Joy Katzen-Guthrie's China Heritage Tours
TOUR RETROSPECTIVES by Joy Katzen-Guthrie
April/May 2001 Chai China Heritage Tour Group rubs the belly of the Buddha for good luck.
Photo ©2001 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie. All rights reserved.
Click to link directly:
June 2000 Tour Retrospective
March 2001: Transformative Tour Of Jewish China Inspires Inward As Well As Outward Discovery
May 2002: Amidst Growing European Anti-Semitism, China's Jewish Communities Enjoy Continuing Respect
A TOUR RETROSPECTIVE
It it said that it is good luck to rub the belly of the Happy Buddha. Our tour of China was filled with good luck and good will, and I am pleased to share with you photographs and a retrospective from our first Jewish Heritage Tour of China. It was an extraordinary experience from which I returned in June, an amazing fourteen days traveling through Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, Shanghai, and Suzhou. Two thousand, two hundred twenty-five pictures ... 91 rolls of film. These wonderful pictures capture some of the indescribable and amazing sights and experiences we shared.
Back in January 2001 when Regent China Tours asked me to create these Jewish Heritage Tours, I began researching the complete history of Jews in China. While I had been familiar with some of the history, I was astounded to discover that there was much more to the story than I ever imagined ... a possibility of the Lost Israelite Tribes having found their way to China, of Jews on the Silk Road and flourishing communities of Jews within the kingdom from the 8th through the 18th centuries, and the story of the port of Shanghai and the amazing tales of the Jews who inhabited, built, and found safe haven in that city. It is the story of two peoples who have so much in common, and so much that is different. Even most Jews have no idea of the relationship between the Jews and the Chinese over the past two millennia. It is a story so exotic by Western standards that it is difficult to believe. It is the story of people of totally different cultures who have lived together peacefully, without a known incident of persecution or prejudice for at least a thousand years.
Our tour began with our arrival into Beijing and a Sabbath service that first evening with Kehillat Beijing, the Jewish community. Numbering about 200 Jews, the community meets regularly for services and special events in a beautiful historic hotel with a lovely ballroom. At the center of the stage is their "Rabbinate Cabinet," a large mahogany chest that holds their Torah and stores their prayer books and other religious materials when not in use. As it happened, our first night in China was the first night of Shavuot, the celebration of God's gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai to Moses and the Jewish people. I had been in touch with the group months before arriving, and they had requested that I lead the congregation in worship that night, provide the music for the service, and present a special program of music also, including chanted excerpts from the Book of Ruth. It was so fitting while in China to comment upon the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism and who eventually married a judge of Israel, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. The author of the story of Ruth tells us that God does not judge one person as better than another, that human love is able to bridge the shallow differences of nationality, and that true faith is a matter of heart, not of race. The relationship between the Chinese and Jews is a beautiful example of humanity looking beyond differences to find what we have in common. For me, it was an opportunity to express thanks to the Chinese for offering a home of freedom and prosperity to the Jews for centuries without malice toward their differing nationality, customs, or beliefs.
Jews arrived to China by way of the Silk Road, entering through Xi'an, then the largest city in the world and capital of China for 11 dynasties, with an estimated 2 million inhabitants by the 7th century. Xi'an was the 2nd city we visited on our tour. There we crossed the centuries-old moat and walked along the massive wall into which travelers entered the city. Silk exports reached as far as Rome, where they became an extremely highly valued commodity. This may explain how many Jewish traders came to know of and yearn to travel on the Silk Road. Wherever Moslem traders lived, one could find Jewish communities. And so it was in this bustling city, which is still home to an extensive and thriving Moslem community. In the hills surrounding Xi'an, the Terra-Cotta Warriors were discovered, another of the highlights of our tour.
An inscription on a Chinese synagogue stone in Kaifeng notes that Jews were ordered by the emperor to settle in China and to "keep and follow the customs of your forefathers." As my tour group stood in the indescribable expanse and beauty of the Forbidden City, viewing the power and vision of this country's rulers, I tried to imagine the awe of Jewish traders upon meeting the emperor. Those Jewish traders had brought cotton fabric and seeds into China. The emperor thanked them personally for their contribution to the country and invited them to stay and settle, not as foreigners, but as Chinese citizens, using Chinese surnames that he created specifically for them.
On Shabbat afternoon in Beijing, our group stood upon the incredible expanse of China's Great Wall, contemplating the vision of the emperors who built this architectural masterpiece. They were the same emperors who encouraged the Jewish settlers to flourish in the Middle Kingdom, as it was then known. On the Wall, we shared wine and challah (bread), the challah having been baked especially for us and given as a gift by the Beijing Jewish community. Together we recited Shehechiyanu ... our thanks to the Source of Life who has sustained us, kept us, and brought us to this day ... and our thanks to the emperors and the people who honored us in China.
In the late 1800's, Jews moved to Shanghai in great numbers. Wealthy Jewish families purchased large amounts of real estate, changing the face of the city. Joining them in far greater numbers were poverty-stricken Jews from Czarist lands fleeing persecution. As a result of their own persecution, the Chinese felt a deep respect, sympathy, and support for the Jewish people. In May 1933, Madame Sun Yat-sen headed a delegation from China that included all the important leaders of the China League for Civil Rights, which met with the German Consul in Shanghai to lodge a strong protest against Nazi atrocities in Germany. Throughout the 30's, Shanghai was the center of numerous protests against the treatment of Jews in Europe.
Walking the streets of the Hongkew Ghetto, home of those refugees during the Holocaust years, was a surreal experience. This part of the world is like none other. The buildings are a mixture of European and Chinese design, and the feeling of the area today is remarkably close to its aura during the 1930's and 1940's, even without the presence of thousands of European Jews. Buildings in which Jews lived and operated businesses still exist. Once dubbed Little Vienna because of the thriving presence of so many Jewish restaurants, stores, newspapers, theaters, and activities, these streets feel the same in many ways. A one-square-mile area, it was populated during the Holocaust years by some 100,000 Chinese and 20,000 Jews who lived and worked side by side and who cared for one another as best they could through the rampant poverty, overcrowding, bombing of the city by American forces and destruction of the Japanese during their occupation. Today, this densely populated community reverberates with the noises, smells, and sights of the free market, the many vendors and shops, and the voices of people from around the world mingling with the Chinese.
Relations between the Jews and people of China have never ceased. China and Israel established formal relations in January 1992. Our Shabbat service and dinner in Beijing were graciously attended by the first Ambassador to Israel from China and his wife, Mr. And Mrs. Lin, who had served in Tel Aviv from 1992 to 1995, and with whom we enjoyed a conversation during dinner. China remains one of the only nations in the world that does not have a history of persecuting the Jews for their beliefs. I greatly look forward to my return next year and hope to be able to say that the relationship between the Chinese and Jewish people continues to grow brighter in love and understanding of one another through the approaching decades.
TRANSFORMATIVE TOUR OF JEWISH CHINA INSPIRES INWARD
AS WELL AS OUTWARD DISCOVERY
by Joy Katzen-Guthrie
reprinted in Sino-Judaic Institute newsletter March 2001 and Igud Yotzei Sin Bulletin March-April 2001
Like many Westerners, I had little knowledge of China other than basic historic facts and images in my mind of exotic temples and the Great Wall. An extraordinary possibility of leading a tour to China -- a Jewish Heritage Tour, no less -- came as a complete surprise. It would be a mystical journey from the outset, beginning with the discovery of the Jewish connection to China, leading to an amazing fourteen days traveling through Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, Shanghai, and Suzhou, as well as a series of Jewish Heritage Tours to China that will continue in 2001. Who could have known that this opportunity, falling so unexpectedly into my life, would be a life-changing experience and a means of discovering how people overcome seemingly unbreakable barriers to create lifelong friendships?
Only last January, I received a call from Steve Levin of Regent China Tours, asking if I would consider creating and leading a Jewish Heritage Tour of China. I initially was intrigued -- but bewildered. My work involves songwriting, recording, and cantorial singing, combined with a love of history and storytelling that I weave into my performances. I was aware of a community of Jews that had existed in China, and I offered to research the subject, but as I said so, I wondered whether I would find more than ten lines on the subject. And how would I find a way to combine such a tour with my work as a performance artist?
Nothing could have prepared me for the astounding stories of the Asian Jews or my immediate and intense desire to see the China. As a result of that first tour and my now frequent lectures on the subject of the Jews of China, as well as my extensive website on Jewish-Chinese history (www.joyfulnoise.net), I have received hundreds of calls and e-mails from potential travelers for future tours or from those who are interested in the subject. Some lived in China during the Holocaust or have family members who did. Many are thrilled at the possibility of returning to see the country today and sharing their appreciation for the Chinese. Others have always wanted to see China and are intrigued at the thought of experiencing it from a Jewish perspective.
And there have been completely unexpected responses, including correspondence from a number of Jews who have adopted Chinese children and wish to return to China with them. I had no idea that Chinese children are among the largest number worldwide being adopted by Jewish parents. China's adoption policy favors older parents, who are often turned away from U.S. adoptions, and in China, adoption is immediate and final, making it a much more viable alternative for many. It has been heartwarming for me to put these individuals in touch with one another and to discover a world of Jewish-Chinese families who desire that their adopted children retain a connection to their homeland in addition to their new Jewish-American culture.
Even many Jews do not know of the centuries-long presence of Jews in China, their common cultural and philosophical themes, as well as their harmonious co-existence for well over a millennium. For thousands of years, traders, adventurers, and refugees traveled the 5,000-mile Silk Road between the Mediterranean and China or rode ship into Chinese ports. While many historians believe that Lost Israelite Tribes found their way to China as early as the 3rd century BCE, tangible evidence of the presence of Jews in the Middle Kingdom (as it was then known) can be traced to the 8th century. Today hundreds of Chinese claim to descend from those Jews.
Sephardic Jewish entrepreneurs from East Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Ashkenazic Jews fleeing persecution in Russia, Poland, and the Baltic States, built a flourishing presence in Shanghai and other Chinese port and border cities. Adding to their numbers during the 1930's were approximately 20,000 Jews from Nazi Germany, Austria, and Nazi-occupied countries who found shelter in Shanghai, the only city in the world that accepted them without a visa or passport. The "stateless" refugees who left Germany and Austria with their citizenship having been revoked by the Nazis formed a thriving ghetto community that came to be known as "Little Vienna." Until 1940, it was still possible for Jews to reach China. After that, the application of the Nazi Final Solution prevented them from escaping Europe.
The Chinese felt a bond with these Jews, identifying with their suffering as a result of the Japanese occupation of China and the terror of persecution from warring tribes throughout their history. Though monotheism was unusual to them, they welcomed Jews with open arms and encouraged them to settle and honor their ancestry. China is one of the only places on the planet in which Jews are not known to have been persecuted for their faith. From a 10th-century Northern Sung Dynasty emperor who honored Jewish traders and invited them to settle in Kaifeng, to a 1933 delegation of Chinese civil rights leaders led by Madame Sun Yat-Sen to lodge a protest against Nazi atrocities in Germany, the Chinese have welcomed and supported Jews.
Our tour began in Beijing with a Shabbat (Sabbath) service with Kehillat Beijing, the Jewish community. Numbering about 200, the community meets regularly for services and special events in a beautiful historic hotel ballroom. At the center of the stage is their "Rabbinate Cabinet," a large mahogany chest that holds their Torah and stores their prayer books and other religious materials when not in use. As it happened, our first night in China was the beginning of Shavuot, the celebration of God's gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The community had requested I lead the congregation in worship that night, provide the music for the service, and present a special program of music that would include chanted excerpts from the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot. It was awe-inspiring for me while in China to comment upon the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism, married a judge of Israel, and would become great-grandmother to King David. The author of the story of Ruth tells us that human love is able to bridge the shallow differences of nationality and that true faith is a matter of heart, not of race. The relationship between the Chinese and Jews is a beautiful example of humanity looking beyond differences to discover what we have in common. China and Israel established formal relations in 1992. Our Shabbat service and dinner in Beijing were graciously attended by the first Ambassador to Israel from China and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Lin, who served in Tel Aviv from 1992 to 1995.
The entrance into China by way of the Silk Road was through Xi'an, then the largest city in the world and capital of China for 11 dynasties, with an estimated 2 million people by the 7th century. In Xi'an, the 2nd city we visited on our tour, we crossed the centuries-old moat and climbed the massive wall through which travelers entered the city. Silk exports reached as far as Rome, where they became a highly valued commodity. This may explain how many Jewish traders came to know of and yearn to travel the Silk Road. Wherever Moslem traders lived, one could find Jewish communities. And so it was in this bustling city, still home to an extensive Moslem community. In the hills surrounding Xi'an lay the Terra-Cotta Warriors, another of the highlights of our tour.
An inscription on a Chinese synagogue stone in Kaifeng, the location of China's central Jewish community for more than ten centuries, notes that Jews were invited by the emperor to settle in the kingdom and to "keep and follow the customs of your forefathers." Standing in the indescribable expanse and beauty of the Forbidden City, viewing the power and vision of this country's rulers, I tried to imagine the awe of Jewish traders upon seeing the vast beauty and wealth of China's cities. Jewish traders had brought cotton fabric and seeds into China. The emperor thanked them personally for their contribution to the country and invited them to stay and settle, not as foreigners, but as citizens, giving them their own Chinese surnames. And so it was that the Jews came to live in Kaifeng.
On Shabbat afternoon in Beijing, our group stood upon the incredible expanse of China's Great Wall. The Ming emperors who built this architectural masterpiece also encouraged Jewish settlers to flourish in the Middle Kingdom. On the Great Wall, we shared wine and challah (bread) that had been baked especially for us and given as a gift by the Beijing Jewish community. Together we recited Shehechiyanu -- our thanks to the Source of Life who has sustained us and brought us to this day -- and our thanks to the emperors and the people who honored us in China.
In the mid 1800's, Jews began moving to Shanghai in great numbers. Wealthy Jews from Cairo, Baghdad, and Bombay purchased and developed large tracts of real estate, dramatically changing the face of the city. Joining them at the turn of the century in far greater numbers were poverty-stricken Jews from Czarist lands fleeing persecution. Two decades later, thousands began arriving from Nazi Germany and Austria. These three Jewish cultures created thriving communities with scores of businesses, theatres, newspapers, and social activities. Walking the streets of the Hongkou Ghetto - home to those refugees during the Holocaust years - was surreal. This part of the world is like none other. The buildings are a mixture of European and Chinese design. The feeling of the area today is remarkably close to its aura during the 1930's and 1940's, even without the presence of thousands of European Jews. Buildings in which Jews lived and operated businesses still exist. Once dubbed Little Vienna because of the thriving presence of so many Jewish residences, businesses, and activities, the streets still look in many ways as it did then. A one-square-mile area, it was populated during the Holocaust years by some 100,000 Chinese and 20,000 Jews who lived and worked side by side through indescribable poverty, overcrowding, and destruction from Japanese occupation and Allied bombs. Today, this densely populated community reverberates with the noises, smells, and sights of the free market, the many vendors and shops, and the voices of people from around the world mingling with the Chinese. And in its center, carved in Hebrew, Chinese, and English, sits a monument to the stateless refugees of Hongkou.
I have a sense of something extraordinary in this work - an outpouring of Jewish affection toward the people of China and a renewed interest from both cultures in their historic relationship. Their story defies our assumption that both peoples lived an isolated existence that would have had nothing to do with one another. Miraculous forces brought them together to create a remarkable friendship that continues today. The Israel-China Friendship Society brings Chinese students to Israel for study, and increasing numbers of Jews are choosing to emigrate to China to live and rebuild Jewish communities that once thrived.
Only a year ago, I could never have guessed I would be corresponding with Jews and Chinese worldwide who desire to know one another. In five months, I return in April/May 2001 to lead a second tour to Beijing, Kaifeng, Luoyang, the Yangtze River, and Shanghai. I lead a third to Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, and Shanghai in July 2001. Regent China Tours is actively working to create a Kosher Food Service for China's mainland by 2002 with the hope of making it possible for many more Jews to experience China. And I continue to prepare future visits to other areas of the country where the Jewish presence is remembered and honored, including the Silk Road and the revered Shandong Province, home of Confucius, with whom the Jews of Kaifeng felt a particular bond and whose precepts they chose to include within their traditional Jewish rituals. Shandong Province is also home to an exquisite statue, memorial, and hospital named after Jakob Rosenfeld, a Jewish physician and Holocaust survivor who became a General in Mao's army and who is deeply revered in China for having saved the lives of Chinese soldiers and peasants alike.
I look forward to my return and hope to be able to say that the relationship between the Chinese and Jewish people continues to grow brighter in love and understanding of one another throughout the approaching decades.
AMIDST GROWING EUROPEAN ANTI-SEMITISM,
CHINA'S JEWISH COMMUNITIES ENJOY CONTINUING RESPECT
©2002 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie
Synagogues set ablaze in Brussels, firebombed and sprayed with automatic weapons-fire in France, Sabbath worshippers attacked and beaten in Belgium, Jewish cemeteries defaced in Greece, neo-Nazis rallying by synagogues in Germany, skinheads smashing windows of synagogues in Kiev, while left-wing and right-wing columnists and political radio and television commentators throughout Europe spout a stream of ever-more-venomous Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism, the planet's first bigotry, stews in the West as vehemently as it ever has for two millennia.
Yet as synagogues in Europe are being destroyed in a popular wave of Jewish hatred, in China they and other Jewish artifacts are being lovingly restored. Jewish Studies thrive at the Nanjing University and the University of Shanghai. The City of Harbin recently re-opened its newly-restored Jewish cemetery and is making plans to restore a former synagogue. This month, an international symposium entitled The History of the Jewish Diaspora in China was held in Nanjing and Kaifeng, attended by descendants of Jewish communities in China in addition to scholars, teachers, and researchers worldwide. Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, the symposium explored the history of the Jewish Diaspora in China and included presentations on Kaifeng Jewry, Jewish communities in Harbin, Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong in modern China, relations between the Chinese and Jewish peoples, and future perspectives of the Jewish Diaspora in 21st century China.
Both China and India have a long and beautiful history of welcoming Jews without persecution for their faith. The Asian faiths are inclusive, embracing other religious heritages as universal truths. As a result, anti-semitism has been virtually unknown in Asia. It is more and more meaningful for me to lead these tours to China, as our connection with the people of Asia grows more beneficial. An increasing number of my travelers are recognizing that China is today one of the safest destinations to travel in addition to being tolerant of Jews. Travelers with scheduled summer tours in Europe have cancelled them and inquired about Jewish tours to China. They are telling me they don't wish to support the areas where Jews are being persecuted - not financially, and not emotionally. One group of seven cancelled their June tour to France. When they found my web site, they were thrilled to discover the Jewish history in China. Another wrote to say his son's bar mitzvah was to be celebrated in Eastern Europe this summer, but they decided they would prefer to travel to China because of its openness toward Jews. He was considering a bar mitzvah in China, and Kehillat Beijing is happy to welcome such a simcha whenever possible.
The Chinese embrace toward Jews was extended for at least some eight hundred years by emperors who honored Jewish traders, inviting them to make their home in China and pay homage to their own religion and respect their own ancestors. Throughout the centuries, Jews and Chinese have celebrated a mutual respect for one another's moral principles, love of education, scholarship, wisdom, and spirituality - though each shares dramatically different expressions of faith.
In fact, neither China nor India are known to have persecuted Jews for their faith. The presence of Jews in both nations may date several centuries BCE to the scattering of descendants of the Lost Israelite Tribes. Many believe Jews found a home in China and India in the early years of the common era following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Positive written evidence of the Jewish presence in China dates to the early 8th century, but it is not known how many centuries before that Jews may have wandered throughout China by way of the Silk Road, ship routes into port cities, and by the Northern Steppes Route - over the Himalayas through Tibet. The Chiang peoples in west China who for centuries have espoused monotheistic beliefs and rituals may have descended of Lost Israelite Tribes, and the Jewish B'nei Menashe of India share an oral tradition of having settled originally in China several centuries BCE, after which they migrated to India.
Though the once-thriving Jewish community of Kaifeng and other large Jewish communities of China are no more, evidence of their presence exists and is in part being restored. In Kaifeng, growing exhibits display the Jewish community's former glory in the city. One may walk the former Jewish areas where the synagogue stood for some eight centuries, meet Chinese Jewish descendants, and see original artifacts from the synagogue grounds. In Shanghai, Asia's largest remaining synagogue, Ohel Rachel, built in 1920 by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his wife Rachel, was restored in 1998 and is used several times a year by the Jewish community, although it continues to serve as home to Shanghai's Bureau of Education. Offices and classrooms of Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Shanghai were restored several years ago and the building serves now as a meeting house and museum of Jewish history in Shaghai. The former Elly Kadoorie home known as Marble Hall - today a "Children's Palace" where gifted students study arts, calligraphy, dance, and music - was restored last year and is once again open to visitors who wish to see those children display their impressive skills. In Shanghai's Hongkou Ghetto - location of Jewish Holocaust refugees during the 30's and 40's - stands a park in the center of which is a Holocaust Memorial in Hebrew, Chinese, and English.
Not only the artifacts and buildings are being restored to former glory. The Jewish communities themselves, comprised of international professionals, businessmen and entrepreneurs of various backgrounds and affiliations, are growing in size and activity. Kehillat Beijing dates to 1979, the year China's Open Door policy went into effect. In those early days, members of the community were primarily North American business people, journalists, diplomats and students, with community services and festivals at the homes of members. By the early 1990s, in addition to expatriates from the U.S. and Canada, Beijing's Jewish community embraced Jews from Australia, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Luxembourg, Poland and Russia. This Reconstructionist community has met weekly for Shabbat services and festivals since 1995 and last year received a donated Sefer Torah from Dr. and Mrs. Jordan Phillips of the United States. Though they have no full-time rabbi, they receive and enjoy visiting rabbis, cantors, scholars, and Jewish travelers worldwide.
Moving to Beijing in fall of last year were Rabbi Shimon and Dini Freundlich, emissaries of Beijing's new Chabad-Lubavitch community who work with Kehillat Beijing's Jewish Day School and other activities as well as their own growing community with its study opportunities and activities for all ages. The two congregations, while distinct, are close, and the Freundlichs have made a wonderful addition to Beijing Jewish life, particularly reaching out to Russian Jewish families living in Beijing and working toward creating a kosher Jewish Center for the city.
Once home of a Jewish community of approximately 25,000 refugees of Russia, Poland, and Nazi-occupied Europe, Shanghai has held a unique place in Jewish memory. Here was the only port in the world that opened its doors to Jewish refugees without a visa, both when the city was under Chinese control and Japanese occupation. Here thousands who would have met certain death were given shelter throughout the years of the Czarist pograms, Russian Revolution, and Holocaust. Following the war and the Communist takeover of China, however, virtually all of Shanghai's Jewish residents emigrated to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the new state of Israel. Some twelve synagogues that served the community from the mid-1800's through the Holocaust years were converted into government offices, many torn down over the decades that followed.
In the 1990's, a growing international Jewish community once again took root, bringing Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Shalom and Dina Greenberg to Shanghai in 1998. The rabbi's tireless work is punctuated by a delightful sense of humor, while Dina provides a vital and unique contribution through her study classes and community involvement. Both have brought a deep and lasting commitment to building the Shanghai Jewish community and to contributing to the lives of the Chinese. Since their arrival, activities have increased dramatically, culminating in the creation in February this year of the first Shanghai Jewish Center since the Holocaust. The Jewish Center now serves as home of the sanctuary, library, day school, offices, and kosher restaurant. Youth activities, adult and bar/bat mitzvah study courses and learning groups enjoy active participation from this community, which like that of Beijing is eclectic, encompassing Jews of varied observant and cultural backgrounds. The Jews of Shanghai dream of re-purchasing the Ohel Rachel Synagogue and making it again the center of their religious life, but till now, the Shanghai Municipal Government has been unwilling to release the building. Still, the Jewish community is content to arrange with the city each year to use the building a few more times, with the hope of one day occupying the building full-time as they did in the early decades of the century.
Hong Kong's Jewish community has thrived since the mid 1800's when this port city gained renown as a financial center. A British Crown Colony from 1842 until 1997, Hong Kong became home to the Sassoon family when the city was ceded by China to Great Britain. Later the Sassoons, along with the Hardoons, Kadoories, and other Sephardi families of note would relocate to Shanghai, building the powerful financial and business center there. Established in 1857, the Jewish Community of Hong Kong is home to the oldest surviving synagogue in Asia still in use -- Ohel Leah, built by Sir Jacob Sassoon in 1900. Numbering just 60 Sephardim in 1882, the community came to include a large number of Ashkenazi Jews. Since the 1960s, trade and finance has attracted Jews from the US, Israel, UK, Australia and Canada. Some 3,000 live in the city today, the majority Americans and Israelis.
As in Shanghai, the Jews of Hong Kong developed many of the city's most respected institutions, including the Star Ferry Company and Harbor Tunnel that connect Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the Peak Tramway -- carrying visitors to the magnificent view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak -- as well as the elegant Peninsula Hotel. The city's famous thoroughfare, Nathan Road, took its name from Hong Kong's first and only Jewish governor, Sir Matthew Nathan, who designed it.
Home to four synagogues -- three officiated by rabbis -- serving the Sephardi Orthodox, Ashkenazi Orthodox, Chabad, and Reform populations, Hong Kong is one of the world's most diverse communities. Jewish observance varies greatly, with the strictly orthodox living and working side by side with liberal and secular Jews and gathering together as one community for Friday night dinners. A seven-story Jewish Community Center is one of the largest in the world, housing a library with the world's largest collection of Sino-Judaic literature, as well as recreational facilities, two glatt kosher restaurants and supermarket, and a plethora of Jewish activities for all ages including classes in Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jews in Asia, social activities, festivals, forums and lectures. Two Jewish schools -- the Carmel school for children under eight years and the Ezekiel Abraham school for older children -- serve the city.
Not only have the Jewish communities of China grown and restoration efforts increased, so have the Jewish tours. I have seen a number of new Jewish tours of China spring up from other travel companies in the past two years. Regent China Tours, with whom I serve as creator and leader of Jewish-themed tours, has expanded its offerings as well. I look forward to leading my 16-day half-tour and 31-day full-tour of China's Silk Road, Kaifeng, and Shandong Province in July. This intimate group will visit a number of extraordinary remote areas of the country in an experience designed to be particularly uplifting, with visits to the port city of Qindao (once home to a Jewish community), the birthplace of Confucius, sacred Buddhist and Taoist monasteries and temples, Mt. Tai-Shan (one of China's most revered mountains and spiritual landmarks), Shaolin Institute (home of Kung-Fu), and Kaifeng's Jewish artifacts and former Jewish areas, as well as several important cities on China's ancient Silk Road, each with a unique history, culture, and lifestyle, including Dunhuang, with its ancient grottoes and caves in which papers with Hebrew-Persian text on them dating to the early 700's were found, providing thus far the earliest proof of Jewish existence in China.
In addition to the U.S.-based tours, I am now thrilled to be working with travel consultant and guide Yaakov Simkovitz in Israel, who is fashioning groups from Israel to join our tours by way of El Al Airlines. With the supervision of Chabad of China, with whom I have corresponded for more than a year regarding the creation of a kosher tour, our first-ever mainland Glatt Kosher Shomer Shabbat tours will begin this August with a tour that I will lead with Yaakov Simkovitz, and in October with a tour led by Rabbi Abe Abrahami of London. Both kosher tours will visit Beijing, Kaifeng, Xi'an, and Shanghai, with home-cooked Chabad meals in all cities.
It is my desire to blend history and spirituality in my tours to uniquely create an experience both Chinese and Jewish in China, with wine and challah at China's Great Wall, Shabbat services with Kehillat Beijing, Chabad-Beijing, and Chabad-Shanghai, with visits to the former Jewish communities in Kaifeng and historic Jewish sights in Shanghai, and with discussions of China's Jewish past and present, as well as Judaism's comparisons, contrasts, and connections to the ancient faiths of Asia and other topics that connect Judaism and Jewish values to the people, history, and ideals of China. The creation of the kosher tours further represents an increasing level of commitment by Regent China Tours to specialize in Jewish Heritage Tours to China and to reach out worldwide to travelers who previously have been unable to travel through mainland China because kosher food was not available.
Yes, it has indeed been heartwarming for me to discover Jewish communities in places where I never would expect them to be. In these times, experiencing the Jewish presence in a part of the world where Jews have forever been welcomed and accepted sheds a new and deeply meaningful light on the Jewish experience.