When Sophie Rosen celebrated her bat mitzva this past August, she made history.
The 12-year-old American expatriate, dressed in a traditional Chinese qipao, stepped to the front of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, and became the first girl ever to mark her bat mitzva there.
She was also the first person in 60 years, of either sex, to celebrate this Jewish rite of passage in the 83-year-old building.
A job opportunity for her father, Monte Rosen, brought Sophie and her family to Shanghai from Seattle, Wash., about eight years ago. At first, the Rosens planned on staying in China for only a couple of years, but they found both a welcoming Jewish community, and meaningful work, which they do not want to leave behind.
“We moved to Shanghai with nothing but suitcases,” said Sophie’s mother, Shari Rosen, who came to Pittsburgh this week visiting her mother, Edna Diamond, who resides at Concordia of the South Hills. No longer transients, the Rosens have established Shanghai’s first program to provide support services for international special needs kids, and have connected with a Chabad community of “several hundred families.”
Jews have a long, storied history in Shanghai, dating back to the mid-19th century, when it became a destination for Sephardic Jewish traders and refugees from Czarist Russia. By the mid 1940s, Shanghai’s Jewish community numbered over 30,000, as the city provided a safe haven for refugees from Hitler’s Europe. But when civil war enveloped China, its Jewish refugees fled again. By the end of the 1950s, most of Shanghai’s synagogues were closed, and most of its Jews gone.
A Jewish resurgence, of sorts, has taken place, and in the last 20 years, and the number of Jews in Shanghai has grown from fewer than 100 to about 1,500.
Sophie’s parents come from Conservative and Reform backgrounds, but did not seek out a Jewish life in Shanghai until prompted to by their daughter.
“About four years ago, Sophie started questioning her religion with us,” said Shari.
Because there were few school options for international students where the Rosens lived, Sophie and her brother, Henry, attended the Concordia Lutheran School, where the Lutheran religion is taught as part of the curriculum.
“We sent our kids there because it was a good school,” Shari said. “There was a mix of families there, but there were also religion classes. When it came time for Christmas and Easter, it was over the top. Sophie was confused, and started having questions about Judaism.”
Feeling the need to reconnect with their Jewish roots, the Rosen family decided to try a barbecue event at Chabad. Soon, both children were attending Hebrew school at Chabad’s Shanghai Jewish Center, and meeting other Jewish kids.
As Sophie approached her 12th birthday, the Rosens, in consultation with Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, and his wife, Dina, directors of the Shanghai Jewish Center, began planning her bat mitzva. Greenberg suggested having it at Ohel Moshe, a congregation established in 1907, and moved to its current location in 1927.
Although most synagogues were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Ohel Moshe had been spared. It was used for many years as a school, and then in the 1990s, was transformed into the Jewish Refugees Museum. As the Museum, it has been open to the Jewish community for special events.
Sophie’s bat mitzva was held on a Thursday evening. Because of the Chabad prohibition against women reading from the Torah, the celebration consisted of a few prayers, candle lighting, some speeches, and a party following the service. Because Ohel Moshe was built before women began having bat mitzvas, Sophie’s celebration was the very first of its kind to take place in the historic building.
“There were not a lot of prayers,” said Shari, “but there was a lot of spirituality. I wanted her to feel in her bones that she is a Jew. And she did. She felt like, ‘I am a Jewish girl.’”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)