One Lucky Girl

by Katarina Konrad

When a girl becomes bat mitzvah, it is traditional that she do a mitzvah. The good deed can be for the local community, the way most of them are, or it can be something else you choose. My mitzvah was an emotional pilgrimage, because I decided that I would return to my birthplace in China to perform it.

On the morning of April 13, 2010, I got on a plane to Beijing with my dad and stepmother, Dona, whom I call Ibu. During the flight, a thousand expectations raced through my mind. When we arrived it was already late afternoon of the next day, so we didn’t do anything but unpack and settle into our hotel. We also got to meet our personal tour guide, whose English name was Herb. His job was to help us get around Beijing by translating Mandarin into English and explaining the history and culture of China. I was able to ask any questions I could think of.

The next day, we went to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which took most of the day. The Forbidden City had so many gates, each the entrance to another section of the city. We were able to see where the emperor and his wives stayed, ate, and slept. It was such a long, tiring, exciting day but I could not wait to see what the next one might bring.

The next day we got to climb the Great Wall of China. If you don’t go to the Great Wall then you didn’t really go to China! Standing there, high above the countryside, in a place where millions of people lived, worked, and died to build this wall to protect their homeland and their way of life, I thought about our people in Jerusalem and Masada, defending Israel, our faith, and our traditions. We walked from Tower 11 to Tower 6, which is a really long walk, and then we got to slide down the wall. It was a lot of fun! Later we also got to see where the 2010 Olympics had been held. It was fun to see even though we weren’t allowed to go inside any of the stadiums.

That evening we attended Shabbat services at Temple Kehillat Beijing, where I met a lot of girls who were exchange students in China. I thought it was very nice that they came to the synagogue to visit with me and my family. The rabbi had sent a flyer to welcome us – that’s how they knew we were coming. I quickly became friends with two sisters who had lived in Canada most of their lives but moved to Beijing because their mom, who is Chinese, wanted them to experience living in China. The service was very similar to the one in my synagogue. We sang songs, chanted, and read all the same prayers. After the service I was asked to say kiddush and then the entire congregation enjoyed a delicious American-style Shabbat dinner.

The next day, we woke up early to go to Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province in South China. That’s where my orphanage is. Sadly, our guide Herb couldn’t come, but we met a new tour guide, named Yorkee, who spoke Cantonese. (In South China more people speak Cantonese than Mandarin.) When we arrived I wanted to look around the city before settling in at the hotel. This was the real heartland of China, different in many ways from Beijing. Then we made the long drive to the place where I was found, the village of Mei, in a town called Wuchuan. This was the whole reason why I came to China. (Actually, the orphanage building that I lived in when I was a baby was moved, but it’s still in Wuchuan.) My mitzvah project was to take the director of my orphanage shopping for supplies, meet the two women who took care of the babies, and talk to the doctor who had examined me when I arrived at the orphanage.

Before I tell more about the orphanage, I’d like to talk about myself a little bit. For the first two years of my life, I was in an orphanage with other babies like me. There obviously were people there to take care of us. I met the doctor who examined me to see if I was healthy enough to stay there. The director who had been there when I was had retired, but the new director was the person who actually had collected me from the place where I was left and brought me to the orphanage.

He was very kind, and took us to a restaurant before we went shopping. I’m not sure exactly how I was found, but the director was able to show us where. It was at a temple where the local people prayed to their ancestors. He told us that there had been a festival around the time I was found, so my birth mom knew she could leave a baby and be certain that someone would find her. I learned that parents wanted boys more than girls back then, so my real mom and maybe my dad decided not to kill me but put me somewhere someone could find me and I could have a better life. Back then, if parents in China were caught having two babies, deserting a baby, or killing a baby, they’d be put in jail or maybe even executed.

There are tons of ideas that have run through my mind about why my mom had to leave me. I don’t have a clear memory from when I was a baby in China but I do know that I’m very lucky to have two sets of parents who love me dearly, just as much as I love them. For my bat mitzvah project, I decided to give back the kindness that had been given to me so I emailed a letter to all my family and friends talking about my mitzvah project:

On April 12, 2011, I will go to China with my dad and stepmom to experience my Chinese heritage and visit the orphanage where I lived the first two years of my life before I was adopted by my dad and mom. My mitzvah is to raise money by your donations so I may take the director of the orphanage shopping for supplies that the orphanage is in desperate need of. To achieve my goal, I am asking you for any donation you can make towards this worthy cause that will aid in the survival of babies in need of basic necessities, food, and medicines. Again please be generous if you can, it really means a lot to the children who have not or never will be adopted as I was. Help me achieve my goal!!! Not every child will be as fortunate as I have been. By helping those less fortunate, we will all do a mitzvah.

My project was a wonderful success. Most of my family and many of my friends donated to it. According to the orphanage director, it was the most generous private donation that they are likely ever to receive.

Back in the orphanage, I got to share a book filled with pictures that my stepmom had created to show how I’m living now. Obviously, Yorkee had to interpret. The people in the orphanage wanted to know how my life is now just as much as I wanted to know what my life had been like there. I was able to thank them and of course they cried happy tears for me. It was so emotional that everyone was tearing up. Finally, we went to a department store that sold the supplies my orphanage needed. With the help of some generous people, I was able to get them a washing machine, ceiling fans, regular fans, and 37 cases of baby milk powder.

I must say this was the most emotional and adventurous journey I have ever taken. I learned a lot throughout the trip, but no matter how much I think about my past life I will always be thankful for what I have now. I want to say thanks to my family and friends and especially to my parents, who supported me every inch of the way. I feel in my heart that God led me to the path of my Jewish faith, and that through His love God has given me strength to carry my faith to others. I will never forget Temple Beth Sholom or where I’m from and will always think I’m one lucky girl.

Katarina Kronrad lives in Smithtown, New York, where she is in the 8th grade. Her family belongs to Temple Beth Sholom of Smithtown.

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