By Hazzan Harold Messinger
My recent whirlwind trip to Bejing, China started with an email from a former student last December. Alison Klayman was at Akiba Hebrew Academy when I taught there in the late 90’s, and she and I have remained in touch over the past decade or so. I knew she was living in China, working as a filmmaker, an interpreter and English coach for Hollywood films and filing occasional stories for NPR. What I did not know is that Alison had also been moonlighting as a Bar and Bat mitzvah tutor in the city of Beijing, working with members of the now twenty year-old Kehilat Beijing. Kehilat Beijing was founded when Beijing was transforming from a sleepy communist town into a colorful, vibrant commercial powerhouse, currently home to 16 million persons, 9 million cars and approximately 4 million bicycles.
Alison emailed to say that she was working with two girls, originally from just outside Seattle, Washington and now living in Beijing. They were 13 and 12 respectively, and were being Bat Mitzvahed on May 8th. Would I be interested in coming to Beijing to perform the ceremony?
I was so surprised by the idea that I really didn’t think it would come to anything. I assumed that there must be someone in Beijing to function in a clergy capacity, and at the very least, someone whom the family knew that could officiate. It turns out that the family had moved around over the years, and as such had not formed a bond with the clergy at their own shul back home. In Beijing, the only full-time clergy was at Chabad, and their Rabbi does not officiate at Bat Mitzvot. The family wanted the girls to read from the Torah and Haftara, lead part of the service and give divrei Torah to their community.
Over the last three years, the family had become an integral part of a community-led Jewish center for all those seeking an alternative to Chabad. Kehilat Beijing (http://www.sinogogue.org/’) counts about 30-40 households in their week in, week out community. This group swells to over 150 adults at High Holidays. The Kehilah includes ex-pats from all over the world, mainly North Americans, many of them academics, computer specialist, medical experts and businesspersons in Beijing. When the Bat-Mitzvah family moved to China they were looking for a way to connect Jewishly and at the same time participate in the spiritual life of their community. The Kehilah was a great fit. The one catch was that aside from occasional visiting Rabbis, the Kehilah is more or less on their own. The Kehilah meets each Friday Night for Kabalat Shabbat services and dinner. Since 1996, The Kehilah has their own Torah, allowing them to do Shabbat morning services.
Services take place at the Capital Club Athletic Center, an upper-end fitness and community center catering to the ex-pat community and well to do Chinese Nationals. While the Kehilah uses the facilities on Friday Night, on Sunday a local Church group takes over. They use siddur Kol Haneshama and Eytz Hayyim as their primary Humash (sound familiar?) Members take turns leading services thereby contributing their personal knowledge to each service. It is haimish: warm, inclusive and deeply cared for. The Kehilah is also struggling to grow, not just in numbers but spiritually and Jewishly as well.
There are diverse sub-groups in the Beijing Jewish community, who apart from Chabad have not fully embraced Kehilat Beijing as an alternate center for “doing” Jewish. The Israeli community represent one such group who, like most Israelis, are secular and have a marginal interest in Jewish ritual life and certainly not on a weekly basis. Coming from yet another place is the Jewish student and 20-something population of Beijing. While Alison sought a place to pray and meet other like-minded Jews, most 20-somethings were not seeking that type of connection. Recently the advent of Moshei House, an International organization, has brought a new source of potential energy and of collaboration with the Kehilah.
Moshei House (http://www.moishehouse.org/) is the brainchild of the Shushterman Foundation, Jewish Philanthropists seeking to bring otherwise disconnected 20-somethings to “Do Jewish”: This might include a Shabbat dinner, hosting a cultural event, or a Jewish-themed party. If two or more Jews are sharing a living space, they can apply to be a Moishe house. In return for putting on these events, they receive a living stipend and money towards programming. Alison heads up Moishe house in Beijing with her roommates, and has put on events over the last year as part of this endeavor. Still it is not surprising to find that 20-somethings tend not to want to party with 30 and 40-somethings with little kids, preteens, and the older set. However, there is a strong feeling that with the right professional or semi-professional leadership this could change, and Kehilat Beijing could expand its reach to include a wider segment of the already small Jewish community.
Back to the Bat Mitzvah: When the family formally contacted me in January, they described the person they were looking for (actually they were describing me, but I suspect Alison had told them what to say): a person who is comfortable in an egalitarian Jewish setting, has liberal Jewish views, who drives on Shabbat, eats vegetarian options if provided, plays guitar, and loves infusing a service with music and ruach. Except for the last two things, I seemed to fit the bill. With the blessing of wife and Beth Am’s leadership (and a written promise not to stay), I made the arrangements to go.
Over the months that ensued, I SKYPed with the two girls to get to know them, hear them chant their Haftarah and Torah parts and to ask the million and one questions that a visit to the other side of the earth entails. Remarkably, I was just one of over forty overseas guests attending the Bat Mitzvah. In a feat that would leave the greatest party planner in awe, the girls’ mom had overseen the arrangements for each one of us, arranging hotels, meals, tours, travel, busses, taxis, thoughtful and personal gift “tote bags” with maps, sweets, guide books, etc, AND planned every detail of the simcha down to the Oriental Trading ‘SWAG’ for the party that I personally transported from Merion Station to Beijing. (Stuff literally “Made in China,” was shipped to my house and then brought right back to China, where glow-teeth, plastic sunglasses and fake “bling” are apparently not for sale!) The girls’ father, who works for Microsoft oversaw the creation of the siddur used at the ceremony, itself a painstakingly detailed process. He crafted a siddur that was personal and user friendly, one that included many traditional elements but highlighted the prayers and readings that were significant to the family. It was a true labor of love.
As I arrived in Beijing on the Wednesday before the Bat Mitzvah, a driver holding a sign with my name on it greeted me. I was told to expect this, but was not aware that this very sweet gentleman was not hired just for picking me up at the airport, but was in fact the family’s personal driver! It seems it is less expensive for American companies to pay for a car lease and hire a driver for their employee and family, than have the family purchase a car. (And much safer: the driving in Beijing is perilous!) We drove from the airport in an American mini-van and made our way to a beautiful high rise in downtown Beijing, complete with security guard and gate, pool and health club.
The family’s 19th floor apartment had a panoramic view of the Beijing skyline that was remarkably clear for any city, almost flawless for pollution-ridden Beijing. I decided to not even worry about what time it really was (Yesterday? Tomorrow? A week from Thursday?) and just kept moving. Meeting up with their old friends from Seattle, eight of us dined at an off-the-beaten-path restaurant called “Black Sesame Kitchen”, (http://www.blacksesamekitchen.com/) where we had a delicious seven course meal (they substituted tofu for pork just for me!) capped off with deep-fried apples and homemade sesame ice-cream. The entire meal was less than nine American dollars per person. Now that is the true happy meal.
The next day we visited Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, ate at some wonderful restaurants, and made our way to a five-story mall called Silk City, for some high-pressure shopping, where the shopkeepers grab, insult and guilt you into making a purchase. They make the Shuk in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem look like a Saturn dealership. Shopping completed, the extended family arrived en masse, pizza (ever the universal dish) was eaten, and eyes were shut.
The family who hosted me has lived in Beijing for the better part of 20 years. Both academics, the husband is a leading expert in Economics, while the wife heads a think tank on the Environment, and they were part of the original crew who started Kehilat Beijing. In one of our conversations about the Kehilah my hosts discussed that one of the main challenges facing the Kehilah is finding a professional or semi-professional leader who could sustain themselves in Beijing while being part time clergy. Ideally the Kehilah seeks someone who has skills to teach, daven and read Torah but who also leads another professional or student existence. Alison represented a rare find for the Kehilah in someone who has the skills from her Schechter and Akiba Day School backgrounds, combined with the personality, charisma and inner desire to be a part of a community like Kehilat Beijing. As I got to know the Kehilah more I was struck by how much they have done and continue to do on their own, but also how much sustained Jewish leadership is desired, and as wonderful as Alison has been, as a young woman with no roots in Beijing, she and they know her time with them is limited.
On my second day in China, we visited the Great Wall. I have to say, it really is quite great. 6000 klm long, taking over 200 years and over 200,000 people to complete.
We took a ski lift up the mountain to reach the wall, where walked a tiny part of it, and then “alpine slide”-ed on a metal track, luge style.
Shabbat arrived, and Friday night I met more families from the Kehilah. There was a mix of ages, of boys and girls, of American and Chinese children and children from mixed families. Everyone spoke English and many knew Hebrew, certainly enough to be able to go through several prayers and songs. Kabalat Shabbat was a wonderfully joyous service where I introduced many of our favorite B.A.I. melodies. At dinner I discovered that I knew several of the people in the Kehilah from my years living in Israel and attending Camp Ramah, which by this point in my life should not surprise me, yet somehow it always feels great to reconnect and play Jewish Jewography every time.
The Bat Mitzvah was truly lovely and reminded me of the best of B.A.I: Each girl gave an intelligent thoughtful devri Torah, the parent’s blessing was heartfelt, brief, meaningful and directed at the future. Family and friend participated, and the community was eager to sing. [Note: there was no musaf, candy was thrown at the girls, and then in a retaliatory strike, the girls fired back. All in good fun, and no one was sent to the emergency room. ]
The festivities came to a crescendo that evening as all the guests left by bus for the Great Wall of China. Yes, you read correctly, the party was just below the Great Wall. Now you might say, “You’re kidding me?” It was as you can imagine, an incredible event: It was lavish, yet tasteful; it was festive, but not at all overdone. We did havdallah together mid-way through the party and it was beautiful. All the friends and family gathered around the girls who held the candles, the spices and wine. When I told everyone they should extend their hands when we say the candle blessing, everyone put their hands out, and kept them there for several moments. There was a true kavanah to this act, and I suspected that many were doing this for the first time. I looked up at the Great Wall hidden in the darkness, and thought how great it would be if like Boathouse row they could light up the wall. I promise you that not five minutes went by and “Ping!” a huge section of the wall lit up. It was amazing.
Sunday morning I had the chance to teach in the Kehilat Beijing Hebrew School. The Kehilah rents space in the Chabad House outside of the city center and for two hours each Sunday morning embrace small classes for kids ages 6-14 and give the kids a rich and meaningful Jewish educations. I saw first hand the love and care that went into their rich and meaningful programming. I was able to lead a family service, introduced some more melodies, and led a prayer writing exercise using the Lecha Dodi as a model for personalizing prayer. After my morning at the school there was time for a quick lunch before getting back on the plane to America. Somehow I landed just two hours after I left.
It was a very special trip, full of new faces, new experiences and wonderful community. It was also a time for me to appreciate home, my immediate family and my home community. There is a great opportunity given the similarities between our own Congregation and that of Kehilat Beijing, to explore ways in which we can communicate, share resources and build relationships. I look forward not just to maintaining contact with my new friends in Beijing, but to fostering ways for our communities to interact and collaborate. Next year in China, anyone?