Summer with Golden Leaves: a Jewish experience in China

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While the majority of my time and experiences in the last 10 years have taken place in Israel, this country has also been my springboard to other worldly adventures. The most recent one took place in China.

My friend and roommate, David Gedallovich, originally from Colombia and a recent oleh (immigrant) to Israel, told me about a six-week program he has been running in China since 2016. This year, he had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t be there for the first two weeks of the program. If he gave me a free trip to China, I told him I would run the beginning of the program for him, and the deal was struck – I was going to China.

The program, called Golden Leaves, after a phrase from Chinese literature,  was started in 2014 by Rabbi Shlomo Kassin and Rabbi Abraham Bitton. When Rabbi Bitton, a friend of David’s, got married, he handed over the reins of the program to David in January 2016. The program allows young Jewish men, with an inclination toward a business career, to learn how to do business in China, which has become one of the business capitals of the world.

I arrived in the city of Guangzhou, where the program is based, a few days before the participants. This gave me time to acclimate myself to the city and its environment. I was able to secure a hotel apartment where we’d live, and buy pots and pans for cooking Kosher food in our apartment’s kitchen.

The four participants who arrived during my time in charge were, Tsvi from Belgium, Neti from Mexico, and Haim and Allen from Brazil. They ranged in age from 19 to 22 years old. Three more men joined the program after David arrived. My only concern about this trip was that I’d have to spend my time as the disciplinarian. I was pleasantly surprised to find that David only selected top-quality people for Golden Leaves and had put me in charge of four exceptional young men.

We started each day by going to Shacharit (morning services) at the Meir Hahayim synagogue directly across the street from our hotel. The synagogue was started by Jewish entrepreneurs who wanted their own synagogue in Guangzhou, where many spend several months each year.

The entrepreneurs come from various countries and do business in a wide variety of fields. I met an American businessman who has been manufacturing jeans in China and importing them to the U.S. for more than 30 years. The Golden Leaves participants had the chance to get to know these entrepreneurs, and get their advice on how to start a successful business in China.

In addition to providing the participants with a once-in-a-lifetime business education, with the help of the synagogue and its members, Golden Leaves also emphasizes the centrality and importance of Jewish values to its participants, no matter where they find themselves in the world. In a country outside their normal comfort zone, via the synagogue, the participants still had access to delicious Kosher meals, daily prayer services, and time set aside for Jewish learning.

Each day, following breakfast in the synagogue, we had a one-hour Mandarin language class. These classes helped us communicate better with people in the streets. Additionally, these new language skills could help the participants with any future business dealings in China.

I took the participants to different marketplaces around Guangzhou where they could browse through a variety of products, and start getting a sense of what product they might want to base their business on. As a homework assignment, they were given a few hours to pick a product that interested them and do the necessary research on it; What were the copyright laws? Was someone else already importing the product to their home country? What kinds of taxes would they need to pay?

As with any program, there was also time to enjoy the scenery. We spent our first Sunday together on the beautiful Baiyun Mountain in Guangzhou. As the only non-Asians on the mountain, we were treated like celebrities. People asked if they could take pictures with us, and invited us to play games with them, like the Chinese version of hacky sack.

As quickly as Golden Leaves began for me, it ended. After David arrived there was no need for me to stay on, so I spent a week exploring other parts of China before returning to Israel. While in Hong Kong, I got to spend some time with Rabbi Asher Oser, former rabbi of Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom. I also saw the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing. David spent the weeks after my departure taking the Golden Leaves participants to meet with entrepreneurs, visit factories, and travel around China seeing the other amazing places it had to offer.

Golden Leaves began as a free trip to China. But through the eyes of the participants, I had an incredible experience. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay for all six weeks.

The next Golden Leaves program takes place in summer 2018. For information email davidgedallovich@gmail.com.

DANIEL STIEGLITZ (dstieglitz@gmail.com), is a certified Life Coach; freelance writer; and lives in Jerusalem. His collection of short stories, “Tavern of the Mind,” was recently published.