Protesters stay out on Hong Kong streets, defying Beijing

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters blocked Hong Kong streets in the early hours on Tuesday, maintaining pressure on China as it faces one of its biggest political challenges since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.

Riot police had largely withdrawn and there were none of the clashes, tear gas and baton charges that had erupted over the weekend. As tensions eased, some exhausted demonstrators slept on roadsides while others sang songs or chanted slogans.

One young police officer relaxed in a chair and played on his mobile phone as thousands of demonstrators milled in the streets nearby, some singing and dancing.

Asked why there were so few police, he replied: “Actually, I don't have a reason for you. But we are tired. We are all human beings so we need a rest.”

The protesters, mostly students, are demanding full democracy and have called on the city's leader Leung Chun-ying to step down after Beijing last month announced a plan to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong's leader, known as the Chief Executive, to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.

China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.

Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations.

The outside world has looked on warily, concerned that the clashes could spread and trigger a much harsher crackdown.

“The United States urges the Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a daily briefing on Monday.

The demonstrations, labeled “illegal” by China's Communist-run government in Beijing, are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule over the territory in 1997.

At their height, white clouds of tear gas wafted among some of the world's most valuable office towers and shopping malls, before riot police suddenly withdrew around lunchtime on Monday.

As tensions subsided, weary protesters dozed or sheltered from the sun beneath umbrellas, which have become a symbol of what some are calling the “umbrella revolution”.

In addition to protection from the elements, umbrellas have been used as flimsy shields against pepper spray.

Organizers said that as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets after the protests flared up on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.

On Monday and early Tuesday, protesters massed in at least four of Hong Kong's busiest areas, including Admiralty, where Hong Kong's government is headquartered, the Central business district, Causeway Bay, known for its shopping, and the densely populated Mong Kok district in Kowloon.

“I must stress that the events happening now cannot be attributed to the students or Occupy Central. It has evolved into a civil movement,” said leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Alex Chow.


The movement puts Beijing's ruling Communist Party in a difficult position. Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, while not reacting firmly enough could embolden dissidents on the mainland.

The protests are expected to escalate on Oct. 1, China's National Day holiday, with residents of the nearby former Portuguese enclave of Macau planning a rally.

Pro-democracy supporters from other countries are also expected to protest, potentially causing further embarrassment.

Televised scenes of the chaos in Hong Kong over the weekend have already made a deep impression outside the financial hub.

That was especially the case in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by China as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the Communist-run mainland.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said Beijing needed “to listen carefully to the demands of the Hong Kong people”.

Britain said it was concerned about the situation and called for the right of protest to be protected.

Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was “resolutely opposed to any country attempting in any way to support such illegal activities like 'Occupy Central'.”

“We are fully confident in the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, because I believe this is in keeping with the interests of all the people in China, the region and the world,” she said.

In 1989, Beijing's Tiananmen crackdown sent shockwaves through Hong Kong as people saw how far China's rulers would go to keep their grip on power.


Banks in Hong Kong, including HSBC, Citigroup, Bank of China, Standard Chartered and DBS, shut some branches and advised staff to work from home or go to secondary branches.

While the financial fallout from the turmoil has been limited so far, Hong Kong shares ended down 1.9 percent on Monday.

About 200 workers at Swire Beverage, a unit of Hong Kong conglomerate Swire Pacific and a major bottler for the Coca-Cola Company, went on strike in support of the protesters, a union representative said. They also demanded the city's leader step down.

The protests have spooked tourists, with arrivals from China down sharply ahead of this week's National Day holidays. Hong Kong on Monday canceled the city's fireworks display over the harbor, meant to mark the holiday. The United States, Australia and Singapore issued travel alerts.

In Kowloon, across the harbor from Central district, tens of thousands of people packed the streets with no police in sight. The protesters were highly organized, with supply stations stacked with water bottles, fruit, biscuits, chocolate bars and other food.

Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Elzio Barreto, Clare Baldwin; Venus Wu, Yimou Lee, Diana Chan, Kinling Lo, Twinnie Siu, Bobby Yip, Lisa Jucca, Greg Torode, Umesh Desai, Saikat Chatterjee, Twinnie Siu and Stefanie McIntyre in HONG KONG; Writing by John Ruwitch and Anne-Marie Roantree; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Israel says ‘no winds of war’ despite Syria air strikes

Israel played down weekend air strikes close to Damascus reported to have killed dozens of Syrian soldiers, saying they were not aimed at influencing its neighbor's civil war but only at stopping Iranian missiles reaching Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

Oil prices spiked above $105 a barrel, their highest in nearly a month, on Monday as the air strikes on Friday and Sunday prompted fears of a wider spillover of the two-year-old conflict in Syria that could affect Middle East oil exports.

“There are no winds of war,” Yair Golan, the general commanding Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, told reporters while out jogging with troops.

“Do you see tension? There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?” he said, according to the Maariv NRG news website.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under veiled criticism in Beijing, where he began a scheduled visit in an apparent sign of confidence Syrian President Bashar Assad would not retaliate. China urged restraint without mentioning Israel by name.

Russia, Assad's other protector on the U.N. Security Council, said the strikes by Israel “caused particular alarm.” President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet on Tuesday to try to tackle differences over the Syrian crisis.

Israeli officials said the raids were not connected with Syria's civil war but aimed at stopping Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, acquiring weapons to strike Israeli territory.

Israel aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime,” veteran lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Netanyahu, told Israel Radio.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group based in Britain, said at least 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in the strikes and 100 were missing.

Other opposition sources put the death toll at 300 soldiers, mostly belonging to the elite Republican Guards, a praetorian unit that forms the last line of defense of Damascus and includes mainly members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has controlled Syria since the 1960s.

As well as the heavily fortified Hamah compound, linked to Syria's chemical and biological weapons program, the warplanes hit military facilities manned by Republican Guards on Qasioun Mountain overlooking Damascus and the nearby Barada River basin.

Residents, activists and rebel sources said the area is a supply route to the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, but missiles for Hezbollah did not appear to be the only target.

Air defenses comprising Russian-made surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns on Qasioun and overlooking the rebellious Damascus district of Barzeh were also hit, they said. Their statements could not be verified due to restrictions on media.

“The destruction appeared to be massive,” said one activist in Damascus, who did not want to be identified.

Russia said it was concerned the chances of foreign military intervention in Syria were growing, suggesting its worry stemmed in part from reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict that has killed 70,000 people.

“The further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilization of the so-far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Assad's government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”. It said many civilians had died but there was no official casualty toll.


Israeli officials said that, as after a similar attack in the same area in January, they were calculating Assad would not fight a well-armed neighbor while preoccupied with survival against a revolt that grew from pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Israel has not confirmed the latest attacks officially, but has reinforced anti-missile batteries in the north. It said two rockets landed, by mistake, on Monday, in the Golan Heights, the Israeli-occupied area near Syria's border with Israel.

“They were fired erroneously as a byproduct of internal conflict in Syria,” an Israeli military spokesman said.

Syria would be no match for Israel in any direct military showdown. But Damascus, with its leverage over Lebanon's Hezbollah, could consider proxy attacks through Lebanon.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Iran's Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms for Hezbollah. Hezbollah did not comment.

Moscow and Beijing have blocked Western-backed measures against Assad at the United Nations Security Council, opposing any proposal that has his exit from power as a starting point.

Allegations of the use of chemical weapons – long described by Western leaders as a “red line” that would have serious consequences – have added to regional and international tension.

After months of increasingly bitter fighting, Assad's government and the rebels have each accused the other of carrying out three chemical weapon attacks.

In Washington, an influential U.S. senator introduced a bill on Monday that would provide weapons to some Syrian rebels.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Assad had crossed a red line and “the U.S. must play a role in tipping the scales toward opposition groups”.

President Barack Obama has taken a cautious approach to the reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, saying he would not allow himself to be pressured prematurely into deeper intervention in the conflict.

The White House has said the Syrian government has probably used chemical weapons. A U.S. official said on Monday Washington had no information to suggest that rebels had used them.

Syria is not part of the international treaty that bans poison gas but has said it would never use it in an internal conflict. Rebels say they have no access to chemical arms.

A U.N. inquiry commission said on Monday war crimes investigators had reached no conclusions on whether any side in the Syrian war has used chemical weapons, after a suggestion from one of the team that rebel forces had done so.

Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Michael Martina in Beijing, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Jonathon Burch in Ankara and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff and Mohammad Zargham

China offers to broker Abbas-Netanyahu meeting

China offered to broker a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will both be in Beijing next week on separate visits.

“If the leaders of Palestine and Israel have the will to meet in China, China is willing to offer necessary assistance,” Hua Chunying, the spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying Friday by Xinhua news agency.

The United States is pressing the sides to revive peace talks and has asked the international community to facilitate such a meeting.

Abbas has made a settlement freeze a precondition for talks, a condition Netanyahu rejects.

The party-run People's Daily noted that Netanyahu's visit marked the first time an Israeli prime minister chose China as his first foreign post-election trip. Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister in elections in January.

China urges Iran ‘flexibility’ as IAEA talks begin

China urged Iran to show flexibility on the day the U.N. nuclear watchdog launched talks with the Islamic Republic over greater access to its nuclear sites.

“China hopes the Iranian side can weigh up the situation, take a flexible and pragmatic approach, have serious talks with all six related nations, and enhance dialogues and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency so as to ensure the tensions can be eased through negotiations,” media quoted Chinese President Hu Jintao as telling his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during Ahmadinejad’s visit Friday to Beijing.

Of the six major powers negotiating with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, China and Russia have been most resistant to intensified sanctions and further isolation, while the United States, Britain, France and Germany have favored increased pressure.

In Vienna, meanwhile, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the chief Iranian envoy on nuclear matters, met with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA officials want access to Parchin, a military complex where recent evidence suggests Iran has been developing a weapons program.

Iran insists Parchin is a conventional military facility.

Netanyahu sees expansion of ties with China

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he envisaged a dramatic expansion of Israel’s diplomatic ties with China, including a possible role for Beijing in Middle East diplomacy.

Speaking in Tel Aviv at a celebration marking 20 years since the two nations forged relations, Netanyahu said: “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of Israeli-Chinese relations. I have no doubt that in the coming years we’ll see a dramatic expansion of these ties.

Israeli government figures estimate bilateral trade as having totalled some $8 billion in 2011, up from $6.7 billion in 2010.

Netanyahu also saw Beijing as playing a role in European and U.S.-mediated diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians.

Under Communist rule, China was a main backer of Palestinian struggle for statehood but later lowered its profile on the conflict after forging ties with the Jewish state in the early 1990s.

“I think we can also work together to address the challenges of securing Middle East peace,” Netanyahu said at the gathering attended by Chinese and Israeli diplomats.

Bagel’s roundabout route to China [UPDATE, Chinese Translation]

Read this article in Chinese here.

Once upon a time, whenever Debbie Nagy-Huang and her husband returned home to Beijing from their native New York, they stuffed their suitcases full of H&H bagels. They froze and rationed them so they would last for months.

“They’re just that one taste of home that you couldn’t ever get over here,” she said, sighing. Then one day last year, she saw a small story in a local magazine. Jordan Maseng, an honest-to-God, living-and-breathing New Yorker, was baking and delivering bagels, right here in the Chinese capital.

“I couldn’t believe it. I had to call and order,” she said. “It’s crunchy on the outside. It’s chewy, springy and doughy on the inside. This was definitely a New York bagel. I had to call everybody!”

Maseng, a lanky 22-year-old whose father is a cantor at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, started Hegel’s Bagels 10 months ago. He runs the bakery and delivery service out of his tiny Chinese kitchen on the north side of the city, baking them himself by the half dozen in a “souped-up toaster oven.” From morning until night, he delivers each order himself, by bus, standing next to curious Chinese commuters, to the farthest reaches of the city.

Bagels and Beijing may not be the most intuitive combination, but to Maseng, it was an opportunity. For his belly.

“I just got so hungry for them” since moving to Beijing a year and a half ago, Maseng said.

Maseng is nothing if not enterprising. He had spent a year studying abroad in Beijing while an undergraduate at Oberlin College, and when he graduated in 2009 with a degree in East Asian studies, he decided to return. In November 2009, he arrived in the country with nothing more than a one-time gig booked for his two-man band at a local music venue. “I told them that we were huge at the Oberlin café.”

For about six months, Maseng worked a series of odd jobs: an unpaid internship in coffee sales, tennis coach to Japanese children, English tutor to his landlord’s wife in exchange for a decent bed.

During his free time, Maseng and some friends created a series of inventive dinners based on TV cooking competition shows: “We called it Tron Chef — ‘Top Chef’ meets ‘Iron Chef,’ ” he said. Then, one fateful week, he received a challenge for bagels.

Bagel options in the Chinese capital were few and far between — and usually unimpressive. Most local brands only approximated the mass-produced, Midwestern supermarket bagel, an unacceptable choice for Maseng, who grew up down the street from H&H on New York’s Upper West Side, and whose reply to anything suspiciously green for the better part of his life was, “I’ll just have a bagel and butter, thanks.”

Having only recently started cooking, and with no baking experience, Maseng did what the clueless masses do: He Googled a recipe.

“It’s a snap! A cinch! I thought,” Maseng recalled.

The first batch was an unmitigated disaster. The dough rose for too long. He didn’t knead it enough. The oven temperature was too low. He mistook baking soda for yeast. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” Maseng said.

Determined, Maseng made a half dozen bagels a day for an entire month, his back and arms sore from the unaccustomed workout of endlessly kneading dough. “I really didn’t want to lose that Tron Chef battle,” he said.

Finally, a good batch came forth from his oven — hot, chewy and delicious. Maseng felt he had hit upon something, so he e-mailed and offered to sell bagels to China’s entire Fulbright Fellowship listserv and quit all his odd jobs. “I immediately wanted to be a millionaire,” he joked.

Now, with the bagels going for about $7 U.S. per half dozen, business is booming. Maseng recently moved his cooking part time into a shared industrial kitchen, where he has plans to quadruple his orders in the coming months. He is in talks with a delivery company so he won’t have to work 12 hours a day, most of which is spent on a bus. He has a “couple of hundred” occasional clients and makes about $1,000 per month, which, though it doesn’t quite qualify him as a millionaire, is enough to cover his rent and live comfortably.

The name, Hegel’s Bagels, is just for alliteration. He offers four flavors: plain, sesame, garlic-rosemary and cinnamon-raisin. To the local Chinese, he explains that the bagels are “native bread rings from New York” (even though he works from a Montreal-style recipe — “a horrible sin!” he joked).

Recently, the Chinese shopkeepers of the flour store from which Maseng buys his ingredients were getting increasingly curious.

So one day, Maseng brought one in, split it into a few pieces, and passed it around.

“One of the women had a look of pure disgust on her face, like it was something she picked up out of a garbage can,” Maseng recalled. “I ran out of there fast.”

But university student Zhou Lu gave it a different assessment: “Very delicious! I like how you’re full after just one, not like bread, which you have to eat and eat before getting full.” Zhou now orders about a dozen every two weeks.

For now, though, his clientele remains mostly ex-pats longing for a taste of home.

“I think they’re the best bagels I’ve ever had in China,” said David Emery, a business consultant.

Maseng once even delivered bagels for the U.S. ambassador.

“I don’t think they were a very good batch,” Maseng said, “because he never ordered them again,” though embassy employees remain enthusiastic clients. “I’m so excited when Obama comes,” Maseng deadpanned. “He’ll have my bagels, and we’ll play basketball together.”

In Chinese

过去,来自纽约的Debbie Nagy-Huang和她的丈夫每次回去探亲时,都要带回北京满满一箱子纽约有名的H&H百吉饼。 他们把这一大堆饼珍惜地存放在冷冻箱里,一点点地,慢慢地吃着,一吃就可以吃好几个月。“在北京实在是找不到这种具有家乡味道的饼,”Debbie 说。

去年,她从一家当地的杂志上读到了一条消息:Jordan Maseng,一个地地道道的纽约小伙子在北京开了一家小小的百吉饼外卖店。这小伙子自己烤饼,自己送饼。Debbie简直不敢相信自己的眼睛。她马上就给店主Jordan打了个电话,定了一份饼。她说:“那饼外脆里嫩,真有嚼头儿。这可是真正的纽约白吉饼啊。” 吃完了饼,Debbie立刻就给她所有在北京的美国朋友打了电话!告诉了大家这个好消息。

Jordan Maseng今年22岁,高高的个子。他的父亲是洛杉矶Temple Israel of Hollywood唱诗班的领唱人。Maseng是个很有事业心的好小伙子。他一直觉得自己和中国很有缘分。在Oberlin读大学时,就到北京学习过一年。2009年,他以东亚为专业毕业之后,决定返回中国。2009年11月,他和自己的双人乐队从美国在北京的D22定了一场演唱会,告诉组织者他们这个乐队“在Oberlin大学的咖啡厅可红了!”之后,Maseng在北京打了六个月的零工:当过咖啡推销员,日本小学生的网球老师。有一次。为了有个舒服的地方住宿,还免费教过房东英文。

自从Maseng前年搬到北京,就时常想念自己喜爱的家乡食品-白吉饼。百吉饼,这是个在美国十分平常的食品,但是要是想在北京找到它,可就不容易了。即使找到了,味道也不地道,和纽约百吉饼的风味相差甚远。这让在曼哈顿上西区长大的Maseng很是失望。 小时候,每当有人劝说他多吃些蔬菜时,Maseng总会很有礼貌地说:“谢谢。我只要有百吉饼和奶油就足够了。”





但是,他坚持不懈地作着百吉饼。每天做半打,整整做了一个月。那一段时间里,因为长时间不停地站着揉面,他的腰也酸腿也疼。他说:“我实在是不想输那场比赛。” 终于有一天,他从烤箱里端出了一盘香喷喷、韧劲十足的白吉饼。于是,他的创业精神大发,辞掉了所有的零工,开始了他的百吉饼事业。他给中国所有富布赖特奖学金的获得者都发了一个电子邮件,向他们推荐自己的白吉饼。他开玩笑地说:“我以为我立刻就要成为百万富翁了”

十个月前,他在北京开了家百吉饼店,叫作Hagel’s Bagels。他在北三环和朋友一起租了一套单元房。从早到晚,他在窄小的厨房里精心地用小烤箱烤着白吉饼,还坐着公交车跑遍京城,亲自挨家挨户的送饼。

如今,Hegel’s Bagels半打百吉饼卖7美元,每日生意兴隆。最近,Maseng 和他人合租了一间职业厨房,计划在几个月里把产量扩大四倍。他还和一个外卖公司商量,承担外送工作。这样,他就不用一天工作12个小时了。 他每个月都有几百个顾客,能挣上1000美元。虽然不算大钱,但是足以付房租和过上舒服的日子了。

Hegel’s Bagels这个名字只是为了押韵好听。他烤的饼有四种口味:原味、迷人香和蒜、肉桂葡萄干、和芝麻。如果好奇的中国顾客问起来,他就解释说这是纽约的土产面包圈。其实,他用的是蒙特利尔式白吉饼的食谱。



目前,Maseng现在的客户大多还是在北京想家的外国人。“我觉得这是我在中国吃过得最好的白吉饼,”商业顾问David Emery说。

Maseng还为美国大使送过白吉饼呢。“那天可能没烤好,”Maseng说,“因为从此以后,大使再也没有定过。”不过,美国大使馆的职员们还是他的忠诚客户。“我很盼望奥巴马再来北京,”他开着玩笑说, “那时,他就可以尝尝我烤得饼。吃完了,我们还可以一起打篮球!” 

Rude Israeli Olympic medalist ticks off Chinese, Peres apologizes

BEIJING (JTA)—Israel’s biggest source of pride at the Beijing 2008 Olympics became its biggest blight this past week, after ” title=”interview published September 5th”>interview published September 5th in Israel’s Yediot Aharanot.

That was his answer when the reporter asked him to describe his hosts in one word.

Zubari also said he didn’t feel very comfortable during the month and a half he spent in China, and was happy he wouldn’t have to see any more Chinese people.

“They are difficult,” he said. “They don’t speak the language, their rituals are strange and even their pronunciation is weird.”
He added he didn’t like Chinese food and missed his usual food. “I can live off hummus.”

His comments could be especially damaging considering China is about to send its ” title=”Chinese citizen living in Israel”>Chinese citizen living in Israel who takes issue with comments by Israeli telecasters during the Games.

Since Zubari’s story broke in the Chinese online press, articles and posts on the web in Mandarin are numerous. They range from outrage to observations that Zubari is just an ignorant youth.

The Shanghaiist in an ” title=”Talkback”>Talkback” section on the Ha’aertz website also has international comments including some Chinese readers.

Zubari clearly offended beyond the online message boards, however, as the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv canceled a reception for Israeli Olympians set to be held last Wednesday.

President Shimon Peres even apologized to the Chinese ambassador on Wednesday, and Ghaleb Majadle, Israeli Minister of Sport, Science and Culture made an ” title=”op-ed”>op-ed suggesting that better PR training for athletes (especially young ones like 22-year-old Zubari) could have prevented the gaffe.

A boy becomes a man in Beijing

Isaac Shapiro managed to fit in a visit to the bimah during his busy Olympic schedule.

After attending a night of competition at the Bird’s Nest, and before seeing American NBA stars blow out world-champion Spain on the basketball court, Isaac was called to the Torah for the first time on Shabbat.

The teenager from Highland Park, Ill., marked the milestone in front of his close family — and a bunch of strangers.

“This shows our children that there is community everywhere,” said Isaac’s mother, Marjie.

Isaac chanted the maftir and haftarah in a loud and confident voice even though he was slightly hoarse from cheering at events all week. His humorous d’var Torah, filled with sports references, made the regulars at the Chabad shul laugh out loud.

His Torah portion reviewed the Ten Commandments, and his talk emphasized not to worship idols, including “sports heroes,” or covet material objects like his friend’s new iPod.

“Instead, I should appreciate my old one,” he said.

While Isaac’s bar mitzvah was a centerpiece of the Jewish happenings in Beijing during the Olympics, it did not play to the packed house that Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freundlich had predicted. Nor did Dini’s, the local kosher eatery that stayed open 24 hours, seven days a week for the Games, find itself overflowing with customers, although business did increase.

Still, for the Shapiro family, the chance to celebrate Isaac’s bar mitzvah was a highlight.

“So many people we have met during our trip to China have told us that what we’re doing is really special,” Marjie said of her family’s decision to stage the simcha during an Olympic trip. “Other tourists, especially Jews, were really blown away when we told them about the bar mitzvah. Lots of people said it was the best story they’d heard yet in Beijing.”

“And for us, even with seeing gymnastics finals and tennis and the U.S. basketball game,” the Shabbat morning service “was definitely the highlight of our trip,” she said.

Her husband, Sam, offered kudos to Freundlich, calling him “really incredible.”

The bar mitzvah wasn’t special simply because of the Olympics or the Bird’s Nest-shaped cake at lunch. Isaac also read from the Torah using a yad, or pointer, from the Chabad House’s new Chinese Jewish artifacts display. The yad was made in 1903 and used by the Jewish community in Tianjin. Its handle is a large open-mouthed dragon forged with intricate details.

The small exhibit contains other similar ritual objects, including a menorah shaped like a Chinese canal boat from the Shanghai community, letters and other communications from Jews in China. There are books about the Jewish communities of China, and even books in Chinese about how to learn Jewish secrets to financial success.

About 50 people attended the Shabbat service and lunch, although more than half were visitors from the United States, Israel and South Africa. Not all the guests came from far away: One woman was visiting from northern China’s Ha’erbin just to feel the Beijing atmosphere during the Games.

The assistant manager at Dini’s said the Friday night dinner on Aug. 15 also was less crowded than usual, with only 70 people, including small children.

Despite the Shabbat dip in attendance, Dini’s business has risen by 30 to 40 percent since the Olympics began on Aug. 8.

“Most of the guests are from Israel or America,” Willy Wang, the assistant manager, said, “but Chinese people have also been coming. Many are locals who read about the place online and think it’s something special, or especially clean and healthy because it’s kosher.”

Wang said they have been making many deliveries to tourists in hotels. The only delivery to the Olympic village was to Bat-El Getterer, an Israeli taekwondo competitor who is observant.

“She knew she could not survive two weeks in pre-competition training on vegetarian airline food,” Freundlich said, so he was able to negotiate a special Dini’s delivery for her.

A kosher-observant bodyguard with the Israeli delegation noticed the service and asked to be included.

“He was just eating rice,” Freundlich said.

The rabbi also doled out 68 challahs in the village for the first week’s Shabbat.

Walking around the village, his Chabad attire alluded to his Jewish status, which he said inspired many Jewish athletes or delegation members to introduce themselves.

“The first question everyone asks is, ‘What’s your event?'” the long-bearded Freundlich joked, grabbing his belly. “I always reply, ‘the marathon.'”

VIDEO: Virtual Rabbi David presents ‘The Jewish Olympics’

Virtual Rabbi (and Olympics fan) David Paskin presents a Shabbat message based on the determination and dedication of Olympic athletes.

David Paskin, or Rabbi David as he is known by his congregants, is an accomplished spiritual leader, singer/songwriter, entertainer and award-winning Jewish educator. For more than a decade, David has served as full-time Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Canton, Massachusetts


Mark Spitz: Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever

His hair is gray, the 70s mustache is history, he’s taking medication to control his cholesterol, and depending when you ask, iconic Jewish Olympian Mark Spitz is really pleased with the way the U.S. Olympics swimming team has fared this Summer.

Spitz on Phelps according to Wikipedia:

Spitz told AFP he felt snubbed about not being asked to attend the 2008 Olympics to watch Michael Phelps attempt to break his record of seven gold medals.

“I never got invited. You don’t go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am….I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That’s almost demeaning to me. It is not almost—it is.”

Spitz also says he could have won eight gold medals if given the chance. “I won seven events. If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too,” he said. And Spitz thinks Phelps will succeed, “he’s almost identical to me. He’s a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did,” Spitz said. “He reminds me of myself.”

Other than to pose for an odd picture with Phelps, Spitz does not have much interaction with the superstar. “He’s not sitting down with me asking for advice,” he said.

“They voted me one of the top five Olympians in all time. Some of them are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me,” he said. “Yes, I am a bit upset about it.”

On August 14, Spitz appeared on NBC’s Today Show where he clarified his statement and his pride in Michael Phelps:

It’s about time that somebody else takes the throne. And I’m very happy for him. I really, truly am…I was working with a corporate sponsor who elected not to bring their US contingent over to China, and they piled on more work for me here in the United States, which was great. So I wasn’t able to get to the Olympics and watch Michael in the first couple of days. And they thought, some of these reporters, that I was supposed to be invited by some entity, and I told them that that wasn’t really the case, that doesn’t happen that way. And so, I’m sort of disappointed that I wasn’t there, but, you know, that interview somehow took a different turn, and I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of them and I’ve been true to form about the way I feel about Michael, and he’s doing a great job for the United States and inspiring a lot of great performances by the other team members.

Also on August 14, 2008, in an interview aired on Los Angeles KNBC-4’s morning news show, Today in L.A., Spitz was quoted saying he does believe that, “Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever.”

On August 15, 2008, as part of an interview on NBC, Spitz said that he felt Phelps’ performance in the 100 fly in Beijing was “epic”. Spitz paid this compliment to Phelps just two hours after his record-tying seventh gold medal during a live joint interview with Bob Costas:

You know, Bob and Michael, I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time, when it would happen and who I would say it to, and of course I thought I was going to say it to you for some time now. But, it’s the word that comes to mind, “epic”. What you did tonight was epic, and it was epic for the whole world to see how great you really are. I never thought for one moment that you were out of that race and contention, because I watched you at Athens win the race by similarALTTEXT margins, and 18 months ago at the World’s by similar margins. And, you know, that is a tribute to your greatness. And now the whole world knows. We are so proud of you Michael here in America, and we are so proud of you and the way that you handle yourself, and you represent such an inspiration to all the youngsters around the world. You know, you weren’t born when I did what I did, and I’m sure that I was a part of your inspiration, and I take that as a full compliment. And they say that you judge one’s character by the company you keep, and I’m happy to keep company with you. And you have a tremendous responsibility for all those people that you are going to inspire over the next number of years, and I know that you will wear the crown well. Congratulations, Mike.

Spitz’s remarks came after another record-breaking anchor sprint by Jewish gold medal winnner Jason Lezak (photo, right) helped Phelps win his record-breaking eight gold. Lezak had earlier earned a bronze in his first individual medal win.

The NY Daily News wrote:

You just wonder how the Olympics will go on now without Michael Phelps. He leaped into the water one last time Sunday morning – the third, butterfly leg of the 4×100 relay. He started in third place and clambered out in first, after 100meters of flapping and kicking and swimming the lights out. Phelps grabbed the lead and then his old wing man, Jason Lezak, did the rest again.

Another American Jewish swimming star, Los Angeles-born Dara Torres, a 41-year old mom, was edged by .01 second and garnered a silver—the same margin that kept Michael Phelps on course to break Mark Spitz’s record, wrote the Los Angeles Times:

The five-time Olympian and the oldest American swimmer ever, settled for a silver when Germany’s Britta Steffen nipped her at the wall in the 50-meter freestyle to complete a sweep of the women’s sprint events in Beijing.


USA’s Dara Torres wins silver in the Women’s 50m freestyle. Image courtesy


Sunday wrapup from Beijing: U.S. swimmer Torres wins two silvers; Israelis lag

BEIJING (JTA)—United States’ swimmer Dara Torres won two more silver medals in Beijing.

Torres won the medals Sunday in the Women’s 50m Freestyle and the Women’s 4x100m Medley Relay.

Jewish-American swimmers Jason Lezak and Garret Weber-Gale both added another gold medal to their collection, joining Michael Phelps and teammates to win the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay.

Israeli athletes did not fare as well Sunday. Alex Shatilov finished last in the Men’s Floor Exercise final, the only apparatus final the Israeli gymnast qualified for in the Beijing Games.

Shatilov fell on his final landing, and received a score of 14.125 after a .400 penalty. The gold medalist in the event was Zou Kai of China, with a total score of 16.050.

Shooter Doron Egozi finished 36th, while Gil Simkovitch finished 38th, in the Men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions event. Shooters Guy Starik and Simkovich also competed Friday in the Men’s 50m Rifle Prone qualification round, but neither advanced to the final. Starik came in 12th with a score of 594, while Simkovich came in 22nd with 592 points. This finish was an improvement on Starik’s Athens finish of 16th. He joins sailor Yoel Selais as the only Israelis to compete in four Olympics.

Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari, who was leading in first place after five races, slipped to third place after his seventh race in the Men’s RS:X competition. Zubari finished 17th in race 5, sixth in race 6, and 19th in race 7. He was able to maintain a first place position after race 5 because he is allowed to drop his worst performance, but after continuing to perform outside of first place, he no longer retains his top rank.

Israeli windsurfer Maayan Davidovitch is 14th in the Women’s RS:X competition after seven races.

Israeli sailing duo Nike Kornecky and Vered Bouskila finished their eighth race in first place, and moved up to number three in the ranking of the Women’s 470 two-person dinghy event. With two more races until the top ten boats in the fleet qualify for the medal race on Monday, the Israeli pair looks solid for advancement.

Net losses for Israelis at Olympics

BEIJING (JTA)—Israel’s tennis players were eliminated from the Beijing Olympics.

Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, the third-seeded men’s doubles team with perhaps the best chance at a medal among the Israelis on the court, were upset Tuesday by the unseeded tandem of Arnaud Clement and Llodra Michael of France, 6-4, 6-4, in their first-round match.

Erlich and Ram had beaten the Frenchmen in January in the Australian Open final to give Israel its first Grand Slam title.

Also Tuesday, Tzipora Obziler fell to Mariya Koryttseva of Ukraine, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4, in a grueling three-hour women’s singles match. The deciding set lasted an hour, 6 minutes.

That same evening, Obziler and Shahar Peer dropped a women’s double match, 6-3, 6-2, to Gisela Dulko and Betina Jozami of Argentina.

Peer, the 24th seed in women’s singles, was eliminated in the second round Monday by Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 7-6. The second set took 1:11.

Peer had won her first-round match, 6-3, 5-7, 6-0, over Sorana Cirstea of Romania.

Report from Beijing: Security, it’s not just for airports anymore

BEIJING (JTA)—Security checks no longer just for airports in Beijing

Olympic security is no easy task. It’s not just about the sports venues — attention must be paid to the entire city’s infrastructure, hot spots and transportation systems.

One of the transitions that I think Beijing residents have done with few complaints is adjust to bag x-ray security checks at the entrance of every subway station. This measure was added at the end of June as part of a three-month campaign to secure the city for the Olympics and Paralympics, yet even now, there are still a few stray stations where a guard manually looks in your bag for lack of a scanning machine.

Want to ride the subway? Let’s see what you’re packing.

This is the kind of treatment one might be used to in Israel, but not in freewheeling China.

When I ate at Dini’s kosher restaurant two nights before the Opening Ceremony, I was greeted by a 20-year-old Chinese guard in a reflective security vest with the Hebrew word “Bitachon” (security) on the front and a scanner wand in hand. My Israeli security check flashbacks returned — although I never spoke in Mandarin to the guys who checked my bag at the entrance to Jerusalem bars.

I don’t think China has quite reached the “chefetz chashud,” or suspicious object, level of alertness that one might find in Israel (and lately in the United States as well), where seeing an abandoned bag or anything out of the ordinary would merit a call to the authorities.

Maybe they are more vigilant out in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where Muslim separatist sentiment is strong and there have been both thwarted and actualized attacks in recent months. This story shows how the Chinese decided to rely on a low-tech approach to sounding the alarm – with a whistle.

All jokes about whistles aside, many Chinese people I have talked to in Beijing have insisted how Chinese terrorists, usually referring to Xinjiang or sometimes Tibetans, are “really fierce.” I wonder whether this is based on fear-mongering by the domestic media or not. On the one hand, 16 officers were killed and another 16 were injured in the western capital Kashgar this week when two men rammed a dump truck and hurled explosives at a group of jogging policemen. But of course, this kind of incident is used to crack down on individual freedoms and the rights of the press, who are not being afforded all the openness that was promised for the duration of the Olympics as evidenced by the recent beating of two Japanese journalists suffered while covering the most recent Xinjiang incident

The Israeli Embassy will have an event on Monday, Aug. 18 to commemorate the most fatal breach of Olympic security, the 1972 Munich Games where 11 Israeli athletes were killed after a terrorist infiltration of their Olympic Village accommodations. This tragedy was commemorated even earlier this year in Beijing, at the Chabad Purim party, which was Olympics-themed but included several placards and handouts about the athletes who died in ‘72.

With such a sobering legacy of Israeli Olympic participation, you would think that security would be more intense for the Jewish state’s athletes as compared to other delegations in the village. Yet Ephraim Zinger, the secretary-general of the Israeli Olympic Committee and chief of misson, says the Israelis are on the list of countries with the most sensitive security issues, but “we aren’t the only ones, and we aren’t at the top of the list either.”

Report from Beijing: Swapping old Jewish swim records for new ones

BEIJING (JTA)—Jewish-American swimmers Garret Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak, along with Cullen Jones and the unstoppable Olympic champion Michael Phelps, made history in the pool on Monday, August 11.

The US relay team won the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay and smashed the world record by nearly four seconds on their way to the gold.

In a strange Jewish sports irony, the gold for this half-Jewish team may come at a price to the legacy of an iconic Jewish sports figure.

Phelps needed this gold medal to help him on his quest to break legendary Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz’s 36- year-old ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”432″ height=”441″ />

Mark Spitz, sports icon

Irvine’s Jason Lezak anchors 400-meter relay swim team for the gold

“I can’t even explain it, it was unreal. I’ve been a part of the two teams at the last two Olympics that came out behind, and I think I wanted it more than anybody, not just for myself, but to show that we are the nation to be beat in that relay, ” Jason Lezak told the Los Angeles Times

Lezak swam the final lap for the 400-meter team (including Michael Phelps), which won another gold for the U.S. That makes three Jewish medallists to date; Americans swimmer Dara Torres, swimming relay, and Sada Jacobson, fencing, have both earned silver.

Lezak, born in Irvine, has four Olympic medals. He was on a gold-medal-winning medley relay team, and won gold as a member of the medley relay team in Sydney.

He also has a silver medal from swimming on the 4×100 freestyle relay in Sydney and a bronze in the same event from Athens.

Lezak and another Jewish swimmer, Garrett Weber-Gale, comprised half the U.S. squad with Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones. The Americans finished Monday’s race in 3:08.24, erasing the world mark by about 4 seconds.

Lezak swam 46.06 seconds in managing to overtake world record-holder Alain Bernard of France. Lezak, who picked up his third career gold medal, trailed by nearly a second heading into the final lap. His time would have beaten his American record in the 100 freestyle.

Weber-Gale followed Phelps’ opening leg with a time of 47.02.

The U.S. team had beaten the world mark in the qualifying round with a team that did not include Lezak or Phelps but did have Ben Wildman-Tobriner, another Jewish swimmer.

Phelps has now earned two gold medals in his bid to win eight and break the mark of seven set by Mark Spitz, also a Jewish swimmer, in the 1972 Games in Munich.

VIDEO: History will be made in Beijing

Director Oren Kaplan (Miriam & Shoshana hardcore gangstas) offers this 60-second ‘commercial’ for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

VIDEO: Tel Aviv rally protests religious persecution in China

Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy lead rally protesting Chinese persecution of Falun Gong and China’s involvement in Sudan

Israel comes to Beijing with its largest team, high hopes

BEIJING (JTA)—The largest contingent in Israeli Olympic history is eyeing its biggest medal haul as the Olympics get under way here.

Two of the five medal winners in the country’s Olympic history are among the 43 athletes—nearly half females—competing in the 2008 Games here. Plus there are hopes for several others.

Michael Kolganov, who won a bronze medal in kayaking at the 2000 Games in Sydney, was designated the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony Friday evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, who composed a poem about the Olympics, joined Kolganov and others from the Israeli delegation in Beijing.

Arik Ze’evi is back after taking the bronze in judo at the 2004 Games in Athens. With third-place finishes in the 2007 and 2008 European Championships, expectations for him are high.

Gil Fridman, who won the gold in men’s windsurfing in Athens, is not on this year’s squad.

But the 470 men’s sailing duo of Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger is coming off three straight bronze medals in the World Championships and a bronze in the European Championship.

Israel, which has never won more than two medals in an Olympics, is also looking for hardware from its men’s doubles tennis team of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich. Ranked No. 5 in the world, Ram and Erlich captured their first Grand Slam title at the Australia Open in January, and reached the quarterfinals last month at Wimbledon.

While the expectations are high, most of the athletes are making their Olympic debuts and are relatively young.

“Many will continue on to the next Games,” predicted Ephraim Zinger, the Israel Olympic Committee secretary-general and mission chief.

Zinger told JTA that Kolganov was chosen as the flag bearer for his “personality.” A native of the former Soviet Union, Kolganov made aliyah as a teenager, eventually moving from Haifa to a Jordan Valley kibbutz. He served fulfilled his military obligation by serving in the army’s program for sporting excellence.

“He is a kind of role model, as someone who made aliyah when he was young and became a successful part of Israeli society,” Zinger told JTA.

Kolganov won the bronze in the K1 500 meters in Sydney and finished fourth in the 1000-meter race, falling just short of becoming the only Israeli to earn two medals in a single Olympics.

Not all the Israeli athletes will be on hand for the opening ceremony. The Israel Olympic Committee is flying in the competitors according to the date of their events and a formula for calculating the amount of time needed to acclimate to a new time zone.

Zinger says the Israelis do not have any extra security accommodations in China. Eleven Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Games in Munich.

“We live in the Olympic Village like all the other athletes, and we rely on the experience and expertise of the local authorities to do their best so we can compete peacefully and go back safely,” said Zinger, who noted that the Israel Olympic Committee has invested some $20 million over the past four years in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

“The Olympic Security Department made an assessment and drew up a list of countries with the most sensitive security issues, and I can tell you we aren’t the only ones, and we aren’t at the top of the list either.”

Activists champion Darfur in pre-Olympic vigil at Chinese Consulate in Koreatown

” title=”JWW”>JWW, including activists and representatives from 60 Los Angeles area synagogues, rallied today to ask the Chinese government’s to help stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Organized by JWW Co-Founder and President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, the event featured speeches from U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (35th-CA), Rabbi Joshua Grater of Pasadena Jewish Temple,  Haig Hovespian of the Armenian National Committee of America, Pastor Samuel Chu of Immanuel Presbyterian Church and Rabbi Ari Leubitz of Bnai David Congregation.  To open and close the ceremony, Rabbi Ahud Sela of Sinai Temple blew the shofar to signify a call to action. 

The gathering at the Koreatwon facility aimed to call attention to the responsibility China has to the world as a country, world leader and Olympic host.  “We can’t transcend national boundaries while hundreds of thousands of people are killed. It becomes a sham,” Reznik said.

China is currently the chief diplomatic sponsor and largest foreign investor to the Sudan.  It is also reportedly supplying arms to Sudan, for use in Darfur, in breach of a United Nations arms embargo.

Since 2003 close to 400,000 civilians in Darfur have died as a result of violence, disease and malnutrition.  As one of Sudan’s largest oil exporters and closest allies, China has opposed continuous efforts to enforce international sanctions on Sudan.

Addressing the consulate directly, Hovespian said “You have an opportunity to take pride in yourselves in your nation for doing the right thing.” As the speeches concluded and marching began, protestors repeated, “Never again; never again.”

For the past six months, Jewish World Watch has held monthly vigils outside the Chinese Consulate as part of the four-year-old organization’s efforts to bring attention to the problems in Darfur. Other projects include helping fund medical clinics to aid Darfurian refugees, sending backpacks with educational, health and hygienic supplies, and providing solar cookers to minimize trips for firewood outside refugee camps.  Reznick told the group that the Torah tells us “not to stand idly while blood of others is shed.”

Israeli swimmer’s Olympic dreams marred by father’s death

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli swimmer Alon Mendel realized his father’s dream when he qualified for the Olympic team.

Sadly, his father won’t be there to see his son compete after an accident at the family’s Netanya home claimed Costa Mendel’s life.

In a tragic irony, Alon, 20, was in Beijing preparing to vie for a medal when he learned that his father suffered fatal head injuries after falling off a ladder outside the family home Wednesday night while trying to hang up a banner honoring his son’s Olympic bid. Costa was also Alon’s longtime coach.

“How do you say ‘semifinals’ in Chinese?” read the hand-painted banner, a testament to Costa’s optimism about the prospects of Alon, who joined the Israeli delegation after another swimmer was disqualified.

For the Mendel family, the loss was made more acute by the dilemma of whether to recall Alon from the Games. He is scheduled to compete Monday in the 200-meter butterfly race.

Alon’s mother, Rina, decided that the best way to honor Costa’s memory would be for her son to compete. His sister Maya joined him in Beijing, while another sister remained in Netanya to help arrange the funeral.

“You have to stay there and be strong,” Rina told Alon by phone Thursday in a conversation recorded by Israel’s Channel 10 television.

“You know your father waited for this moment. Your parents waited for this. We will be among 42 sets of parents watching,” she said, in reference to the size of Israel’s biggest-ever Olympic delegation.

Judaism places great importance on honoring the dead by attending the burial and, in the case of next of kin, giving up all activities to sit for the seven-day shiva.

Not everyone agreed with the Mendels’ thinking. Reams of comments on Web sites disapproved of Alon’s staying in Beijing.

Channel 10 quoted Alon as saying that when he swims Monday, he will imagine his father sitting in the audience, cheering him on along with the rest of his family and the State of Israel.

“I intend to muster all my strength and compete,” he said.

According to Ha’aretz, Alon will fly back to Israel after competing to take part in what remains of the shiva week.

Welcome to the Orwell Olympics

Now that every dissident within a hundred miles of Beijing has been intimidated, jailed or internally exiled; now that the Chinese communist party has shut down formerly legal means of citizen redress, like petitioning the government; now that free assembly has been banned, unsightly small businesses have been bulldozed, hotel computers have been bugged, and the foreign press has been bamboozled, the “quiet diplomacy” favored until this week by President Bush and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has given way to Mr. Bush’s “>Washington Post, spokesmen for Beijing’s Olympic Organizing Committee and for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a recent press conference that “reporters did not actually need to visit blocked Web sites to do their jobs.” Sure enough, journalists arriving at the Olympic media center last week found that their Web browsers could not connect to sites like Western news outlets, human rights organizations, Wikipedia and Chinese dissident groups like the Falun Gong and Free Tibet.

Ever since Beijing won the venue for the games, M. Rogge has been telling everyone who’ll listen what a swell development this will be for free speech and human rights in China. Instead, foreign news crews have found their access to Tiananmen Square sharply curtailed – lest those images remind viewers of the tank crackdown of dissidents in 1989 – and thousands of non-violent protesters across China, according to a new Amnesty International report subtitled “Broken Promises,” have been persecuted, punished and jailed.

Last week Sen. Brownback (R-Kan.), whose rages I have previously not shared, released documents showing that international hotel chains have been required by the Chinese Public Security Bureau, under threat of harsh punishment, to install Internet spyware designed to capture Beijing’s hotel guests’ Web browsing history, their Googling, even their keystrokes, which means their e-mail.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the keystrokes of foreign tourists, athletes’ families and NBC executives were being captured today by the Chinese security apparatus. Nearly 30 years ago, soon after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, I went to China as part of the highest-level official U.S. visit to date. The Chinese housed us in a campus-like compound of guesthouses, where we took walks between events. One member of our delegation, a National Security Agency staffer, pointed out to me a picturesque bridge where Henry Kissinger had often paused to chat privately with aides during his visits. Turns out that bridge, like all the places we stayed, was bugged. The upside of this was getting to go to a meeting in the new U.S. embassy in Beijing, where confidential conversations were enabled by entering a floating clear-sided room-within-a-room that totally reminded me of the cool cone of silence in the television series “Get Smart.”

China has come quite a distance since 1979. Economically its story is breathtaking, and freedoms like travel and property ownership have made demonstrable gains. But China’s human rights record remains depressing, its tolerance of dissent and minorities is minimal, its environmental damage to the planet is terrifying, its intransigence on the genocide in Darfur is unconscionable and its cheap exports are candy to American consumers.

The $900 million that NBC paid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, like the billions that China spent to get ready for the games, have created a Potemkin village for the world to admire.

From Rupert Murdoch’s kowtow to the Chinese police state, which enabled him to crack the Chinese market by eliminating BBC News from his satellite television programming; to the complicity of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco with Chinese Internet censors, the rationale has always been the same: The more we engage with China, the more free their people will be. Once those 1.3 billion people develop a taste for openness, there’ll be no stopping them.

Why do I have the feeling that if hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports and of American business investments in China were not at stake, “quiet diplomacy” wouldn’t have become the slogan du jour?

President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” wasn’t particularly quiet. President Bush doesn’t have to ask Mr. Hu Jintao to tear down the Great Wall of China, but the least he can do—now that the opportunity represented by the years running up to the Olympics has been squandered—is to use in public, in China, some of the lovely human rights language he claims he’s been saying in private.

Our president never let the bully of Baghdad crimp his freedom-agenda rhetoric. Why did it take him so long to send some public pro-democracy love to the Big Brothers of Beijing?

Marty Kaplan has been a political speechwriter, a movie studio executive, a screenwriter and producer, a radio host and a blogger. Today he directs the Norman Lear Center for the study of the impact of entertainment on society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly and

Recalling Shanghai’s Jewish past

SHANGHAI, China (JTA)—Uri Gutman had more than parades and picnics in mind a couple of years ago when the Israeli government allotted funds to its Shanghai consul general for an Israel Independence Day reception.

Gutman wanted to make a bigger impact with a service project in the community.

So he devised a three-step plan to give back to elderly residents of the Hongkou neighborhood, the area made into a “stateless refugees” ghetto during the Japanese occupation during World War II and home to more than 20,000 European Jews fleeing the Nazis.

While the world’s eyes are trained on Beijing for the Summer Olympics, which start Friday, Shanghai’s Jewish history has been spotlighted recently as well.

Many of the refugees reached Shanghai through the heroic efforts of Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna who issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews. Ho was honored with a special tribute in June.

He came to be known as the “Chinese Schindler,” in reference to the German industrialist who saved Jews. Oskar Schindler’s life became the story of an Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List,” by Steven Spielberg.

The consulate and 27 Israeli companies joined to raise approximately $87,000 for Gutman’s project detailing Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The first step was completed in June, a renovation of the Hongkou Elders’ Activity Center in Huoshan Park, around the corner from the site of the former Ohel Moshe synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The funds also were used to set up a database, to be housed at the refugees museum, of names and addresses of Shanghai’s Jewish residents. Gutman wants the database to be interactive and eventually include multimedia and information on the whereabouts of descendants.

“Here, after the war, Jews spread all over and there is nothing left, no community, no archives,” Gutman lamented.

Also at the museum in June, the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad honored Ho, dedicating a marker in English, Chinese and Hebrew. In cooperation with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the commission also opened a photo exhibition about Ho’s life and work.

After Austria’s annexation by Germany and Kristallnacht in 1938, many of its 185,000 Jews, most of whom lived in Vienna, needed safe passage out of Europe. Acquiring the necessary documentation proved especially difficult after the 1938 Evian Conference at which 32 countries, including the United States, made it clear they would not stand up to the Nazis.

As the consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, Ho at his own peril sometimes issued as many as 900 visas a month to Jews trying to escape Nazi rule.

Ho’s daughter, Manli, was on hand for the ceremony along with American, Chinese and Israeli officials.

She recalled that one visa recipient, Eric Goldstaub, visited 50 foreign consulates in Vienna before obtaining from her father 20 Chinese visas for himself and his family.

“On Kristallnacht, both Goldstaub and his father were arrested and imprisoned, but with the Chinese visas as proof of emigration, they were released within days and embarked on their journey to China,” Manli wrote in the event’s program.

Not all of the Chinese visa holders from Austria, Europe’s third largest Jewish community, went to China. But those who did entered predominantly in Shanghai, where the open ports enabled them to immigrate with minimal hassle.

Other recipients of Ho’s life-saving visas included those arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald.

His work was motivated by humanitarian reasons.

“I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help,” Ho once wrote.

Ho acted in defiance of direct orders to desist from his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, and incurred a subsequent demerit from his own government.

In early 1939, the Nazis confiscated the Chinese consulate building in Vienna, but Ho continued his efforts issuing visas from a smaller facility for which he paid all the expenses himself.

Ho continued his diplomatic career after leaving Vienna in 1940 and moved to San Francisco following his retirement in 1973. In 1990, he published a memoir, “40 Years of My Diplomatic Life.”

His heroism in Vienna mostly went unrecognized during his lifetime. The Republic of China ignored his legacy for many years because he was a member of the KMT Nationalist Party. Meanwhile, he was denied his pension by the nationalist government in Taiwan because he was accused of embezzling a small sum of money.

The accolades would come after his death in 1997. In 2001 he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In June, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring Ho.

At the Shanghai ceremony, Martin Gold, a member of the U.S. preservation commission, praised Ho by pointing out that 70 years ago most nations, “including my nation, rebuffed the Jews.”

Gold noted that all the Jewish recipients of Chinese visas lived, with many eventually settling in America.

“Dr. Ho’s life was itself a bridge between China and America,” he said in his speech. “No relationship in the world is more important.”

Your guide to Jewish Beijing

BEIJING (JTA)—Dror Poleg, an Israeli who has lived in Beijing for three years, says being Jewish is “easier in China than in Israel.”

“In Israel there is lots of politics, what school you go to, what yarmulke you wear,” Poleg says. “Here you can just be you.”

Beijing has had an organized Jewish community since China’s open-door policy of the late 1970s. The city’s Chabad-Lubavitch and liberal congregations cooperate well, notably on education.

And Jewish visitors coming to the Chinese capital for the Summer Olympics will find plenty of choices for davening on Friday night and Saturday morning.

While Judaism is not among the five world religions recognized by the Chinese government, foreigners are basically free to observe, as long as they are diligent about keeping in touch with authorities and registering any activities.

The lack of official recognition, however, does not put a damper on Jewish activities in Beijing.

Some 1,500 Jewish residents and a regular flow of Jewish tourists can pray at the liberal Kehillat Beijing and Chabad services at multiple locations.

Two New Yorkers established Kehillat. Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, both Long Islanders, met in Beijing in 1979 when a Chinese colleague told Silverberg there was “another Jewish girl just like you” across town, and handed her Lipson’s business card.

Lipson and Silverberg became friends and in 1981 founded Chindex International Inc., a successful health-care and medical equipment company now listed on the Nasdaq exchange.

For more than 25 years, they have lived with their families and practiced Judaism in China. The women hosted their first seder in 1980, with more than 25 guests at a Beijing hotel and matzah brought over from Taiwan.

Over the years they have organized regular Shabbat and holiday services, adult classes and a Hebrew school. By 2000, Kehillat Beijing had a home, a Torah and a core group of congregants. The egalitarian, lay-led community blends Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative beliefs and traditions.

So when Chabad Rabbi Shimon Freudlich came to Beijing in 2001, he understood that Chabad wasn’t the first outpost of Jewish life here. Still, he knew that Chabad could provide services that Kehillat did not.

“I came to Beijing because it was my dream always to come to a place where the Jewish infrastructure was limited and expand it, where there was no Jewish day school or kosher restaurant, and no mikvah, and to build it,” Freudlich says.

Many Beijing Jews now rely on Chabad for their religious needs.

Chabad’s Mei Tovah mikvah opened in 2006 with spa facilities and a Chinese-inspired design. It is used about 15 to 20 times a month and is a welcome convenience for women who otherwise would fly to Hong Kong or use a lake to fulfill the practice of family purity, or “taharat hamishpachah.”

Its Ganeinu day school for preschoolers and elementary-age students makes Beijing an attractive relocation option for some Jewish expats.

French native Gilles Perez says that when he was offered a job in Beijing, “the first thing I did was open the Jewish travel guide to find if there was a day school.”

If not, Perez says, he would not have come. His son Raphael attends the Chabad school.

Kehillat’s Hebrew school, Ahavat Yitzhak, uses the Ganeinu building and even shares some teachers. Twenty-six students and four recent bar/bat mitzvah teaching assistants attended Ahavat Yitzhak in the 2007-08 school year.

As an expat Jewish community nestled in a region with few native Jews, many children in Beijing’s Jewish community are of Chinese and Jewish backgrounds.

Chabad and Kehillah schools both have an open enrollment policy. Freudlich says the two schools will accept the same students.

“Anyone who considers themselves a member of the Jewish community can attend Ganeinu,” he says, “but they have to sign on the application a paragraph we write that states regardless of us accepting you to the school, it does not affirm your halachic Jewish status.”

Meanwhile, Chabad can teach prospective converts in China, but conversions cannot be performed in the country because of rules against proselytizing.

Chinese citizens, even those who come with a Jewish friend, may be turned away at the door from Chabad events.

Chabad’s Web site states, “All foreign-passport holders are welcome to join.”

In contrast, Kehillat Beijing members frequently bring Chinese friends to services without concern.
Some find the mere existence of such an active and diverse Jewish community in Beijing reason enough to participate regularly.

“The comfort I find in these weekly gatherings is astounding,” says Leo Lazar, 25, who is in Beijing on a six-month rotation for GE Healthcare. “Maybe it’s the sense of community, the sense of an adventurous—as opposed to a painstaking—Diaspora.”

Key dates in recent Chinese Jewish history

BEIJING (JTA) — The following are key dates in Chinese Jewish history:

  • 1920 Ohel Rachel Synagogue is established in Shanghai (still standing).
  • 1928-49 The first Lubavitch rabbi in China, Meir Ashkenazi, leads Shanghai’s Congregation Ohel Moshe. Built in 1927, Ohel Moshe is now the site of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
  • 1938-45 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escape to Shanghai.
  • 1939-40 Approximately 1,000 Polish Jews escape to Shanghai, including about 400 teachers and students of the Mir Yeshiva.
  • 1941-45 Japanese occupying powers intern recent Jewish immigrants from Allied countries in Hongkou ghetto for “stateless refugees.”
  • 1949 Communists win civil war; by now most of 24,000 Shanghai Jews and other Jewish populations across the country leave China.
  • 1978 Deng Xiaoping announces China’s “open door policy” with the West.
  • 1980 First community seder in Beijing is led by founders of the liberal Kehillat Beijing minyan.
  • 1992 Israel and China establish diplomatic relations.
  • 1995 Kehillat Beijing begins regular Friday night services in permanent home, Beijing’s Capital Club.
  • Oct 25, 1996 The first community bar mitzvah is held in Beijing for Ari Lee, the son of community founders Elyse Silverberg and Michael Lee.
  • 1998 The “Jewish Shanghai” guided tour begins; it is currently being run by Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal (” title=”Dini’s”>Dini’s
  • May 2008 Israel donates 90 tons of medical supplies, more than $1 million, for Sichuan earthquake relief.
  • VIDEO: What do the Chinese think of Jews?

    Olympics 2008: Swimmers lead U.S. Jewish contingent

    NEW YORK (JTA)—For Jason Lezak, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Garrett Weber-Gale, the marketing possibilities are endless—perhaps “The Three Chaverim” or “Jews in the Pool.”

    All three Jewish sprinters are hoping to make a splash as part of the U.S. men’s swimming team heading to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

    Not only will they be competing as individuals, but they are expected to make up three-fourths of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team.

    “We joke about going to the Maccabiah Games and setting a world record,” Lezak tells JTA, referring to what is known as “the Jewish Olympics.”

    Toss in 41-year-old Dara Torres, another Jewish swimmer and sprinter who will be competing in her fifth Games, and the possibilities rise even higher.

    The swimmers are among the seven Jewish athletes believed to comprise the American Jewish contingent headed to China. They are a mix of veterans and newcomers, all with a realistic chance of acquiring medals at the Games, which begin with the opening ceremony Aug. 8.

    Already, Wildman-Tobriner and Weber-Gale have their nickname: the “hyphenated Jew crew.” That makes for some good-natured fun around the pool, Wildman-Tobriner says, adding that he is proud to represent his heritage—along with the United States—in China.

    Another Jewish athlete eyeing water-related success for the Americans is kayaker Rami Zur, who is in his second Olympics for the United States after representing Israel in the 2000 Games.

    Some Jewish land lubbers also will wear the red, white and blue in Beijing: fencer Sara Jacobson and marathoner Deena Kastor. Both won bronze medals in ’04 in Athens.

    Lezak is competing in his third Olympics and has garnered four medals on relay teams, including a gold in the 4×100 medley in ’04. At 32, he is the oldest male to qualify for an Olympic swim team.

    “That’s an accomplishment in itself,” says Lezak, of Irvine, Calif.

    At the recent U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder broke the American record in the 100-meter freestyle with a semifinal time of 47.58, setting himself up as the probable anchor on that relay team.

    “Winning medals in the relays is such an amazing feeling, being a part of a team,” Lezak says, speaking to JTA by telephone.

    In part, it was his disappointment as an individual competitor in Athens that spurred Lezak to keep his Olympic dreams. He failed to qualify for the finals in the 100-meter freestyle, though Lezak says he had a “great opportunity” to win an individual medal.

    “I took the preliminaries too lightly,” he admits. “I was thinking about how many races I had to swim and I saved too much energy.

    “I learned a horrible lesson, but it kind of got me going another four years. I kind of felt like I had unfinished business.”

    Now Lezak, who will be competing in relays and in the 100-meter race, wants to mount the podium by himself.

    “I’m a team-type player,” he says, “but to do something on your own feels pretty good. I have a lot to prove to myself. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t done it yet.”

    He’ll have plenty of competition from Weber-Gale, of Milwaukee, and Wildman-Tobriner, a fellow Californian. Weber-Gale, 22, edged Lezak in the 100-meter finals in the trials.

    Weber-Gale, who won the World Championships in 2005 and 2007, will be making his Olympics debut after narrowly missing a spot four years ago. He expects to compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and on the 4×100 freestyle and medley teams.

    The University of Texas All-American predicts an outstanding Olympics for the U.S. squad.

    “I think this is the best Olympic swim team ever assembled,” Weber-Gale told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. “There are several events where we could get multiple medals, and we could win all three relays.”

    Wildman-Tobriner, 23, also is making his Olympic debut. The Stanford University All-American will compete in the 50-meter freestyle and the relay.

    “To finally be able to participate is going to be really exciting,” he told the j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. “It still hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

    Lezak, who has been coaching himself the last two years, says he met his younger Jewish colleagues at the ’05 World Championships.

    “They were in a different stage of their lives,” he says. “They were in college, and the international scene was more important to me.”

    Lezak says they mostly talk to each other about their common Jewish identity.

    “You don’t see that too often,” he says of three Jewish Olympians in the same events. “They’re both nice guys and we all get along.”

    The younger duo hasn’t yet picked the brain of their more seasoned colleague, Lezak says.

    “Once you start getting to the Games, to the Olympic village, people are more curious of the type of things to expect, more questions come up,” he says.

    They can all learn from Torres (photo), a member of the Jewish International Sports Hall of Fame.Dara Torres

    Despite having a 2-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles native who now works out in southern Florida qualified in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, though she will compete in only the former in Beijing.

    Torres, who graces the cover of Time Magazine’s Olympics preview, which touts “Dana Torres & 99 More Athletes To Watch,” is a nine-time Olympic medalist, including four golds. She established an American record at the trials finals in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 24.25; Torres broke her own mark set in the semis.

    “That she’s doing her best times is phenomenal,” Lezak says. “She’s pretty inspiring to all the athletes out there.”

    Her success at an advanced age for athletes has brought suspicions of doping, but Torres has passed every drug test.

    “I’ve gone beyond the call of duty to prove I’m clean, but you are guilty until proven innocent in this day and age, so what else can I do?” she told Time. “It’s a real bummer.”

    Zur, the kayaker, is seeking his first medal in his third Olympics. He has failed to reach the finals as an individual in the 500-meter event or in the two-man 500- and 1,000-meter events.

    The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder is considered a contender as he vies solo in the 500, despite a severe spinal injury that jeopardized his career.

    “I want to go there and come back with some hardware,” Zur, 31, told the j.

    The native of Berkeley, Calif., was adopted as an infant by a kibbutz couple near the Sea of Galilee. His proximity to the sea helped develop his love of water sports.

    “Kayaking was the first sport where I could go wherever I wanted to,” he says.

    The Israeli Olympic Committee cut back on funding for his training following the Sydney Games and he left the Jewish state for the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where he lived for free.

    Zur says the Israelis were understanding of his choice to wear U.S. colors.

    Kastor, 35, is another Jewish Californian bound for Beijing. A two-time Olympian, she holds the American records in the marathon and half-marathon. In April, Kastor won the U.S. Olympic trials in Boston with a time of 2:29:35.

    Her bronze in Athens was the first medal for an American marathoner in two decades.

    Jacobson, 25, of Dunwoody, Ga., brings a No. 1 world ranking in sabre to China. Her sister Emily was on the ’04 Olympics fencing team; her father, David, was a member of the ’74 national squad.

    Jacobson, who attends Yale University, is a two-time winner of the U.S. women’s sabre championship.


    Garrett Weber-Gale

    Jews in China roll out red carpet for Olympics

    Gold medalists won’t be the only ones climbing podiums in Beijing once the 2008 Olympic Games are under way. Isaac Shapiro will be stepping up to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

    Isaac of Highland Park, Ill., will be called to the Torah at the Chabad House in Beijing on Aug. 16. Isaac and his family are among the hundreds of Jewish tourists, athletes, dignitaries and media expected to converge on the Chinese capital for the 2008 Olympic Games, which begin Aug. 8.

    While most visitors probably don’t even realize there is a local Jewish community in Beijing, the resident Jews of China’s capital are getting ready to welcome anyone who seeks them out.

    The Shapiro family was already planning a trip to Shanghai and then to the Olympics, motivated by Isaac’s love of sports and his older sister, Chloe’s, previous career as a competitive gymnast.

    When Isaac’s bar mitzvah tutor in Chicago, a photographer for the Games, suggested that he have his bar mitzvah in Beijing, it all clicked. Isaac’s father, Sam, said the family didn’t feel the need for a “big American bar mitzvah.”

    Shapiro offered many reasons for the offbeat choice of his son’s bar mitzvah location.

    “It will give Isaac a wonderful sense for the Jewish Diaspora,” he explained. “We also wanted to give our kids a better understanding of China, since it is rapidly becoming one of the most important countries in the world.”

    While the bar mitzvah will make the second Shabbat during the Olympics an especially lively affair (in Chinese, they would say “renao”) at the Chabad House, the local rabbi expects a big crowd the prior Shabbat, as well.

    Rabbi Shimon Freundlich of Chabad Beijing said he expects a packed house in the already squeezed villa living room of the main Chabad House, which weekly is converted into a shul with mechitzah (partition) separating men and women.

    He said he has been contacted by tourists from all over the world, including Australia, Israel, the United States and Europe, and even by some athletes directly. Without naming names, Freundlich did divulge that “there will be athletes at services.”

    “It will be packed wall to wall, no question,” he said, noting that a larger hall could not be found because everything else was booked

    Chabad will offer services three times a day every day during the Games, Freundlich said, at both the main Chabad house and at a central business district location.

    The main Chabad house will also display a special Sino-Judaic exhibit of artifacts belonging to Jews around China in the last 200 years, including books, photographs and religious items like a Chanukiah from Shanghai.

    While the Chabad community will be bustling, all signs indicate that the egalitarian, lay-led Kehillat Beijing minyan will have its share of visitors. Almost one-fifth of the total 18,000 hits on the Kehillat Web site,

    Hot pot dinner bonds two very different ‘believers’ in China

    Being treated to a hot pot meal is one of my most dreaded social situations in China.

    Hot pot is like Chinese fondue. A large pot of meat stock bubbles in the center of the table, and fresh meat, fish, vegetables and tofu are dropped inside. You dip the cooked foods in a sesame sauce and drink the flavorful soup.

    This is problematic for someone like me, since I’m not only a vegetarian but also kosher. I don’t eat meat or seafood, and I can’t eat vegetables cooked in a meat broth.

    Traveling in America, Europe or the Middle East, I always was more comfortable saying I was vegetarian than saying I was kosher. Yet living in China, where vegetarianism for the sake of animals or the environment is rare, most people ask if my eating habits are religious. After all, they know that some observant Buddhists not only refuse to eat meat, but also eggs and milk.

    If I am with friends who know I keep kosher, we will find a restaurant with individual hot pots and I can keep my meal vegetarian.

    But at a recent dinner in Beijing, a colleague was introducing me to several people in the Chinese movie business. I wanted to make a good impression. That meant eating and drinking — a lot.

    When I saw the communal hot pot in the center of every table in the restaurant, I groaned. Not only was I about to inconvenience my host, but a religious discussion was close at hand.

    Our dinner host was the owner of a Beijing sound studio, and I told him I was a vegetarian. His first question, as expected, was if I was religious.

    Then something happened I hadn’t encountered in China.

    Zhang Qun, a Mandarin voice-over actress also at the table, gave me a sympathetic look.

    “I have the same problem,” she said, “because I am Muslim.”

    Zhang Qun is ethnically Han Chinese, so I was surprised when she told me she was from a Muslim community in Tianjin. She did not look like the stereotypical Chinese Muslim, whom I figured to be from China’s Western Xinjiang autonomous region, where the locals look more like they’re from neighboring Kazhakhstan — a country that is nearly 50 percent Muslim — than from China.

    At first I was nervous that she might have a negative opinion about my being Jewish. Most Chinese are complimentary of Jews, saying how clever and rich Jews are without meaning to be at all anti-Semitic. Yet I had never had any extended interaction with a Chinese Muslim before. Would she have a different stereotype in mind?

    Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. She even helped solve our food problem by taking charge and ordering a smaller hot pot containing only hot water, not chicken broth. It would be kept meat free.

    Although the food problem was solved, there was still the matter of alcohol. As a Muslim, Zhang Qun could not drink alcohol. At each of the evening’s dozens of toasts, she clinked her water glass with our beer and baijiu, a strong distilled Chinese alcohol.

    When she excused herself early, many of the men at the table complained. Why wouldn’t she drink with them? They felt it was impolite.

    But the owner of the sound studio, Zhang Yong Mou, looked at me earnestly.

    “I think out of everyone at this table, these two have the most in common,” he said. “If anyone can understand Zhang Qun, Alison can because they are both religious believers.”

    The comments hit home for me. I rarely meet someone in China with dietary restrictions that exceed mine.

    That night, fresh news from Israel about tensions between Muslims and Jews seemed far away. I felt an understanding with Zhang Qun. It was refreshing to find this interfaith connection in Beijing over a dreaded hot pot dinner.

    Israeli women gymnasts train long and hard for Beijing games

    NETANYA (JTA) — On one side of a cavernous gym in Netanya, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, six members of Israel’s first Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team warm up in a circle, chatting softly in a mix of Russian and Hebrew while stretching their legs in effortless splits on the mat.

    Nearby, Irina Risenzon, a fellow gymnast competing in the individual category, is trying to master a leap in which her head must tilt backward to meet a bent leg.

    It’s late afternoon, and the young gymnasts, ranging in age from 17 to 22, have been practicing for much of the day. In black T-shirts and black shorts, they appear to be in uniform, reinforcing a feeling of discipline and order that marks their training and routines.

    “There are harder workouts and easier ones,” says Risenzon, 20, her auburn hair pulled into a bun. She sits on a wooden bench on the edge of the gym, watching the team begin its routine. The gymnasts practice about 10 hours a day.

    “But you know why you are here,” she says. “For me, it’s my goal: the Olympics.”

    Like every Olympian, her ultimate goal is the gold.

    “That’s the dream,” Risenzon says, breaking into a smile, a marked contrast from the grimace she’s been wearing for the past two hours while trying to perfect her leaps and pivots before her hard-driving coach, Ira Vigdorchik.

    Risenzon has been training with Vigdorchik since she was 9, the same year she and her family immigrated to Israel from Ukraine.

    The language in the hall is predominately Russian. Six of the eight rhythmic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The two Israeli natives are the daughters of immigrants, including Neta Rivkin, who at 17 is the youngest member of the Israeli Olympic team.

    This large contingent of rhythmic gymnasts is why the Israeli squad has nearly as many women as men this year in its 39-member delegation to the Olympics in China.

    The sport combines ballet, theatrical dance and gymnastics and is divided into individual, pair and team event categories. Ropes, hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons are used in the routines.

    About 3,000 girls are training in gyms across the country, according to Rachel Vigdorchik, who oversees 300 of them at the gym she runs in Holon and at another branch in Jaffa for Arab girls.

    Vigdorchik, who moved to Israel in 1979, was scheduled to perform in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, her hometown, but she stayed home when the Israeli team boycotted, along with other countries, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

    Looking around the gym at the team members she has coached, most of them since they were little girls, Vigdorchik says they’re like family. She says this year’s Olympic Games are “closing a circle.”

    Vigdorchik says she’s proud that rhythmic gymnastics, a sport brought to Israel by Russian immigrants in the early 1970s, has caught on.

    “It’s very popular, but we need more government investment and more sponsors,” she says, echoing a common complaint of Israel’s sporting community.

    For those who grew up in the Soviet system, where cultivating sports and athletes was a top national priority, the contrast in Israel can be jarring.

    Ela Samotalov, the coach for the team event, came in 1991 from Minsk, where she helped coach the Belarus national team. She says she is still getting accustomed to Israel’s more spartan sports culture.

    “There is no status to being a coach here in Israel,” she complains.

    The Soviet-style training, with its strict discipline and demands, can seem off-putting to native-born Israelis, Samotalov says. This is part of what unites the Russian-born gymnasts — a shared understanding of the dedication needed to excel that comes from growing up in families versed in a more intense approach to sports.

    “But the sabras are learning well; it will just take time,” Samotalov says of the Israelis. “Sports is not a miracle. It’s hard work.”

    Samotalov is encouraged by the homegrown talent of one of her longtime charges, Neta, who has improved consistently at competitions this year.

    “My goal is to do the best I can,” Neta says of Beijing. “It’s so special, going out there in front of that huge audience.”

    Not far away, Risenzon laughs as she recalls her introduction to the sport when she was a little girl living near Kiev.

    “I was considered sickly, always getting the flu,” she recalls. “So my parents were told that to strengthen my body, I should do sports, and the closest gym to our house was for rhythmic gymnastics.”

    When she was 4, Risenzon’s Olympic career was nearly derailed by coaches who deemed her too pudgy to excel in the sport. Her baby fat long gone, she finished seventh last September in the World Championships.

    Risenzon talks about the deep concentration she tries to maintain during her routines — tuning out the clapping crowds, the cameras and the competition. Relief and satisfaction come only after a successful routine is completed.

    “Then I think about everything,” she says. “In the midst of it all, I’m focused on the next move.”

    “But I love to perform,” Risenzon says, her deep-brown eyes shining as she describes her Olympic routines, which include a playful number set to Indian music and another with a samba tune.

    Despite her immigrant origins, she has no identity dilemmas, she says. “I’ve felt deeply connected here,” Risenzon says, “and when I see the Israeli flag flying I get goose bumps.”

    Timing is everything in the Olympics — and in Darfur

    Next week, people the world over will be riveted to the TV set as the spectacle of the Beijing Olympic Games unfolds and athletes go head to head in the competitions for gold medals.

    Many of the races will come down to a matter of milliseconds. Finish-line results may be determined by momentum generated at the starting gate.

    In other words, timing is everything.

    The same thing could be said of the movement to stop the genocide in Darfur.

    The Olympics is a time of celebration, human achievement, civility and a respite from the violence and chaos that fills our daily news. The Olympics are steeped in history, and the torch provides a symbol of hope for all of humanity. Like many people, I eagerly await the excitement of the Olympic Games.

    However, I also live with the images of the many people I have met in Darfur and Chad who have seen their communities and lives torn apart. These vulnerable, precious human beings also yearn for the world’s attention. They are not anticipating medals; they simply want to know that the world cares and that we have the resolve to act.

    A few months ago, southwest China was rocked by a massive 7.9 earthquake that left nearly 70,000 people dead. As China struggled with the enormous human and economic toll, the world responded with an outpouring of sympathy and relief. Many human rights advocates, including many Jewish organizations that had been aggressively pressuring China to take a more principled position on Darfur, temporarily suspended their efforts.

    That was then. This is now.

    With the Olympic Games fast approaching, it’s time for advocates to gear up once again and urge the Chinese government to act responsibly. The stakes are simply too high to hold back any longer.

    A web of economic, military and diplomatic ties binds China to the Sudanese government’s systematic program of terror, rape and murder in Darfur. Over the past decade, China has invested more than $10 billion in commercial and capital investments in Sudan. Today, China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner, importing about two-thirds of all Sudanese exports and providing one-fifth of Sudan’s imports.

    It is also Sudan’s number one small arms dealer, accounting for 90 percent of the small weapons imported into the country since 2004. These are the same weapons used by Janjaweed terrorists and other rebel forces to slaughter thousands of people .

    Given these interests, it’s not surprising that China has been Sudan’s staunch ally in matters of diplomacy, steadfastly opposing sanctions proposed by the U.N. Security Council and other resolutions aimed at holding the Sudanese government accountable for the genocide of more than 400,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more.

    Since the May 12 Chinese earthquake, the situation has only grown more dire.

    For example, in mid-May, an estimated 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes in Abyei, a border region between north and south Sudan after fighting broke out between Sudanese government forces and south Sudan ex-rebel forces.

    U.N. officials have warned of a major food crisis in the region, the result of a perfect storm of mounting violence, poor harvests and overcrowding in refugee camps. Since May, cereals, sugar and other essential rations have been reduced by half. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being threatened by the lack of food and disease. Each and every day, including the Olympic days, more and more human beings in Darfur and Chad will be affected by this growing regional crisis.

    On July 14, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir, charging him with several counts of genocide and many other war crimes. This is the first time the ICC prosecutor has prepared a case against a sitting head of state.

    On July 8, a peacekeeping patrol in north Darfur state was ambushed. Seven African Union-U.N. peacekeepers were killed and several were wounded. These reasons and more are why advocates must turn up the heat on China. We are urging the Chinese government to do the following:

    • Publicly condemn the violence in Darfur. China’s silence on this issue has been deafening. Taking a hard-line position against the continuing genocide is an important first step.
    • Agree to end the sale of all small arms to Sudan. China sells small arms to Sudan with full knowledge that Khartoum continues to violate a U.N. arms embargo prohibiting the transfer of weapons into Darfur.
    • Call on Sudan to stop the genocide and comply with all existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. This includes pushing for the rapid deployment of African Union-U.N. Mission in Darfur forces to Darfur. Currently only 10,000 of the approved 26,000 are on the ground. Without their presence, the Janjaweed will continue to pillage the region.

    China’s inaction to date is especially galling, given the theme of this year’s Olympics: “One World, One Dream.” According to the official Web site of the Beijing Olympics, the theme is meant to convey China’s commitment to “peaceful development, harmonious society and people’s happiness.” These words will ring hollow unless they are backed by real commitment on China’s part to end the violence in Darfur.

    Now is the time to celebrate the achievements of the Olympic athletes; much more importantly, now is the time to celebrate the Jewish imperative to pursue justice in an active, passionate and strategic way. Our acts will make a difference; they are our legacy.

    As the world’s leading athletes race for the gold this month, concerned citizens of the world — including many people of Jewish faith for whom Darfur has tragic, historical resonance — will be racing, too, to turn the Olympic spotlight on China’s track record in Darfur. The world will be watching. Timing is everything.

    Rabbi Lee Bycel is American Jewish World Service Western Region executive director. Since 2004, he has made several trips to Darfur and Chad. To learn more about efforts to stop the Darfur genocide, visit