When the Torah scroll was read aloud on top of the Great Wall of China on Thursday Aug. 8, it signaled more than the Bar Mitzvah of Kehilath Israel Synagogue member Noah Roth.
The Roth Bar Mitzvah party prays on top of the Great Wall.
According to Noah's father, Cliff Roth, it was, to the knowledge of Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, founder of the Beijing Chabad House, "the first time that a Bar Mitzvah ceremony and the actual Torah scroll itself was read on the Great Wall of China."
The Roth family had originally planned on having Noah's Bar Mitzvah in Israel. "But with the current situation in Israel, we decided not bring a lot of people there," said Clifford Roth, Noah's father. "Noah suggested that instead of the Western Wall, we do it at the Great Wall." Noah had traveled to China prior to his Bar Mitzvah trip.
For three generations, the Roth family has had history in China. During World War II, Noah's grandfather was a China expert with U.S. military intelligence. Clifford Roth's business travels to China began when he accompanied former Kansas Governor John Carlin.
"My dad's work is what first got me interested in China," Cliff Roth said. "Noah is the third generation of our family to have involvement in China."
Noah was excited to have the opportunity to be the first person ever to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Great Wall.
"Right now, China doesn't recognize Judaism as an official religion," Noah Roth said. "Our temporary Bar Mitzvah synagogue at the Great Wall was as beautiful to me as any I have ever seen. This was an experience I will never forget."
Before his Bar Mitzvah at the Great Wall, Noah studied about the history of the Jewish people in China.
The week prior to Noah's Bar Mitzvah, the Roth family traveled to Kaifeng City in central China. There they visited a newly established Jewish Museum, which housed artifacts reflecting the history of Jews in China during the past 1,000 years.
The Bar Mitzvah Ceremony was held atop the Great Wall at Mutianyu, 90 minutes' drive from Beijing. The newly established Chabad house had made it known to those Jews living in Beijing that a Bar Mitzvah was scheduled to take place at the Great Wall. The Roths were accompanied to the Wall by Jews in the area from the U.S. Consulate, Jews from France and Israel and local rabbinical students from Chabad House. Rabbi Mendy Wineberg, program director of the Kansas City Chabad House, flew to China and officiated at the ceremony, which lasted for nearly an hour.
The Roth family chartered a bus, which left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. for the Great Wall. Upon arriving, the Torah, tallit and even the food for the reception following the service were taken up to the Wall by a cable car.
Upon completion of the Bar Mitzvah service, and in anticipation of the new year in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Freundlich celebrated the historic event by sounding a shofar.
"As the sound of the shofar echoed over the Great Wall all attending could not help but realize the significance," Clifford Roth said. "Jews have had a history in China for 1,000 years, and this was the first Bar Mitzvah at the Great Wall."
Immediately following the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, Rabbi Freundlich and his wife hosted a brunch atop the Great Wall. Bagels and other traditional foods were served.
Judaism today in China
Although Judaism isn't a recognized religion of China, those Jews who visit China can find accommodations. "It's a good move for the Chinese government," Rabbi Wineberg said. "It helps businessmen and tourists in the area feel more welcomed."
Rabbi Wineberg's cousin, Rabbi Greenberg, is head of Chabad House in Shanghai. While in China, Rabbi Wineberg met with the U.S. Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom. The rabbi said the diplomat's duties are to visit countries to gauge their level of tolerance for diverse religious expression, especially as it affects Americans abroad.
Any initial concerns the family and clergymen had about holding the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in China were laid to rest. "We were told that the Chinese government doesn't mind Bar Mitzvahs and certain ceremonies," Rabbi Wineberg said. "They are against preaching of your religion to others, but that isn't what we were there for."