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“That’s not true,” I countered. “We have an important matter in common.”

“What’s that?” he snarled.


“Neither of us paid for this first-class seat.”

The rest of the flight passed in silence between us.

After the Israeli raid on Entebbe, in the summer of 1976, my rabbinic coordinator, Rabbi Lipschutz, and I were scheduled to fly to Japan, then Tehran, and then on to Israel on OU business. Our trip to Japan was relatively uneventful but fascinating. Because of the halachic dispute regarding the location of the International Date Line, it’s unclear whether Shabbat in Japan is on Saturday or Sunday. We therefore spent a fifty-hour “Shabbat” in Nara, Japan: On Sunday, we put on tefillin but continued refraining from all labor prohibited on Shabbat.²

We also stayed in a 950-year-old inn near Kyoto where there were no locks on the door, futon mats were our beds, and an elaborate tea ceremony was performed in our room every afternoon. Negotiating a contract with the Japanese was also an experience: They have infinite patience and generally remain silent. Thus the American (always eager to close the deal) usually ends up negotiating with himself, to his own financial detriment. In our case, a Japanese glycerin manufacturer wanted kosher certification. The company intended to export to Israel, but wouldn’t allow any Israeli rabbis to come certify the product. So the OU stepped in, as it often did in such sensitive diplomatic situations.

As mentioned, we were to fly from Japan to Tehran. The tickets on Pan Am were Tokyo-Bangkok-New Delhi-Tehran. Then I saw an ad in the English-language newspaper in Tokyo that Air Iran had just begun direct flights from Tokyo to Tehran, saving nine hours. We switched our tickets, without knowing this “direct” flight would stop in Beijing. Nixon and Kissinger had just opened up China, yet Americans still dared not visit.

When we landed in Beijing, a Chinese army captain and soldier, weapons drawn, boarded the plane and swiftly collected all passports. Since we had no entry visas to China, we were summarily hauled off the plane and marched to the terminal. The building was dimly lit and bare, except for an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao gazing at us benevolently. I was frightened, because no one knew we were in Beijing; every- one in America had only our original Pan Am itinerary.

In perfect English, the captain directed us to a bench while he inquired what to do. A series of frantic phone calls in Chinese ensued between him and his superiors. We were asked if we knew any language besides English. We said no. And what were we doing in China, since we’d come from the US and were en route to Israel, neither of which had diplomatic relations with this country? I explained that we didn’t know Air Iran stopped in Beijing, and that we had no intention of staying in China. The captain’s secretary then told me in Spanish (I knew some from my Miami Beach days) that if we each gave her ten American dollars, she would arrange visas for us. Since I had said I knew only English, I didn’t respond. More phone calls. Finally the captain himself stated that for ten dollars each we could obtain visas allowing us to enter China for six hours.

We gladly paid the money and were then marched back to the plane, which thankfully, after ninety minutes, was still waiting for us. We were instructed to walk straight to the aircraft and not look back or even around us. When we finally were back onboard, the relief of the crew and passengers was palpable. A few moments later, the captain returned our passports, now containing newly issued visas. The relief and thankfulness I felt when the plane finally took off remain among the deepest emotions I have ever felt.

Teach Them Diligently: The Personal Story of a Community Rabbi is published by Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. It is available online and at all Authorized Koren Booksellers.

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Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer, and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. Formerly an executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrus division, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.