Keeping kosher in China: Tours offer Jewish heritage on the side

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ENCINO, Calif. -- China is not high on the list of destinations for exploring Jewish heritage, but some tour operators are offering itineraries that show that China has a richer Jewish history than most first-time visitors would expect.

In the lead are Sita World Travel, based here, and Pacific Delight Tours, based in New York.

According to Max Ali, Sita World Travels director of sales, there is a significant amount of Jewish heritage in China, and Sita has included the most notable sites on its Chinas Ancient Heritage program.

The tour is framed around Chinas major historical sites and attractions but also includes several Jewish heritage sites.

For groups of up to 15, Sita will tailor the package to focus more on Jewish heritage.

We thought of doing it as a Jewish heritage tour, Ali said, but theres not enough to justify the title. But there is something to appeal to people of the Jewish faith, and we have done tours with a special focus for those who are interested.

One of the richest sites for Jewish heritage is in the city of Kaifeng.

There is a Torah teaching lane there, a whole lane full of homes and a synagogue, said Ali. Its not active, but its preserved, like a museum. And there are Chinese with Jewish ancestry still living in the area.

On the grounds of the former synagogue there is now a hospital as well as a museum, Ali said. The museum shows how the Jewish people of Kaifeng lived during various periods.

One farmhouse we visit belongs to the Jin family, who are descendants of the Jewish people who lived in that area, said Ali. We visit their farm and meet with them. On their farm there are a few graves of their Jewish ancestors. 

A plaque, in Chinese, English and Hebrew, marks the spot in Shanghai where Jewish refugees settled during the late 1930s and 1940s.In Shanghai, the itinerary includes the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which was founded in 1927 and was the center of religious activities for Jewish refugees during World War II.

In Beijing, the tour visits members of a small expatriate Jewish community who have come to Beijing for business from the U.S. and Europe.

If its a Friday, we might arrange for a Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) dinner, Ali said.

For groups with an interest in Jewish heritage, Sita will add the city of Harbin to the itinerary.

Its near the Mongolian border, almost a Mongolian city, said Ali. It had a thriving Jewish community. There are well-preserved monuments, a Jewish cemetery with headstones [engraved] in Yiddish and Russian and a museum with Jewish artifacts.

People who are interested can contact us about the possibility of putting a small group together.

The land price starts at $1,840 per person, double, for summer departures. In fall, it increases to $2,140. Roundtrip air is available from the West Coast for $770 to $990 per person and from the East Coast for $1,140 to $1,250 per person.

For the complete itinerary or more information, see www.sita.com. For reservations, call (800) 421-5643.

Jewish heritage in China is  explored by Pacific Delight Tours in a 12-night Heritage Tour that traces the history of the Jewish diaspora and the establishment of the Jewish community in China. The earliest Jewish immigrants arrived in Kaifeng in 998 at the invitation of the Chinese emperor.

The tour includes Jewish heritage sites in Beijing, Kaifeng and Shanghai as well as a general introduction to China.

The program includes a Shabbat dinner, religious services with members of the local Jewish communities, lectures on the Jewish diaspora as it relates to China, a tour of a historical synagogue and visits to neighborhoods once inhabited by Jews who escaped the Nazis. A three-night sailing on the Yangtze is also featured.

The tour includes many of the highlights of an introductory China tour, such as the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the Beijing area and the terra-cotta warriors in Xian. It also includes a wealth of Jewish history.

One of the richest stops on the tour is Shanghai, which was known as The Port of Last Resort for Jews fleeing Nazism.

The tour includes the Ohel Moshe Synagogue; the 70-year-old Peace Hotel, which was built by Victor Sassoon, a wealthy Iraqi Jew; and Old Jewish Shanghai, which was once a thriving Jewish community. The group will have a Shabbat dinner and services with the Jewish communities that still thrive in Beijing and Shanghai.

An optional four-day extension explores Jewish heritage in the cultural climate of Hong Kong, with visits to the Jewish Community Center, the Sino-Judaic library, a kosher restaurant and a kosher supermarket.

The price is $2,699 to $2,999 per person, including roundtrip air from Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, as well as intra-China air and land transportation.

For more information, call (800) 221-7179 or (212) 818-1781 or log onto www.pacificdelighttours.com.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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