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Culture

Beijing’s Chabad Rabbi Helps China See the Light

On my flight from Newark to Beijing a few weeks ago, I noticed a young Hasidic man davening in tefillin. The plane was almost completely packed with Chinese, who must have had no clue what he was doing bowing while wrapped in leather. As one of the few other Jews on the flight, I approached him at baggage claim to ask him the halacha on davening when flying through different time zones, especially when it was daylight the entire trip (which happens when flying over the North Pole). He told me that, in fact, one doesn’t have to wrap tefillin, but he wanted to anyway, just to be sure he fulfilled the mitzvah.

He also told me he was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Beijing and official Olympic rabbi, and that he had a number of Jewish prayer books and Bibles bound for the Lubavitch outpost. Freundlich, he said, had procured the necessary permits for him to bring them into China — which generally forbids the import of sacred texts from abroad — and was waiting for him past the customs area with some local officials.

Ha’aretz has a fascinating piece today about the Olympic obstacle course Freundlich has faced in the lead-up to and during the games. Some of the highlights include:

“The Chinese knew that according to Olympics bylaws they are required to provide a synagogue and kosher food, and they knew there would be a rabbi, but since Judaism is not one of the religions recognized by the Chinese, they didn’t really know how to operate,” Freundlich said.

“Only after I made it clear to them that I understood my appointment was not an official government appointment did the Chinese agree to meet with me,” he added.

When Freundlich wanted to bake challah for Shabbat, the organizing committee deviated from its stringent rules and allowed him to bring in food. The Chinese sent supervisors to accompany him while he baked. They photographed every step of the process. They took samples to be tested in a lab, and had the rabbi sign an affidavit attesting to the hygiene of the baking process.

In my conversations with Freundlich, he has stressed repeatedly how accommodating the Chinese authorities have been toward the Jewish community in recent years and during the Olympics. Evangelicals, meanwhile, are not having as much success here in Beijing.

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