Inspiring sermons, especially by Rabbi Alfred, on Friday night also challenged us to think about what it truly means to be part of Asian Progressive Judaism.
The weekend concluded with the Gala celebrating the UHC’s first twenty-five years. Conference attendees joined with UHC members to celebrate this major milestone and to look to the future. Perhaps the climax of the gala was the sight of current rabbi Nathan Alfred hoisted on a chair next to emeritus rabbi Lennard Thal, bringing the past and present together with a view to the future. The Gala certainly set the stage for the UHC to go from strength to strength.
It is clear that Conference Committee members Rabbi Alfred, Stefanie Green, Yoni Rahamim and Alice Teo together created a most successful and important conference. They set a high bar to follow for our next annual summit to be held in Hong Kong in 2020.
On Sunday many of the Asian leaders gathered together under the auspices of the JDC to discuss how to strengthen the Asian Progressive Community. Be on the lookout for exciting new programming which stems from these discussions. JDC provided important input and resources to enable us to look with confidence to the future.