Asia’s popular Jewish corner

"One of the things I’m trying to do is connect the Jewish communities in Asia, these small pockets of Jewish life,” 'Asian Jewish Life' founder says.

The (other) Jewish corner of Asia 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The (other) Jewish corner of Asia 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With print journalism all but dead, and electronic journalism still experiencing considerable growing pains, starting a new media outlet may raise an eyebrow – but that’s exactly what Erica Lyons did in 2010.
The American-born, longtime resident of Hong Kong published Asian Jewish Life, a quarterly magazine with a 6,000 circulation distributed at Israeli embassies, on El Al flights and at Jewish institutions around the continent.
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Speaking on the sidelines of the ROI Young Leadership Summit in Jerusalem last week, she said the publication draws thousands more readers through its website each month.
“My mission statement is fairly broad, and maybe a bit ambitious, but one of the things I’m trying to do is connect the Jewish communities in Asia – these small pockets of Jewish life,” she said. “Your Jewish neighbors may be a country over, maybe two countries over, but we have community members who travel a lot and have shared histories.“ The territory her publication covers is tremendous, with nominal resources. To provide content for her magazine, she relies on a network of contributors.
“It’s kind of an emerging network of Asia-focused Israelis and Jews worldwide, and like any other network, once you to start speaking to one person, several names come out of that,” she said. “My writers are based in the US, and pretty much every country in Asia and Israel.”
Looking at the current state of Asian Jewry, Lyons said dual forces are at work: While some Jewish communities in the region have been shrinking for decades, others are growing rapidly – especially over the past decade.
“In India, people say it’s a dying community, but I don’t like the phrase ‘a dying community,’” Lyons explained. “Most of them are making aliya, others are going to the States. It is a real crisis for that community, and the best defense we really can have is another angle I’m taking with this magazine, [which is the] preservation of that history and culture. The other communities in Asia are very different. They’re expats.
They’re expats. For example, the community in Shanghai is very international: Israelis, Americans, British, French and they are going to grow.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Lyons said some of the most avid readers of Asian Jewish Life are not Jewish.
“In China, there’s never been a history of anti-Semitism, and there’s a real thirst for knowledge and information about Jewish history,” she said. “The magazine provides a good platform for that.”
Lyons said she hopes in the future to translate the magazine to Chinese, and to create a website in that language mirroring the existing one in English.
Another participant at the ROI summit whose interests lie in Asia is Rebecca Zeffert.
As the founder and executive director of The Israel- Asia Center, an Israeli nonprofit created in 2009, she works diligently to advance cooperation and understanding between the Jewish State and India, Southeast Asia and China.
“We have a website and newsletter providing news features and analysis on Israel-Asia affairs covering economic, foreign policy and cultural issues,” said the British-born Zeffert.
“We have all kinds of events in Israel, Asia and the US, [including] briefing seminars and panel discussions.”
Zeffert became captivated with Asia as a college student, where she studied Japanese and Mandarin. The idea for a center cultivating ties between Israel and Asia came from several similar institutes abroad, said Zeffert, who added that the center depends on donations from the US and Hong Kong – as well as the work of its 30 volunteer members.
This summer the organization will launch its latest initiative, The Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship, a program that will introduce Asian students to Israeli leaders in business, diplomacy, science and technology.
It will also create internships for them at local firms.
Zeffert encouraged Asian students currently in Israel, or those who will be studying here in the 2011-2012 academic year, to apply before the deadline in July 2011.