'Do you know when was the last time I went to synagogue services?" asked Frank, an elderly visitor from Australia.
Rabbi Shimon Freudlich is used to such questions in the unusual flock he shepherds in Beijing, China. The rabbi of the four-year old Chabad House has a congregation drawn from the thousand Jews who happen to be in Beijing on any given day, most of them from a growing local community, the others tourists, business people, youngsters with the travel itch.
Like Chabad emissaries everywhere, he and his wife, Dina, have had to solicit the resources to set up an outpost of Judaism in this far-flung capital. The challenges are prodigious, including a communist government. Nonetheless, as the world's fastest growing economy coupled with the drive to get the capital in shape for the 2008 Olympic Games draws entrepreneurs and curious travelers to Beijing, his congregation grows. Once barely a minyan, Rosh Hashana 5766 will be kosher catered at the nearby Renaissance Hotel; 120 have already signed up.
But on Friday night, Chabad House somehow stretches for whoever comes by, be they bearded kashrut inspectors back from long rides of dirt roads traveling into the interior of the country to check canned fruit and fish factories, Israeli tourists sponsored by optical companies, wandering young people or vacationers like me. To gain entry to the guarded area set aside for embassies, you make the gesture of a pretend beard beneath your chin. Although the minyan attracts some folks, more guests arrive for the delicious food and warm fellowship.
THE LUBAVITCHER Rebbe, who dispatched his army of emissaries, insisted on the name Chabad "House," because he wanted a homelike atmosphere. Nonetheless, the services, conducted with passion and alacrity, may touch a note of nostalgia.
Chabad House was still new the night Frank came, but there were 60 for dinner. He sat in the front row during the services. "Sit near me," Rabbi Shimon urged Frank as the living room was turned into dining room, with long, narrow tables draped in white table clothes, the aroma of chicken soup and soy sauce wafting from the modest kitchen.
"Usually," said Rabbi Shimon, "the person who asks me when was the last time he was in synagogue means his bar mitzva. That's what I expected."
But Frank's story was different. He told the rabbi that his last services were on April 13, 1945. Two days earlier, he'd been liberated by the US Third Army from Buchenwald, where 56,000 men, women and children were murdered amid the beech woods of Germany. Among them were the members of Frank's family. Services were organized by Lt. Meyer Birnbaum, one of the few Orthodox Jews among the liberators, and kaddish was a mournful chant.
AFTER THE soup, on Shabbat in Beijing, Rabbi Shimon asked guests to introduce themselves. He begged Frank to tell his story. He'd become a successful businessman in Melbourne, but he never again had entered a house of prayer. "I didn't realize my soul was still searching for what I've found here tonight in Beijing," Frank said. "I vow to go to services every Friday night when I go home."
Dinner resumed, with more courses and singing. After dinner, when guests began to disperse, one of them tentatively approached Frank. "I know it's a long shot," she said. "But might you remember my father Leonard Katz, who survived Buchenwald, too?" Rivers of tears began streaming from Frank's eyes. "Of course I remember him," Frank said. "Like me, he was one of the few kohanim."
Hesitantly, he asked in words that resonated with the sound of the biblical Joseph in Egypt, "Is your father still alive?" Leonard was living, in Connecticut. The daughter would reunite them.
The following week, Rabbi Shimon traveled to New York City. Unusual for a Chabad rabbi, he was the Shabbat guest of Satmar hassidim. After the chicken soup, the host turned to him with a half-smile. "Nu, Reb Shimon. Vus titzuch, what's happening, in Beijing?"
"The story was still so fresh, that I told it." said Rabbi Shimon. To his shock, the head of the Satmar kollel began to weep. At last, he wiped a face wrinkled like a walnut. "Please tell Frank and Leonard," said the white bearded hassid, "that Yankel, the third kohen in the minyan, is also still alive."
Rabbi Shimon told me the story last Saturday night when my husband and I arrived a little early for slihot, the repentance prayers which precede the High Holy Days. The family was still eating, and a gathering of little girls some with Asian features was playing a Jewish card game in which players need quartets of Shabbat candlesticks and havdala spiceboxes.
Rabbanit Dina had just returned from a Saturday-night run to Ikea; a Beijing family wanted help kashering its kitchen. At midnight Rabbi Shimon pushed into place the partition that converts the living room into an Orthodox synagogue and slihot began.
When his powerful voice intoned the words of Isaiah, "Beiti beit tefilla yikareh lechol ha'amim" "My house shall be called a place of prayer for all peoples" I knew I'd come to the right address.