TAIPEI – Jewish life in Taipei is undergoing a transformation, as Jewish life
often does when Chabad envoys become part of the fabric of a
Rabbi Shlomi Tabib (originally from Bat Yam) and his wife
Racheli (originally from Kfar Chabad) arrived in Taipei in July 2011 with their
twins Menachem Mendel and Chaya Mushka, now aged one-and-a-half.
September Tabib excited a lot of attention by organizing a Torah scroll
Marching, singing and dancing, Jewish and non-Jewish
merry-makers got into the global spirit of Torah dedications by swinging in and
out of the bridal canopy with the scroll, which was the gift of Israeli
businessman Avi Netanel. Since then, the Tabibs have made friends with most of
the Jewish community of Taipei by organizing monthly Shabbat luncheons at the
Taipei Jewish Center.
Tabib, 28, is careful not to call it Chabad House,
because even though Chabad is known for its hospitality and its outreach, as
well as for not being judgmental, Tabib is wary of appearing too religious in
highly assimilated Taipei. In fact, aside from his family, there is only one
other haredi (ultra- Orthodox) family there – Yael and Ohad Hirsch and their
daughters Neria and Eden, who used to live in Taichung, but moved to Taipei
following the Tabibs’ arrival.
In general, religious practice is far
removed from the overwhelming majority of Taiwan Jews, especially because many
of them, including Israelis, are married to Taiwanese women who have not
converted to Judaism. The children of these unions are not halachically Jewish,
but are counted as part of the Taipei Jewish community.
Tabib sees no
purpose in alienating whole families because of a halachic difficulty. He would
much rather hang on to the halachically Jewish member of the family by operating
on an inclusive basis.
When Tabib initially inquired about the size of
the Jewish population of Taipei, he was told that there were about 200, give or
take. There are Israeli businessmen such as Uri Friedman, the CEO of Starlight
Technologies, and also American Jewish businessmen who spend a considerable
amount of time there.
For all that, it’s not a tight
Jews don’t mingle much with each other, Tabib said, which is
one of the reasons noone knows how many Jews live in the island state. Tabib has
already met some hundred Jews who have nothing to do with the Jewish community
per se, but were somehow curious about him. He wouldn’t be surprised if he came
across another hundred, he said.
Still, even with the Jewish tourists and
business travelers who pass through, it’s somewhat daunting to be the spiritual
mentor to such a small and isolated Jewish community.
Tabib is unfazed.
This is not his first major challenge, or his first posting as a Chabad envoy.
For three years prior to moving to Taiwan, he and his wife lived in Kowloon,
where the Chabad House is a branch of Chabad of Hong Kong. The Tabibs were sent
to Kowloon by Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, who for more than quarter of a century has
headed Chabad operations in Asia, covering eight countries.
his wife Goldie are headquartered in Hong Kong. Despite his young age, Tabib had
been engaged in Chabad outreach programs in Europe before ever setting foot in
Kowloon is part of the administrative region of Hong Kong, and
several years ago Avtzon realized the importance of setting up a Chabad House
there. He sent the Tabibs to take charge in July 2007, two years after Chabad
officially opened a branch there.
In the beginning the only people who
sought out Chabad Kowloon were tourists and business people. Then Tabib, just as
he has in Taiwan, found Jews coming out of the woodwork. There were not all that
many locals, but certainly enough to generate a sense of community, and the
Tabibs had quite a large turnout at their Sabbath table.
Taiwan actually had a rabbi before Tabib arrived on the scene.
Ephraim Einhorn, now 93, had been the spiritual leader of Taiwan’s Jewish
community for some 30 years prior to a Chabad presence on the
Although he was a beloved figure there were fears that a man of
his age could not continue to lead prayer services and intercede with
authorities for much longer. New, young blood was needed. Accordingly, some of
the Taiwan Jews appealed to Avtzon and asked him to send a young couple. The
Tabibs were a natural choice.
They had built something from virtually
nothing in Kowloon, and Tabib is confident that he can do the same in
Besides, he said, in Hong Kong or Kowloon he was number two, and
would always stay that way. In Taiwan, he’s number one.
He is the key
supplier of kosher food in Taiwan. Before taking up the post, he learned how to
slaughter chickens according to Jewish ritual, and because he is able to do this
he can fulfill orders for poultry meals without having to worry that he will run
short of supplies.
His wife is an excellent cook, and despite being in
the ninth month of pregnancy prepared all the food for the community Hanukka
celebrations, which were another form of outreach. The first of these was not at
the Taipei Jewish Community Center, but in one of the public rooms of a
prestigious hotel-style apartment complex in the northern part of
Tabib had learned that there were several Jewish or partly Jewish
families living in the area, and since they were unlikely to come to the party
that he subsequently organized at the Taipei Jewish Community Center at the
other end of town, quite close to the famed 101 Tower, the second tallest tower
in the world, he decided to bring Hanukka to them.
He was able to make
use of the facilities in the apartment complex because Ophir Gore, the director
of Economic Affairs at the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, is one
of the residents. Several of Tabib’s TJCC regulars showed up to give him moral
and monetary support.
In the relatively short time they have been in
Taiwan, the Tabibs have already built up quite a following, and not just among
the locals. A tourist staying at one of the luxury hotels gave Tabib a handsome
donation after all the kosher meals that he’d ordered arrived at the hotel on
Donations are actually Tabib’s sole source of income.
have to keep on working all our lives,” he quipped, “because we don’t get a
salary, so we don’t get a pension.”
Yet all over the world, Chabad
emissaries somehow manage to live reasonably well.
Usually they have
large families and before sending their children to Israel or the United States
to study, they set up educational facilities to provide Jewish education not
only for their own offspring, but also for Jewish children in the area. The
Tabibs run a Sunday school which currently has 14 pupils, but Tabib is
optimistic that the number will increase in time.
As far as religiously
observant Jewish tourists are concerned, Tabib has made an arrangement with a
hotel near the TJCC whereby guests sent to them by Tabib receive a 25 percent
discount. Tabib sends a kosher breakfast and kosher dinner to the hotel, and if
anyone also wants a kosher lunch, it’s available at TJCC. Hotel staff members
have been informed that religious Jews cannot use electronic keys on the
Sabbath, nor can they ride in a non-automatic elevator, unless a non-Jew
This poses no difficulty because Taipei is a service
oriented city where most people are only too happy to be able to do something
for someone else. This is particularly obvious in hotels, where there appears to
be a surplus of employees running to help every guest open doors, carry luggage,
press the elevator button or activate the computer in the business lounge.
Nothing is too much trouble and everything is done immediately.
Israelis, accustomed to slow and often unsatisfactory service, this is pure
So far, things are working out very well, said Tabib, and most
of the tourists who use his kosher facilities and the discount hotel help swell
the ranks at synagogue services and stay to eat the Sabbath meal, which includes
introductions all round and a lot of singing. In other words, the Jewish tourist
does not have to be lonely on the Sabbath – or hungry.
Yael and Ohad
Hirsch are very happy that the Tabibs are in Taipei, and do all they can to help
them. Yael Hirsch was raised in a Buddhist family. After completing his service
in the Israel Air Force, studying computer sciences and working for two years at
Amdocs as a computer engineer, Ohad Hirsch initially came to Taipei as a
backpacker looking for a kung-fu master. He met Yael, who didn’t have a Hebrew
name at the time, working as a sales assistant, selling tea.
As a student
at Providence University in Taiwan, she had read the Bible as literature, and
had become interested in the concept of monotheism, so much so that when she met
Ohad, the son of a professor of nuclear physics, she asked him to supply her
with books on Judaism.
He asked his parents to send them. His mother
became hysterical at the thought that he might be romancing a Taiwanese girl,
but his father sent the books. Yael discovered that she actually knew more about
Judaism than Ohad, and the more she studied the more enamored she became with
Judaism. The feeling was so strong that she decided to convert and went to
Israel to study.
She was adopted by a family in Bnei Brak, enrolled at
Neve Yerushalayim Seminary for Women and was converted by a Bnei Brak rabbi.
Converts usually have a hard time getting married because they don’t have the
pedigree to satisfy a family that cares about such things, and they are often
introduced to potential spouses who are people with special needs, or who come
from low socioeconomic backgrounds or who are also converts or newly
Not so Yael. She comes from high-ranking Chinese stock – not
that this is of any consequence in religious Jewish circles – but she had made
such a positive impression that she had a string of prospective bridegrooms from
influential and affluent families ready to marry her in a heartbeat.
Ohad called her after her conversion and asked what was happening with their
relationship, she told him that she wasn’t interested because he didn’t know
anything about Judaism, aside from which she would never marry anyone who was
not observant and who did not study Torah.
He said he was willing to
study for her. She didn’t believe he would stick to it, but he did. Not only did
he learn, but he also started to believe in what he was learning and he
gradually became sincerely observant. They got married, lived in Israel for a
couple of years and operated a Chinese language school. But it was difficult to
make ends meet so they returned to Taiwan, determined to find something
sufficiently profitable to enable them to move back to Israel and buy an
apartment in Jerusalem.
One of their friends who lived near them in
Israel was Yu Ping Su, who at the time worked at the Taipei Economic and
Cultural Office in Tel Aviv and today is the second secretary on home assignment
in the Department of West Asian Affairs in Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign
While in Israel, Su learned Hebrew and also picked up festival
songs from his child, who attended a regular Israeli kindergarten.
the Hirsch family relocated to Taiwan, Su remained friendly with them, and this
year took me to spend the first night of Hanukka with them. On the way he kept
singing Hanukka songs in Hebrew.
Because the Hirsch’s apartment is in an
area with which Su is not familiar, we waited at a bus stop for Yael to come and
As we passed one temple after another, Yael remarked in a
resigned tone: “Can you imagine, I’m stuck in the middle of idol
Surprisingly, there are a few kosher American products in
the stores, but she bakes her own bread, and the family is vegetarian, not by
choice but by necessity. When they go to the Tabib’s for a Shabbat meal, they
make up for what they’ve missed out on the rest of the week.The writer
was the guest of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office Tel
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