Although the OK maintains a constant rabbinic presence in China, this summer I returned there personally after a six year hiatus. My first visit was over twenty-three years ago and China has changed greatly in the past two decades!
My visit to China in the 1980s was not the first one made for kashrus purposes. My father, Rabbi Berel Levy, ob"m, was the first kashrus Administrator to visit China in such a capacity. True to his pioneering spirit, my father made his first kashrus visit to China over twenty-five years ago. After developing kashrus inspection and certification in other Far East countries, such as Japan, Malaysia and Korea, he was called upon by Hunt Wesson (now known as ConAgra) to visit a facility in China. It is a shame he is not alive today to see the enormous growth the OK has achieved, despite those who have continually sought to undermine our dedication and success.
The purpose of his visit was to inspect two facilities, one producing water chestnuts and one producing bamboo shoots. These are products are indigenous to China and some of the only food products exported from China at the time.
Before his first visit to China, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ob"m, gave my father special instructions to spread Yiddishkeit while he was on his kashrus mission. He had already established numerous mikvahs, added mechitzos to shuls, and enhanced many other mitzvos at the Rebbe’s request.
At that time, the Rebbe told my father that there were once Jewish communities in China and that the men even wore their hair in the ponytail style of Chinese men. The Rebbe instructed my father to find out where the Jewish people used to live, and suggested that he seek out a professor in the local university to help him investigate this (since a professor would always want to be able to answer a given question, and so would devote himself to finding the answer). What was the purpose of this request? The Rebbe said there were Jewish cemeteries in China that the authorities were going to dig up so they could make use of the land. In order to stop such a terrible desecration, these cemeteries needed to be identified and the local authorities needed to be influenced to prevent such destruction. On a recent visit to China, I was sadly informed that sometime after my father’s visit the Jewish cemeteries were dug up and the land used for development.
My father traveled to China many other times for kashrus inspections and, in fact, a visit to China was his last overseas trip before his untimely passing.
After my father’s passing, I dutifully took over his kashrus responsibilities and continued his holy mission. Of course, I continued to visit the Far East and China in my new capacity as kashrus Administrator of the OK.
At the time of my first visit, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots were still the primary food exports and conditions in China overall were quite primitive. Travel was often a challenge as airports were quite old fashioned and roads were not well constructed. In the 1980s, a distance of 120 miles by train or car took a minimum of six hours travel time. China was also a wasteland as far as Yiddishkeit was concerned. One had to travel to Hong Kong to spend Shabbos and a weekday minyan was unheard of. The only available kosher food was what you brought in your suitcase, or cans of water chestnuts and bamboo shoots!
Conducting kosher inspections in China presents a unique challenge, aside from the language and other obvious barriers – most people in China have never heard of "kosher" and have no idea what it is about. Many people that I met in my travels had never even seen a Jewish person before! During one of my first visits to China, I traveled to a city called Qingdao, a famous coastal city. I was on my way inland to inspect a plant that produced kosher surimi (a fish based product) and we had to travel into the interior of China by car. After several hours of driving, we stopped to rest and as I got out of the car I was surrounded by an amused crowd of people who had never seen a frum Jew before! I am a relatively tall person (in comparison to the average Chinese man) and had a full, black beard which was unheard of in China.
So you can imagine the cultural challenge (or should I say culture shock!) that we faced with kosher production. Our requests were strange. We wanted a full time rabbi (as any reliable certification would) for fish productions. Sometimes, after traveling several grueling hours, we would arrive at a facility and request all of the production procedures. The companies would refuse, saying they do not reveal this information to anyone. We had to try to explain to them that we could not accomplish anything on our visit without the proper information. Once, we had a rabbi working full time in a fish facility for a few weeks. In order to seal the packages, he would sign his name in Hebrew on the boxes. One day one of the workers showed him how he could duplicate the rabbi’s signature without difficulty!
In short – it was a real challenge.
Over the past twenty years, I have continued to visit China. The China of today is a far cry of the China I experienced on my first few visits. Today, the airports are modern and a pleasure to pass through. Gone are the hours of bureaucratic red tape to enter the country. Today, the Chinese airport staff is extremely efficient. Formerly treacherous roads are now super highways. Older trains were replaced by speed trains travelling over 300 kilometers per hour. But most importantly, Yiddishkeit is flourishing. Spiritual oases have sprung up in cities all over China with Chabad Houses and shluchim who live in China with mesiras nefesh, providing daily minyanim, shiurim, mikvahs, and kosher food.
On our recent trip, we visited Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, a Chabad shliach in Shanghai. From humble beginnings, he has returned Shanghai to a spiritual center, just as it was during World War II. During weekday minyanim the shul had the atmosphere of a heimishe shtiebel and Shabbos was an incredible experience, witnessing firsthand how he and his dedicated staff welcome Jews and bring them closer to Yiddishkeit. Of course, now that there are shluchim in China, they help us in our holy mission of spreading kashrus, as well as their duties to their Chabad Houses.
Stay tuned for the next installment to find out about the incredible network of OK rabbis working to supervise kosher production in China.