In 1951 her father died and then in 1955 her mother also passed. Thus, Betty, at 14, and her sister, at 9, were left all alone.
“Luckily, the Jewish community took us in. Mr. Levine and his wife took good care of my sister and me. We would always go to their home, celebrate Shabbat, all the Jewish holidays. I remember eating matzah. Mr. Levine used to bring us to his office and since no one was able to take care of us, he did. What a generous and kind man. When Mr. Levine left, celebrating those Jewish rituals ceased since it wasn’t possible to carry them out.”
Today, Betty unfortunately suffers from hypertension and eye trouble. Though she has a hard time caring for herself, but short of a visit from her younger sister who resides in Australia, she does not see much of her family.
Pasha, on the other hand, was born in 1939 to a Jewish father who had fled Siberia and, like Betty, to a Chinese mother. Her father passed away in 1956 when she was 16 years old. She recalls, “Thanks to Mr. Levine who was the community leader, we were really cared for and they ensured we had everything we needed.”
Pasha discussed education with me at length and she mentioned how the Jewish community poured resources into guaranteeing her attendance at a very good school.
“I received a better education as the Jewish leaders in the community showed a lot of concern for me. I suffered from tuberculosis as a child and they cured me with medicine. They used to also give my family money for coal, milk, and other necessities,” she said. “After the war, when everyone started to leave, I was very eager to get away from China but unfortunately it was impossible.”
“Since I couldn’t leave, at the age of 14, I started to study Chinese,” Pasha continued. “I could speak a little bit of Hebrew too and I would follow prayers when attending services at the synagogue. I could recite the bible – I loved it. As I was very diligent and loved to study, the Jewish community paid my tuition to attend the Shanghai Private Business College.”
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On the way home from my visit with Betty and Pasha, I realized that since the start of my work as a JDC Entwine volunteer, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have witnessed firsthand the contribution of Jews and the Jewish people in diverse communities that are worlds apart. I have met people who are part of history and those that are changing the future, like Dr. Rick Hodes in Ethiopia.
Now in my second year of service in Shanghai, sitting for an afternoon with two women whose lives have been inextricably tied up with history, the Jewish experience, and the caring hand of Jews around the world, I understood for the first time the dictum, kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. Pasha and Betty attest to the fact of the importance of each individual in our tradition; though time and place might have separated them from community, they were not forgotten.
Perhaps a little trite, but true, this encounter impacted me more than any other experience I have had in Shanghai – experiences that included a visit to the wonderful Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum or to the historic and awe-inspiring Ohel Moshe Synagogue or helping to organize the recent Destination Shanghai gathering that included more than 150 Jews celebrating emerging Jewish life in Asia. It somehow tied it all together for me.
Needless to say, these last two years have changed my life. My professional trajectory went from attending medical school to observing and helping Jewish and non-Jewish communities around the world with an organization recalled by many with pride, the Joint. That legacy, and my own contribution, is not just the stuff of dusty history books and twenty-something wanderlust. It’s a palpable responsibility to building, with my own hands, the future for a people that, however far apart, always seem to find one another. And in Jewish geography, that means I win.
Thank you to Betty and Pasha for sharing an afternoon and your stories.
Shaun Goldstone spent thirteen months in Ethiopia in the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corp and most recently was awarded JDC’s Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship in international Jewish service where he served in St. Petersburg and Shanghai, and will soon be heading to the Baltics to engage further in Jewish community development work.
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