Why this night was different

Why this night was different

Couple on China trip celebrates Pesach in Shanghai

The Zelinghers with a member of a Chinese minority group at the top of Yao Mountain outside of Guilin, China. They reached the summit of this 3,000-foot mountain by cablecar.     
The Zelinghers with a member of a Chinese minority group at the top of Yao Mountain outside of Guilin, China. They reached the summit of this 3,000-foot mountain by cablecar.     

What made Passover this year different from all other Passovers for the Zelinghers of Marlboro? It was the exotic locale of the seders they attended: Shanghai. Bella Scharf Zelingher and her husband, Simon, took part in a 17-day excursion through China organized by Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours, a kosher Israeli company with guides speaking both Hebrew and English. The couple has been affiliated with Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan for 20 years and also supports and attends services at Monmouth Torah Links in Marlboro. 

Bella Scharf Zelingher gave the following account of their memorable journey and holiday. 

With four flights within China, our group of 20 tour participants from the United States, Canada, and Israel visited large metropolitan areas and enjoyed the charm of smaller cities and the countryside. We saw The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Terra Cotta Army in Xian. We visited Guilin, a beautiful resort city; Yangshuo, with its breathtaking scenery; and Zhouzhuang, a picturesque village with canals and bridges. 

Most memorable of all was Passover in Shanghai — a city with a significant Jewish past. 

In the 1840s several Sephardi families from Baghdad and Mumbai settled in Shanghai, where they established branches of their successful businesses. The Sassoon, Kadourie, and Hardoon families thrived and helped transform Shanghai from a sleepy little town to a center of commerce and multicultural, international city.

In the early 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Russia arrived; more followed after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai’s open city allowed over 20,000 European Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis to enter without visas. What made this rescue possible were two “Righteous Gentiles”: Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consular official in Lithuania, who in defiance of his government issued visas to hundreds of Jews, allowing them to flee first to Japan and then Shanghai. Feng-Shan Ho, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, also approved documents admitting thousands of Jews to Shanghai.

The established Sephardi community of Shanghai helped the refugees by building synagogues and Jewish schools and by setting up social services. 

The Jews lived in harmony with the Chinese, who were themselves poor and suffering under the Japanese occupation. During the war, the Japanese came under strong pressure from their German allies to eradicate the Jews in Shanghai. Col. Josef Meisinger, a Gestapo emissary, arrived and presented a plan for a “Final Solution in Shanghai” to the Japanese authorities. But Tokyo’s stance was to “go easy in our policy toward the Jews.” The most they were willing to do was contain the Jews in a ghetto, in the city’s Hongkou district. 

We visited the ghetto and the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. On display were photographs of Jews who had lived there and plaques expressing their thanks for the shelter they received. We were touched to see the following statement by Josef Rossbach: “Toy rickshaws and Hongkou, all these are part of my life. During those years, the Chinese helped us a lot. If it hadn’t been for the Chinese people, we would have been killed a long time ago.” The late David Zysman, who later served as vice president of Yeshiva University, said, “Those of us who grew up in Shanghai felt no anti-Semitism.”

It warmed our hearts to know we were in a city that had given our Jewish brethren refuge. 

Our Passover seders were at the city’s Shehebar Sephardic Center, which is headed by the wonderful Rabbi Ephraim Besalel. There are about 2,000 Jews in the local Jewish community — members of the diplomatic corps, businessmen, teachers — and Rabbi Besalel has managed to increase religious observance and synagogue attendance. He has created a home for Jewish travelers to the city; among the other seder attendees were several tourists and NYU students on a four-month program. 

The center’s Rabbi David Bitton ran the seders in both Hebrew and English, and several rabbinical students were there training for work at worldwide Shehebar Sephardic Center locations. 

The holiday food, prepared by the rabbi’s wife, Faige, was delicious and plentiful. (We even managed to have some sent along with us, frozen, for the last days of the holiday in Beijing.) 

Though we enjoy our seders at home with family and friends, this trip gave us a wonderful experience and an unusual and fulfilling way to spend Pesach. Anyone interested in learning more details can reach me at bswebworks@aol.com.

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