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The China Trail – Mandell JCC heads east to explore China’s Jewish sites (and more)

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – After facilitating two successful JCC Association Boarding Pass family trips to Israel in 2012 and 2013, Mandell JCC leadership sought to offer active Baby Boomers their own travel opportunity. But the destination had to be something special.

china harbin 2014

At the Harbin new synagogue museum in the summer of 2014.

“We wanted a travel experience not previously offered through local Jewish institutions, one that was compelling, unique, and ‘bucket list-suitable,’” says JCC Executive Director David Jacobs. “We know that travel is a top priority among Baby Boomers and provides the JCC with an excellent engagement tool. We also know that an intense two-week travel experience can provide deep and close connections among the participants.”

Where to next? Longtime JCC member Lauren Drazen held the key. The founder of Chow Fun Tours and expert Mandarin-speaker suggested a trip to China. She led the first Mandell JCC China trip in summer 2014, followed by a second group tour the next summer.

The Mandell JCC is now recruiting for the September 11-25, 2016 trip, to be led by Drazen.

Born on a U.S. Air Force base in Biloxi, Miss., Drazen attributes her love of Chinese language and culture to very early exposure to the cuisine.

“My mom believes that my interest in ‘things Chinese’ began in utero,” Drazen says. “She was pregnant with me and had strong cravings for Chinese food, which did not exist in Biloxi at the time. So each Sunday, my father would drive two hours each way from Biloxi to New Orleans to pick up take-out Chinese food.”

china rubin

JCC trip Summer 2014: Jackie Rubin in Beijing with some “star-struck” students who had never met Americans before.

Drazen was two when her family relocated to Connecticut, her father’s home state. She spent the rest of her school years in Glastonbury, where she studied Spanish, a language she planned to continue at Dartmouth College.

“However, during the First Year Fair, when we had an opportunity to ‘shop’ for classes, the Chinese professor caught my eye and summoned me over,” Drazen recalls. “Twenty minutes later, I was signed up for Chinese I and the rest is history.”

That professor would later become a mentor to Drazen, who double-majored in Asian studies and international relations and spent semesters abroad, one each in China and London. After graduating, Drazen worked for an import company where she was the sole Chinese-speaker and traveled extensively to China. She went on to earn a Masters in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University and began teaching elementary school. Since 2006, she has been teaching Chinese language in the West Hartford Public Schools, where she also leads an annual student trip to China.

In 2011, Drazen visited Kaifeng, China, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty from 960 to 1127. Jewish merchants from Persia and India trading along the Silk Road had settled in the city, and their descendants still live there today.

china rabin

Tribute to Yitzhak Rabin, who inscribed the following at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum: “To the people of Shanghai for the unique humanitarian effort of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War. Thanks in the name of the government of Israel.”

“I was intrigued by their interest in the continuation of some Jewish religious practices, including celebration of Shabbat, Passover and the High Holidays,” says Drazen, who started Chow Fun Tours the following year.

After Jacobs read a Jewish Ledger article about the Kaifeng Jewish community, he approached Drazen and the two brainstormed a China itinerary that would include sites significant to Jewish history. As part of the trip, participants visit the renowned attractions in Beijing – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, traditional hutong alleyways, and the Summer Palace – as well as the Xi’an terracotta warriors and the city of Shanghai.

In addition, Jacobs and Drazen include Kaifeng; Harbin, a northern city that welcomed Russian-Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and Shanghai, where Jewish refugees from Germany were free to settle during World War II.

Judy Resnick went on the inaugural 2014 trip with her husband, Frank, chief financial officer of the Mandell JCC.

“I’ve always wanted to see that part of the world and it’s not a place you can go easily by yourself,” she says. “The idea of taking a trip that offered exposure to both China and to the Jewish content of China is what made us take it.”

china man

Man at Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. “I just love this picture because it’s so ‘old China’ and yet, I just took it two years ago!” says Lauren Drazen

Above all, Resnick found that it was Drazen who made the trip as enjoyable and captivating as it was. “You should not visit China without somebody who is very knowledgeable and, first and foremost, Lauren makes the trip remarkably rich,” Resnick says. “Her sense of humor and her knowledge, mixed with her fluency in Chinese, made the trip wonderful, along with her flexibility to deal with any unexpected challenge that arises.”

Resnick was struck by how well maintained the Jewish historical sites are, a task taken on by the government. The group met the caretaker of the Huangshan Jewish cemetery in Harbin, who was proud to show the visitors around. They saw the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, built by Russian Jewish immigrants in 1907 and restored in 2007 by the district government, who also built the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on site.

For an itinerary and more information, visit or contact David Jacobs: (860) 231-6313 / or Lauren Drazen: (860) 833-2106 /

CAP: JCC group visiting the Great Wall of China in the fall of 2015

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