What makes a young woman in today’s day and age agree to move to a place where there is no shul, no school, no mikvah, kashrus is a struggle, and the language spoken and written is totally different from any language she has ever heard or seen? There can only be one answer: A passion and burning desire to experience the greatest privilege a Jew can have—to reach out to other Jews and inspire them to come closer to Hashem through Torah and mitzvos.
I was raised in South Africa as the child of Chabad shluchim. After I got married, my husband Rabbi Shimon Freundlich and I lived in Hong Kong on shlichus for five years. You might think Hong Kong is far away and strange, but luckily I had gone there as a single girl to help the shluchim there.
Grateful for the years of training that living in the Far East and working with active, successful shluchim gave me, we moved to Beijing.
We were well aware of the negatives: China is a communist country. Americans might have a hard time understanding the repressions. The Army is all over, visas are hardly ever given to rabbis (and when they are, the rabbis are carefully followed and controlled), and our home and phone were almost certainly bugged.
Tight border control: Meat, dairy products and wine are illegal to import, mail is opened and read and appliances are heavily taxed. Not to mention all the other hardships of living in a remote area with little to no organized Jewish life. But still, two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we arrived. Ready to get right to work.
Where do we start?
Food is usually a good place. Food speaks all languages. Also, my family does not take too well to the lack thereof. So off to the market I went.
Easier said than done. It was erev Rosh Hashanah and we needed a fish head. The fish market is at the back of the meat market which you need to walk through first! Every conceivable animal and its body parts were dangling from the ceiling and walls, and covering the floors. And on a hot summer’s day the smell is definitely not one I’d like to experience again. It is a far cry from calling up the kosher fish store and requesting (in plain English) a delivery.
There is a Chinese joke that says the Chinese will eat everything with four legs except the table, and everything that flies except a plane! At the market I saw this first hand.
Now, how hard could it be to find kosher yeast? Don’t all women who bake bread need yeast? But after three days of searching, it was erev Shabbos and still nothing. Two hours before Shabbos I found some in a small store in one of the hotels. The challah that week left a lot to be desired.
For fruits and vegetables we have to go to the local farmers market. Firstly, they have their own weight measurement which is called “jin”. There are no pounds or kilos so at first I had a hard time figuring out how to communicate how much of something I wanted. And in a country where the average person buys one small bunch of greens and a few small mushrooms, a person wanting anything more than two potatoes is looked upon as strange. So you can imagine the unwanted attention I got when I asked for 25 cucumbers, 10 heads of lettuce, 65 potatoes, 12 onions, and 40 carrots. I’ve become a regular sight at the market with a lot of finger pointing (they refer to me as “fang la”, i.e. meshugana), but I have made some friends as well. After all, I may be fang la but I’m also a good, paying customer!
China is famous for making copies of everything from bags to watches and everything in between. I did not know that this included food. I learned that I could not trust anything. I was in the market and was excited to see American canned corn with a hechsher! To add to my excitement, it was being sold at half the price I usually pay. It was only after I got home that I discovered that the label was a color copy and stuck on with tape. Who knows what was really inside?!
Slowly I learned how to get the food we needed. When people came to visit from overseas, I learned not to be shy about asking people to bring me things!
“…After all, I may be fang la (meshugana) but I’m also a good, paying customer!”
Before I knew it, Pesach had arrived. We made Beijing’s first ever model matzah bakery and it was a great success, Boruch Hashem. Fifty children came, heard the Pesach story, baked matzah, and learned about the mitzvos. We decided to use the beautiful, elegant hotel nearby for our seder. We rented one of their rooms to prepare in, and much to the hotel staff’s horror, we transformed their hotel room into a full scale kitchen/factory, with lettuce in the bathtub, peeling on the glass coffee table, food processor plugged in next to the alarm clock, and pots on the beds. They were horrified. In contrast, the people at the market could not believe their luck. In one day, they made the money they usually make in two years. Soon they started following me around the market, pointing and chattering and laughing. We had 150 people at our first seder and 70 at the second, so we had the last laugh.
We have recently begun importing shechita in the form of Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, the Chabad shliach from Singapore. He and my husband spent an entire day on it, and shechted 730 chickens. We sent half to Chabad of Shanghai (our fellow shluchim, Rabbi and Mrs. Sholom and Dinie Greenberg). The rest is available here to anyone who wants kosher chicken.
When my father was a young bochur in yeshiva in Montreal it was time for the oldest class to go to New York to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Shortly after Simchas Torah, they were called into the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe spoke to them about a Ben Melech (prince) who is sent to merchokim (distant places). The Rebbe told them that their shlichus (mission) was to go back to their respective yeshivos stressing that geographic distance creates a greater closeness to the source.
We are privileged to be a small part of preparing the world to be a fitting dwelling place for Hashem, bringing the Geulah at last.
Originally from a speech by Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich and adapted from the N’Shei Chabad Newsletter, June 2002.