My Asian Adventure

image: Visit to Glazer Institute for Judaic Studies, University of Nanjing, from the left, Judaic scholar Xu Xin,  Kulanu board member Andria Spindel, Sandy Kashen and Professor Emeritus Hou Hanqliu

Visit to Glazer Institute for Judaic Studies, University of Nanjing,
from the left, Judaic scholar Xu Xin, Kulanu board member Andria Spindel,
Sandy Kashen and Professor Emeritus Hou Hanqliu

Last fall, I had business in Asia. As C.E.O. and President of March of Dimes Canada, I had been invited to participate in the International Symposium on Employment for Persons with Severe Disabilities in Seoul, Korea. As much as I looked forward to my trip to Korea, its proximity to China excited me even more. A stop off there would give me the opportunity to return to Nanjing, China, where in 1994, I had adopted my daughter, Mattea, and I would visit the historic Jewish community of Kaifeng. My itinerary would also include visits with Shi Lei, a travel agent and interpreter, who would plan my visit to Kaifeng and other former centers of Jewish life in China, and Professor Xu Xin of the Nanjing Jewish Studies Institute, both of whom I had hosted during their visits to a Jewish social service agency in Toronto.

As a board member for Kulanu, I had learned a great deal about the history of the Jewish community of Kaifeng and was privy to the work Kulanu was doing to support the Beth HaTikvah school where members of the community learn about their Jewish heritage. Prior to my tenure on the board, I did not think any remnants of the ancient community remained. Now, I would see the revival for myself, meet members of the community and report back to the board on my experience. My traveling companion during the trip was my friend and colleague Sandy Kashen, President and C.E.O. of Reena, a Jewish social agency in Toronto.

It was clear from the moment I landed that this visit would be in dramatic contrast to two earlier trips I had made in 1972 and 1973 during the rule of Chairman Mao Tse Tung, and the two weeks in 1994, when my focus was on the adoption process. I was not prepared for the extraordinary rate of economic development that I found. Surprises abounded everywhere I looked. While overwhelmed with China’s transformation, my ma-jor interest on this trip would be Jewish history and revival. My plans included visits to Harbin, Kaifeng, Nanjing and Shanghai, all historic destinations for Jewish settlement.

Prior to my departure, I was fortunate to have the encouragement and support of Kulanu founder Jack Zeller, who put me in touch with the small, but active community of Beth HaTikvah; Eric Rothberg, the school’s founder, who identified Wang Jiaxin, a member of the community, who had studied in Israel and spoke English, and Denise Yeh-Bresler, Kulanu’s Kaifeng coordinator. They had prepared me for my visit, but not for the enthusiastic welcome I received or the level of excitement and interest in their Jewish roots that I found among members of the community.


image: Museum display in Harbin

Museum display in Harbin
Photo by Andria Spindel

But let’s start at the beginning. My first stop was Harbin, a city known for the Russian Jews who immigrated there and made that city home. According to some historic accounts, some were sent by Czar Nicholas during a period of expansion in 1899, while others were Jews in flight from the violent anti-Semitic pogroms sweeping Russia in 1903. But whatever their origin, they found an environment devoid of anti-Semitism, a city in which their intellectual and creative gifts were appreciated.

In Harbin, Sandy and I visited both the famous cemetery of the Russian Jewish community, where former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s grandfather is buried, and toured the magnificent Harbin Synagogue, which now houses a museum. The 85-year-old building, once the biggest synagogue in the Far East, was restored with funds from American and Israeli Jews as well as a generous grant from the Provincial government of Hallongjiang and the Mu nicipality of Harbin.

The museum presents the story of Russian Jewish life in Harbin and the myriad contributions made by the Jews who made the city their home. In fields as diverse as agriculture, medicine and pharmacy, textiles and manufacturing, education and culture, Jews made their mark and helped turn Harbin into a thriving and vibrant center of education, industry and culture. It was obvious this small community of Russian Jews, which at its peak numbered only several thousand, had a great impact on the city. Today, they are all gone, having moved to the West or Israel at the time of the Japanese invasion of Northeast China in the 1930s and later with the establishment of Israel in 1948,


On September 29th, we flew to Kaifeng, arriving a little late for Shabbat dinner. The Beth HaTikvah community was waiting for us, with a feast of dishes prepared by members for their weekly Sabbath meal. The dinner was even more lavish than usual, we were told, as it was the end of Rosh Hashanah. Unfortunately, we came too late to participate in the service, which was conducted by a businessman/member of the community. We were greeted warmly, not as short term visitors, but like returning family. Although few spoke English, all wanted to be near us and to hear from us. The most significant moment came when we unpacked the student Torah that I had carried in a large, unwieldy suitcase throughout my trip. The scroll was a replica of a real Torah , with the text, a printed facsimile of a handwritten original. It was relatively small with a miniature breast plate, yad (hand=pointer) and other accessories. But this gift from Kulanu was received with joy by community members, who took turns holding it.

Following dinner there were prayers and Shabbat singing. Interestingly, we were able to view the missed service which had been recorded by a community camera and was replayed on a big screen in the second room of the apartment cum school. We were also able to see other material available to the community in its regular pursuit of Jewish learning.

After the presentation of the Torah , I spoke on behalf of Kulanu. I told them what a pleasure it was for me to be the bearer of the student Torah and expressed the hope that one day, as the community continues to thrive and reclaims its heritage, it would have the benefit of a real Torah . In addition, I urged them to join with other nascent or re-emerging Jewish communities around the world in support of each other and for the State of Israel.

It is not easy for me to describe how much commitment and joy I found among community members. Not all those present were Jews; some were spouses of Jewish descendants. But even spouses appeared interested and supportive of their partners. Happily, I also saw young people in attendance and was able to speak at length with one teenage girl about her aspirations.

image: Kaifeng community members gather at Beth HaTikvah school to welcome Andria Spindel, at left, and colleague Sandy Kashen

Kaifeng community members gather at Beth HaTikvah school
to welcome Andria Spindel, at left, and colleague Sandy Kashen

This 15-year-old, along with her peers, expressed her longing to be part of the Jewish world and her desire to meet other Jewish youth.

As Sandy and I both have experience with Jewish residential camping in Ontario, we pledged to look for sponsors and partners to support an invitation for four to six Beth HaTikvah teens to travel to Ontario in either the summer of 2012 or 2013 to attend a Jewish summer camp program.

While in Kaifeng, we also toured the Shi family museum, which houses some Jewish artifacts discovered in the Shi family burial ground, and wandered down the famous Teaching Torah Lane, the Jewish neighborhood of long ago which still bears its original name. The Lane is almost invisible from the street and empties into a local open air tea house. Although little remains of the illustrious history of Chinese Jewry, there were several emblems of Jewish institutions still visible. And one Jewish family still lives there.


From Kaifeng, Sandy and I flew to Nanjing to visit the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies, which takes up a complete floor in a modern university tower on the campus of Nanjing University. The Institute, which is part of the Foreign Studies Department, offers what I call a “holistic overview” of Jewish history, thought, literature and culture. Here the scholar, archivist, historian, storyteller, raconteur, tour guide, Judophile Xu Xin, presides over a small but eager student body. With his guidance, the students participate in many aspects of Jewish life and religion.

On entering the study hall, students are instructed on how to kiss the mezuzah . In a board style room, there is a full Aron Kodesh (holy ark), with a dressed kosher Torah . Throughout the area, there are display cases, showing the accoutrements of a Jewish home, from Shabbat candlesticks and challah (traditional Shabbat bread) knife to a shofar (ram’s horn) and tallit (prayer shawl). The departmental library is replete with literature by and about Jews. Surprisingly, the students are even encouraged to take on Hebrew names. And every holiday and festival is marked and celebrated. At the time of our visit, students had just experienced Rosh Hashanah. I forgot to ask if they would be fasting on Yom Kippur.

The visit with Professor Xu Xin was particularly special as he had fulfilled my request to locate and invite retired Professor Hou Hanqliu to the school during my visit. Professor Hou Hanqliu had been godfather to my daughter and was the person most responsible for arranging her adoption. And lo Hou was present and he looked marvellous and healthy at age 75. For this I was grateful.


The next day, Sandy and I arrived in Shanghai for the final leg of our journey. We visited the former Jewish ghetto where the Ohel Rachel Synagogue is located It was the house of worship for many of those Jews who found refuge during WWII, when Shanghai was one of the only places in the world to welcome Jews fleeing Europe’s Holocaust. The city remembers and honors the history of the Jews who came and lived there.


With only a week to cover four cities and several generations of Jewish life in China, we were elated that we were able to cover so much territory, meet so many wonderful people and have so many unique opportunities. We have to thank Kulanu and Shi Lei as well as all our kind and knowledgeable guides, the students at the Beth HaTikvah School and Professor Xu Xin for these rich experiences. We are eager to return. Next time, with my daughter.