When Jennifer Holstein arrived in Beijing as a wide-eyed high schooler, the Potomac native had no community to turn to. The then-16 year old had accepted a scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth to study Chinese.
But Holstein, who grew up attending Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, was arriving in China without parents or friends. It was a disorienting experience. She struggled for somewhere to fit in. Then one of her classmates told her about a Passover seder.
Holstein said she walked into the community room of around 100 fellow foreign Jews, and found the atmosphere “incredible.”
“I was just absolutely blown away by the presence of this Jewish community,” Holstein said. “Everybody was so friendly and open. You just immediately felt like you were at home.
“The support and community that they offered really made a difference for me that year and it was probably the thing that helped me turn the entire year into a really positive and great experience,” she added.
Holstein spent the next few years going back and forth between Beijing and Maryland. Now 26, she moved back to Beijing to work for Pingo Space, an educational institution for Chinese students aged 6 to 12. She said she also become one of the leaders of a tight-knit group of Jewish expatriates in Beijing.
Holstein said she helps find venues to hold Shabbat dinners, throws holiday parties and reaches out to people who are interested in being part of Jewish life in Beijing.
There are perhaps 2,000 Jews living in the Chinese capital, a city of some 17 million, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. An organized Jewish community began about 40 years ago, when American businesswoman Roberta Lipson moved to Beijing and established Kehilat Beijing, a Reform synagogue, according to the Jerusalem Post. Chabad came to the city in 2001.
Holstein said many of the expats are “regular, average” Jews who came to teach, work at the American or Israeli embassies, or run businesses.
“But regardless of background, everybody is just chatting and sharing a laugh over a glass of wine,” said Holstein, referring to their usual get-togethers.
The community relies on the effort of its members, Holstein said. Lipson, who started the Chinese hospital company United Family Healthcare and become its CEO, bakes on Friday mornings.
When COVID restrictions tighten, members of the community will host services at home or over Zoom.
Holstein said having people like them is important both emotionally and mentally, especially during the pandemic.
“It’s crucial,” Holstein said. “It’s absolutely essential to most people’s lives here. It’s sometimes their closest social circle.
Many people, Holstein said, are close friends with each other both inside and outside of the community. This is where members find a lot of their social interaction.
“It’s just a point of sanity for some people,” Holstein said. “It really helps ground them and connect them to their roots in a community that really cares, especially during the times of COVID.”