On the way back to New York from China last year after Passover, I was questioned by a flight attendant in the Hong Kong Airport my reason for having chosen to fly that particular airline.
"Sefirat HaOmer," was my candid reply. Perplexed, she searched through her checklist. The response did not fit under the category of service, advertising or scheduling. Confused, she looked back up at me.
I explained that traveling back to America by the Pacific route would cause us to pass the International Dateline. This would either add a day to, or subtract a day from, the forty-nine day Sefira- count, thus invalidating it.
She, too, was Jewish, she said, but this didn't seem to be a sensible reason for choosing a plane route.
I shared with her the idea that we prepare the world for Moshiach by permeating our lives with Torah, which dictates every minute detail of our physical lives.
I then related an incident I'd observed of a four year old girl running over to her mother with a quarter she'd found on the sidewalk. "Look Mommy!" she exclaimed excitedly, "I found tzedaka!" For this child, who is growing up with a solid Jewish education, a coin found on the street is not for candy or for a toy but for charity.
The attendant was moved. Now I took out the ammunition: two candlesticks and a Chabad of Hong Kong calendar with lighting times and the address of the Chabad House in Hong Kong. She promised to attend services on Shabbat.
In a nutshell, this was the mission with which my friends and I set out when we went for Passover as emissaries of the Rebbe to Shanghai. Our goal: to share with every Jew the Rebbe's message that hectic business lives have to be permeated with Judaism. Our job was to lead Passover seders, organize services, put mezuzot on doors, hold classes for men, women and children, and most importantly, to share the message that the exodus from Egypt was just a foretaste of the imminent arrival of Moshiach.
The local Chinese looked at us as if we were aliens and practically walked into walls as they passed us. Chinese men are incapable of growing beards beyond a few strands, and our beards were a real spectacle. We got used to having six Chinese at once approach us at about four inches from our noses to inspect our beards. They were enthralled!!
Before we left New York, we were told that we'd taste "freedom" at our seder in the Ritz Carlton Shanghai Center, one of the classiest hotels in the city. Indeed, we did feel free. To sit at a seder with over a hundred Jews in a Communist country where Judaism is still not a recognized religion, while Chinese waiters served with chopsticks, is a real experience. We figured out how to handle gefilte fish with chopsticks. It was when we came to the chicken soup that we had difficulty!!
There are certain phrases that we take for granted in the Unites States which take on a whole new meaning overseas. Let me give you an example. When we needed a (blow) torch to make the hotel kitchen kosher, we called the London-born manager of the hotel with our request. "No problem!" came the unexpected response. "Meet me in the kitchen in ten minutes and I'll have the torch for you."
Victory! Without problems or questions they're going to let us "blow torch" the kitchen at the hotel to make it kosher. What a miracle. We danced all the way down to the kitchen to meet the English manager who, with great joy, handed us a big nine-volt flashlight-a torch in the Queen's English! After four hours of explanations and assurances we eventually got a blow torch, sent everyone out of the kitchen, and were able to get to work.
A few days before Passover, we stopped a foreigner on the street to ask directions. "I don't know if you recognize me," was his reply, "but I was at the Chabad Seder last year and loved it. Unfortunately I'll be on business in Honolulu this Passover. Are there any Jews there?"
With our trusty Chabad Directory and cellular phone, we called the Rebbe's emissary in Honolulu and booked him a place for the Seder. He marveled, "Wow! How'd you do that?!"
"Chabad's a small family," we explained. We forget to get directions from him but he sure got some from us!!
A few days after Passover, I visited a Jew who worked in a Hilton in Nanjing, a three hour train ride from Shanghai. After a long conversation, the man exclaimed, "This morning, I woke up proud to be a Jew. Only a fellow Jew would shlep all the way here just to visit me. Rabbi, whatever you want, I'll do for you." Within a few minutes, forty curious Chinese watched as we hammered a mezuza to his front door.
"Actually, it wasn't my commitment that brought me here today," I explained. "The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent us here. He cares about each and every Jew wherever he may be and he is concerned with your physical and spiritual welfare. Every single Jew is a precious gem in his eyes." I showed him a picture of the Rebbe and told him he could keep it. "Can I write to him?" he asked. "Sure." I replied. And right there and then he composed a letter to the Rebbe which he read to me. The letter began, "Dear Esteemed Rabbi, Thank you for blowing the dust off of one of your Chinese gems. I hope to be able to see you soon and speak with you face to face..."
I closed my eyes, "Amen! So do I!"
May we merit this now!
Ed.'s note: Mendel Bluming and his colleagues went to China as "Merkos Shluchim"-the Rebbe's emissaries to communities that do not have permanent shluchim. Six months ago, Rabbi Shalom and Dini Greenberg moved to Shanghai, China, and become the Rebbe's permanent emissaries there.