Rabbis often assume pulpits far from home. Rabbi Sara Rae Perman went 7,300 miles. Weeks ago the Greensburg resident and rabbi emerita of Congregation Emanu-El Israel returned from officiating high holiday services and a b’nai mitzvah ceremony in Shanghai, China.
Serving congregation Kehilat Shanghai wasn’t necessarily on Perman’s map. She discovered the gig through social media after a colleague, who helped the progressive community in Shanghai earlier this year, inquired whether anyone was interested in guiding the group through the Jewish holidays.
“I responded yes. He put me in touch with the president of the congregation, and as they say, the rest is history,” said Perman.
During her three-week stay, Perman aided the progressive congregation by delivering sermons, leading services and helping its religious school. Through those experiences, Perman gained insight into the community’s history and its modern-day struggles.
“As a rabbi, I want to increase people’s commitment and involvement in Jewish community, and so it was sort of frustrating initially to realize that they don’t have regular Friday night services, and Rosh Hashanah, because it was on a weekday and it happened to be a national Chinese holiday — it was their celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party coming to power in China — the turnout was very small. There were maybe 40 people for Rosh Hashanah,” said Perman.
However, after learning more about the community, Perman’s appreciation grew. Government restrictions preclude freedoms afforded in the United States, she explained. As stated on the congregation’s website: “Please note that due to Chinese regulations, Kehilat Shanghai events and activities are available only for foreign passport holders and their families.”
“When I think about how easy it would be to just disappear into that community, and not have any sense of Jewish identity, what changed my view is to see that they really want to have a sense of the Jewish community,” said Perman.
Although the congregation lacks a full-time rabbi, regular services and a permanent home, it possesses a coordinator, Torah, ark, prayer shawls, several shofars and a religious school with nearly 50 students. Some parents even send their children to Jewish summer camps in the States, explained Perman.
“There is a commitment. They want a Jewish community and want a Jewish life,” she said. How that desire functionally manifests itself, however, was instructive, noted the rabbi.
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, services were held at Millenium Shanghai Hotel (Honqiao), then the following morning at Ohel Moshe Synagogue (Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum), a venue erected by Russian Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.
Throughout the morning prayers, “because it is a museum, people are walking through, even while you’re doing services, or they were up in the balcony shooting videos or watching what was going on, so it was a little different experience.”
For Tashlich, Perman was joined by only five other individuals.
“It had to be sort of on the slide because we were in public and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves for doing a worship service,” she said. “It was explained to me that they don’t want to see anything over or above the Chinese Communist Party, and in Judaism God would be above the Chinese Communist Party.”
On Yom Kippur, both evening and daytime services were held back in the hotel. Reciting the “Unetanneh Tokef” liturgy, was particularly moving, as the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway were brought back to mind, explained the rabbi.
Perman harnessed those feelings and recalled the events of Oct. 27, 2018, and their global implications, during a community b’nai mitzvah ceremony days later.
In a message to the five celebrating students, Perman said: “Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is not just about the service and being part of the community here. You’re part of the world community, and this is your connection to the world as well, you’re part of what happened in Pittsburgh, too.”
Along with more than 700 photos on her phone detailing visits to Shanghai, Beijing and the Great Wall of China, Perman returned home with several momentos, including yarmulkes from the congregation, scarves, a mahjong set, tea, chopsticks from the Moishe House in Shanghai, T-shirts and insights regarding the congregation’s menu.
“I ate bagels, cream cheese and lox five times,” said Perman. “And I ate kasha varnishkes.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.