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Reflections on the JFNA/KDS Mission to China

My wife Benita and I had never been to China, so when the opportunity came up to visit there on the JFNA/KDS Mission from March 8th-17th, we were very excited to see a new part of the world.

We began our tour with a pre-mission in Xian, where we had a Shabbat dinner at the hotel, which was certainly different than a Shabbat dinner in Los Angeles.

The next day we visited the famous Terracotta Warrior Museum Complex, which was simply amazing. Later in the day we had an interesting lesson on calligraphy at the Quijiang Museum of Fine Arts.

When we arrived in Beijing, we met Federation donors from New York City, Miami, New Jersey and other parts of the country. We were the only West Coast participants. We were very well-received, played Jewish geography and felt a part of the group immediately. The Jewish community in Beijing is very small, about 500 people total, so our group of 70 increased the Jewish presence there during our mission!

Our first excursion was to Beijing’s Chabad House. The rabbinitz runs both a kosher restaurant and a Jewish day school that goes up to 6th or 7th grade depending upon the population need. Some of the students, for sure the rabbinitz’s children, go off to Israel for secondary school.

During our stay we saw Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We of course got to see and climb the Great Wall of China too, which was quite amazing, and a completely different experience from being at the Western Wall in Israel. We also had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres with the U.S. Ambassador to China at his embassy home in Beijing and had a rare briefing with the President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. This trip really gave us access to places and people that normally we wouldn’t be able to experience.

We flew to Shanghai and went to Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which was built by Sir Jacob Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew, in memory of his wife Rachel. The first of seven synagogues built in Shanghai, the synagogue is now government controlled and is open only a few Shabbats a year. We participated in a Modern Orthodox Shabbat service—very different from my own reform upbringing—with 70 people from our trip and over a hundred Shanghai Jews, mostly expats from the U.S. and United Kingdom. After the service, the room was converted into a dining room. I was pleasantly surprised to talk to a young man who grew up in Beverly Hills and is now living in Shanghai with his wife.

While in Shanghai, we met with several young people running Moishe Houses in Beijing and Shanghai. Through social networking, they attract other Jewish young professionals to numerous events, including lectures and games held at the house each month. Moishe House is a fantastic resource for expats without family in the city—the Moishe House becomes their family.

Shanghai’s Bund riverfront was breathtaking and a definite highlight of the mission. Each building is illuminated with neon lights. There we had a very brief Havdallah during a cocktail cruise on the Huangpu River.

Jewish history in China is interesting. It began with Jewish merchants who emigrated from Persia along the Silk Road in the 8th century. In the 19th century, Iraqi Jews found trading success in Hong Kong.  The Russians came near the end of the 19th century, escaping the pogroms. They built Shanghai’s Ohel Moshe Synagogue in 1927, which we were able to visit. And after Kristellnacht, many German Jews immigrated to Shanghai fleeing the Nazi regime. During the 1940s, there were 18,000 Germans living in a ghetto in Shanghai and 8,000 of them were being fed daily—by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). We toured a museum depicting their history and honoring them.

We extended our trip with some of the other participants so we could see Hong Kong, which one of our fellow travelers described as “New York on steroids.” There are approximately 3,000-5,000 Jewish people living in Hong Kong. We visited a Jewish day school with a very vigorous curriculum—by the time they finish school, each student speaks at least four languages. The principal, who was trained as a lawyer, is doing a great job. We also spent some time inside Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah, a stunning Sephardic synagogue that holds 22 beautiful torahs.

As much as we enjoyed China, it is a challenging place to live—the censorship is oppressive. On more than one occasion we wanted to look something up on Google, but that was not possible since it is blocked. One morning Benita was watching CNN, and when the commentator was transitioning to the next story by saying, “in China…” the screen went blank until that story was completed. The public in China never saw or heard that story. The freedoms we take for granted were not available.

As a Jew traveling around the world, you’re always interested in what’s going on with the local Jews wherever you happen to be. This trip made me more aware of the Jewish connections to China and I’m grateful for the experience.  Interestingly, anti -Semitism does not exist in China—and China appears to be a friend of Israel.

Bert Ginsberg has been involved with Jewish Federation Los Angeles for many years. He and his wife Benita are members of the King David Society, which means they made a minimum gift of $25,000 to our Federation’s Annual Campaign.

For more information on our Federation’s Missions, please contact John Magoulas at (323) 761-8021 or JMagoulas@JewishLA.org.

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