Walking Up 45 Flights on Shabbat: Being an Orthodox Jew in Hong Kong
By Liran Weizman
Liran Weizman is a senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She is an intern in the OU’s Department of Communications and Marketing.
Last summer I went to Hong Kong for three months because for me that’s home. Although I was born in Belgium and lived in Lexington, Massachusetts for high school, Hong Kong is my home base. Now Hong Kong may seem exotic to you, but when it comes to observing kashrut and keeping Shabbat after a climb to the 45th floor, it becomes more difficult than exotic. My parents live there for business along with my married sister and British brother-in-law. (We accepted him into the family because he made us seem more international.)
I was raised in a very traditional and cultural Jewish home in Asia. My parents were proud Israelis who made sure that we always had a connection to the Land of Israel and to being Jews no matter where we lived. While others may have had their Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, we merged these two cultures with our Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Great Wall of China. My twin brother Orrel and my first exposure to Torah observant Judaism was at Lexington High School, where the OU’s Jewish Student Union offered free pizza on Monday afternoons. (Jewish Student Union is a program that enhances Jewish culture at public high schools.)
Initially, Orrel and I were attending for two slices of pizza a week; but eventually, we became interested and started attending NCSY Shabbatons in our senior year. As a result, we spent a year learning in Eretz Yisrael. We now attend Yeshiva University; Orrel is at Yeshiva College and I am at Stern College. As upcoming seniors, we cannot wait for another amazing year!
Since we became Shomer Shabbat, we had not been home to Hong Kong for more than a few days at a time and during those occasions, I always had my brother with me for support. This all changed in the summer of 2012 when I had to be in Hong Kong for personal reasons, while my brother was in Israel learning at yeshiva and doing medical research. I felt that I was left to fend for myself in Hong Kong.
On one hand, I was really excited to go back home to my family, but on the other hand, I was scared. I was scared because since I became religious I had been immersed in Jewish communities from seminary in Israel to Stern College, along with a support group. This support group was comprised of New England NCSY rabbis and my seminary Aim Bayits to answer my questions and to further my growth as a Torah observant Jew. When acquaintances from high school were placing bets on how long I would stay “religious” after NCSY, my support group was instrumental in keeping me on the “derech.”
In Hong Kong, I was entering three months in which my only social chevra would be myself. My connection to my Judaism would be up to me, and I feared I would lose everything that I had worked so hard to build in the past two years. This was not a dramatic exaggeration but a heartfelt declaration.
Within the first weeks, I felt myself losing my desire to daven and to learn Torah. Recorded shiurim that used to excite me seemed no longer applicable to the struggles I was facing. I remember calling a friend from Stern College and telling her, “There is no way I am coming out religious after this summer.” But through phone calls of guidance from my support groups in America and in Israel, I slowly learned that the key to surviving the summer would not be the growth that I had planned for myself, but that instead I had to modify my plans.
Initially, I had strongly believed that just as my twin brother was growing every day in Israel, I had to be growing and firming my roots as an Orthodox Jew. Instead, I had to learn to tread water in order not to drown. I couldn’t simply focus on listening to shiurim; instead my focus had to be just making it day-by-day. For example, I would try and have one meaningful davening whether Shacharit or Minchah in Hong Kong. I couldn’t hold myself to the high religious standards that I had set for myself at Stern.
This change in attitude also applied to kashrut. Rather than thinking of kashrut as an impossible scenario, I viewed it as a process of learning new halachot and practicing forgiveness when the wrong utensil was used by another family member. I learned to keep my meals small and simple as I was scared of violating any halacha or eating non-kosher by accident. When I saw packaged kosher food displaying the OU symbol, I felt that in the middle of nowhere Hashem was reaching out and giving me a big hug. He was letting me know I was not alone.
On the other hand, Shabbat became the ultimate adventure, as my parents were living on the 45th floor in a building an hour’s walk from the Jewish community. I would spend Friday night at Chabad and then walk back for an hour through the streets of Hong Kong. Since the security guard did not speak English and could not help me by operating the elevator as a Shabbos elevator, I ended up walking many flights of stairs to get home. But after a few weeks, I realized that the stairs were a small price to pay for the love and feeling of Shabbat I experienced from Chabad of Hong Kong.
Come July, Shabbat became a little bit easier because my sister moved to Hong Kong from South Korea and found a place that was five minutes from the synagogue on the 22nd floor. After my experience with the 45th floor, the 22nd was so much easier and I would walk up and down those flights three or four times a Shabbat! Still, you haven’t done Aliyah L’Regel until you have 22 flights to walk up and there is no air in the stairwell.
It was those climbs that ultimately strengthened my faith in Hashem. In Parshat Bechukotai, there is the pasuk, “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them…I will turn my attention to you, I will make you fruitful and increase you, and I will establish my covenant with you.” (Vayikra 26:3) Rashi comments that “Im bechokotai telechu” means that you will toil in Torah. I really believe that I fully reached that mitzvah: as you’re dripping sweat and you’re on the 19th floor, and you’re singing V’hi Shiamda and telling yourself D’var Torahs that you just taught yourself — nothing can compare to that!
By the end of July, I was coming to terms with my situation and the moment which I believe was the pinnacle of my growth took place on the last Shabbat of the month. It was the Shabbat in which I felt the most alone but at the same time, I felt Hashem’s hand the most. I went with my family to Kowloon for Shabbos. Kowloon is another island in Hong Kong; it has a small synagogue for international travelers that hosted Shabbos meals. I was invited to stay at someone’s apartment and given directions how to get there. The building was in the apartment complex “Qing Wah Palace.”
Since Hong Kong used to be a British Colony, knowing Cantonese is not really necessary to get around on the main Hong Kong Island, but it is definitely necessary in Kowloon. As a result I got lost because I could not properly pronounce “Qing Wah Palace.”
I was walking around Friday night in an area in which the bars were going full throttle till around 4:00 am. I walked for hours in every direction retracing my steps. I walked till I had no idea where I was and felt my senses leaving me. I saw things that I should not have seen. It was in that moment that although I had no idea where I was going and I was getting pretty scared, I realized that Hashem had my back and it was only through him that nothing happened to me that night.
When I finally found the synagogue at 5 a.m. and gave up all hopes of getting to the apartment, I realized that being an Orthodox Jew is the most amazing thing in my life and nothing was going to take it away from me. I was no longer worried that I would fall and go back to my old ways. It took a few scary hours of wandering for me to realize that people will say what they say, but I see the unbelievable greatness of living a Torah lifestyle and I will not give it up for anything.
After that revelation, my last month in Hong Kong was easier for me. I realized that when your only connection is Hashem, you cling with all your might. I was reminded of what we say before the Torah reading, “You who cling to Hashem, your God, you are all alive today.” It is only when we truly hold onto Hashem that were able to truly live.
And so the place in which I feared my ultimate failure became my most intense place of growth, because I held on to Hashem. Although I had strongly believed that I had to be in Israel to strengthen my values, my true growth happened in Hong Kong. Even when I thought I was falling, I was working on areas that never would have grown elsewhere. For example, it was only in the ultimate galut of China that I was able to fully realize what some of us may never realize: how much we need to love every Jew. When you are seated at a Shabbat table with 20 other Jews from all over the world, it doesn’t matter what kippah they wear or where they daven or whether they even keep Shabbat. All that matters is for that one meal, you become a family. We were among the very few Jews observing Shabbos in Hong Kong. We were the walking Kiddush Hashem in China and by our presence, we were spreading the light of Torah.