Keeping the faith in Taiwan
TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) – As Typhoon Sepat bore down on Taiwan with flashing thunderstorms, eight rain-soaked men gathered in a little storefront shul in downtown Taipei to welcome the Sabbath.
Despite the wind howling outside, and the fact that he didn’t quite have a minyan, 89-year-old Rabbi Ephraim Einhorn held services on this August Friday just as he has nearly every Friday and Saturday since 1975.
When the hour long Shabbat eve service was over, Einhorn recited kiddush, invited his fellow worshipers to enjoy freshly baked challah dipped in honey and asked who they were and from where they came.
It’s a ritual Don Shapiro has witnessed more times than he can remember.
“Usually he wants your name, where you were born and what your occupation is,” says Shapiro, a native of Rochester, N.Y., who has lived and worked in Taiwan for 38 years. “Everybody has to give a small bio, and if you forget something, he’ll remind you.”
Such intimacy is possible only because there are so few Jews remaining in Taiwan, officially known here as the Republic of China.
In recent years, as Jews increasingly flock to Communist China to take advantage of booming business opportunities there – Chabad-Lubavitch alone now runs seven synagogues in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – the Jewish presence in democratic, staunchly pro-Western Taiwan is disappearing.
Today, no more than 150 Jews live among the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan. That compares to between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews in mainland China, not including another 5,000 in Hong Kong, the former British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997.
Most of the Jews in Taiwan and China are foreigners – mainly U.S., Israeli, British and French citizens working as factory managers, financial advisers, English teachers and tour guides.
“When I first came here, we had 80 to 100 people coming every Shabbat,” says Einhorn, who was born in Vienna and once headed the information department at the World Jewish Congress. “Most of them were of Syrian descent, so we used the Farhi [Sephardi] siddurim. Now we use Ashkenazi prayer books. I never know how many people will show up from one week to the next.”
Before Einhorn, the only Jewish services in Taiwan were at the U.S. military chapel. Then the U.S. military left, and until a few years ago services were held at the five-star Hotel Landis.
These days, Einhorn uses a tiny street-level office in the hotel’s annex as a synagogue. Smaller than an average American living room, it’s crammed with a holy ark, bookshelves, a dozen black chairs and a dining-room table piled high with siddurim and newspaper clippings.
On Rosh Hashanah and Passover eve, services and communal dinners are held at the American Club, not far from Taipei’s famed Grand Hotel. About 50 to 60 people usually show up.
The rest of the time, Einhorn is strictly a one-man show and the undisputed authority on Jews in Taiwan.
“I am the rabbi, the shamash and the treasurer. And I pay all the bills,” Einhorn says. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
The businessman-turned-rabbi routinely passes out eight different business cards: He’s the chairman of Pickwick Co. Ltd., director of Republicans Abroad Taiwan, senior vice president of the World Trade Center Warsaw, representative of the Polish Chamber of Commerce, and honorary citizen of Nebraska and Montana. Einhorn also calls himself “the father of relations between Taiwan and six governments: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary and the Bahamas.”
Einhorn, who says he has worked in every Arab country, first came to Taiwan as head of a Kuwaiti business delegation in 1975.
“Einhorn is the glue that holds the Jewish community together,” says William Ting, 38, a Taiwan-born corporate lawyer who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and converted to Judaism a year ago under Einhorn’s supervision. “I met him at the European Chamber of Commerce four years ago, but I never discovered the rabbi side of him until a year later.”
Aside from Einhorn’s Shabbat services, Jewish ife in Taiwan is virtually nonexistent. However, the island has a Holocaust museum at a church in Tainan, about 90 minutes south of Taipei via train, and there’s a Jewish exhibit that Einhorn organized at the Buddhist-run Museum of World Religions in suburban Taipei.
The only kosher food in this land of pork dumplings and fried oxtails is at Jason’s Supermarket in the trendy food court of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building, and at the Landis Hotel, whose chefs are familiar with the laws of kashrut.
Despite the dwindling numbers, Ting says he sees a bright future for Jewish life in Taiwan if the current government drops its insistence on independence and seeks closer economic cooperation with China.
That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. In September, President Chen Shui-Ban petitioned the United Nations for membership; the bid failed.
Taiwan has been trying to reclaim its U.N. seat since 1971, when its membership was replaced by that of the People’s Republic of China. China’s strong business partnerships around the world bode ill for Taiwan’s efforts for official recognition as a state.
Like Taiwan’s other business partners, Israel adheres to the one-China policy. The Jewish state established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1994, the same year it opened an Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei. Bilateral trade between Israel and Taiwan reached $1.3 billion in 2006, compared with $1.8 billion between Israel and China, according to the office’s director, Raphael Gamzou.
“Taiwan is one of our main trading partners in Asia,” Gamzou told JTA. “The Taiwanese have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for Israel. They admire Israeli courage and resilience, and the innovative capabilities of Israeli high-tech companies.”
The few local Jews here hope that increasing trade with Israel, combined with successful negotiations to open direct air service between Taiwan and mainland China, could save Taiwan’s Jewish community from outright extinction.
“Direct air links would do wonders for the Jewish community,” Ting says. “You could fly from Taipei’s downtown city airport to Shanghai in 40 minutes. This will attract a lot of skilled Jewish professionals who are sick and tired of the pollution and smog in other big Asian cities.”