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What do you mean, there's no Chabad House in Seoul? Traveling to exotic places in the world we've come to expect the Jewish services of the far-flung Lubavitch emissaries, providing religious services, connectedness and kosher victuals. So when recently on my way Korea, I was more than a little disappointed not to find one of the ebullient bearded emissaries who inhabit the heights of Machu Picchu and downtown Chiang Mai. We've come to take for granted the services of Chabad on foreign soil.
But it wasn't always like that. A Jew traveling on his own with tuna-stocked suitcases had to rough it. I was delighted to have the chance on my way East to schmooze with two of the prime movers in the proliferation of far-flung Jewish outposts. Rabbi Mordechai and Rabbanit Goldie Avtzon of Hong Kong have built more than an outpost. You might call it a fortress of Judaism. They were the first shluchim, as emissaries are called in Chabad, to put down kosher steaks in Asia. Today there are 17 other branches, most of them nurtured by the Avtzons.
Ten more are in the planning stage. How do they get started? Usually with a question: "I hear you're in Hong Kong. Where can I get matza in Vietnam?" "Any chance you're coming through Laos?"
The rabbi seeks out anyone who has contacts in these remote regions, and soon a rabbi and rabbanit are dispatched to find their own way and set up a center.
So it was once in Hong Kong. Rabbi Avtzon's beard, a cross between Chabad and Fu Man Chu, is streaked with gray. But he was a youngster himself when first sent to Hong Kong by the Rebbe with a few other Chabad young single men to tutor bar mitzva boys. He was asked to stay for a while. Then an itinerant Jewish businessman met him and thought of the young rabbi - the 10th of 15 siblings - as a possible match for his smart and feisty niece Goldie Shemtov, from a prominent Chabad family in Philadelphia. Goldie grew up expecting to be part of Chabad outreach, but pictured herself as a second stringer on a small college campus. A short stint in exotic Hong Kong sounded exciting, and a month after she married Rabbi Mordechai they set sail. That was 21 years ago.
HONG KONG has an old and famous Jewish heritage. The great trading family of Sassoon moved its offices there from Canton when Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain by China in 1842. The Kadoorie family moved, too. The growth of the picturesque seaport city uniquely poised for business and international finance brought many Jews. Missing from this mix was the unique exuberance, energy and outreach of Chabad.
I'd heard about Avtzons long ago from a couple of former backpackers. They'd turned up at the Avtzons door on the eve of Rosh Hashana, on their way to advanced training in a Buddhist academy. They wound up staying through Succot. Today, they run a kosher catering and B&B in Safed. Many thousands more are like them.
Who could have predicted the scale of Israeli backpacking two decades ago when young Israelis were so pragmatic? "The Rebbe did," says Rabbi Avtzon. "He saw Asia as the new frontier."
Every week at Chabad tables in Asia some 2,500 Jews sit down to a Shabbat dinner. One of Avtzon's greatest pleasures is the success of the huge Chabad Pessah Seder in Nepal attended by 2,000 young Israelis, many of whom had little positive contact with Judaism before strapping on their backpacks and heading for post-army head-clearing odysseys.
Eating crispy chicken at the Avtzons' home on a weekday, near the photos of their seven children on the piano and Rebbe Schneerson's large portrait on the wall, are visitors from Israel, a Chinese-speaking teen making her way back to Judaism as well as Rabbi Sholem Hazan of Shenzhin who has come by to pick up mezuzot.
Although you won't find the Israeli panoply of flavored yogurts here and this week the store has run out of chocolate chips, Jewish supplies are now abundant. There's a Jewish school, activities, and other Jewish organizations. For Shavuot there was a night of study with both the rabbi and rabbanit teaching, and a fair for the community.
"We're not trailblazing today," says Goldie, who admits that in the first years she felt isolated and lonely.
The Internet and modern technology help the emissaries, particularly for the children who grow up in outreach communities. Eleven-year-old Hanna Avtzon looks forward to monthly international Internet chats, following Torah lectures for the children of shluchim all over the world. Chabad in the boondocks is a family effort. But they don't seem to be suffering. The Avtzons' 19-year old son Bentzi has already done a short stint in Yiwu, Thailand, and precocious Hanna is organizing a meeting of the eight preteen daughters of Asian emissaries. She even has business cards in English and Chinese as a "junior emissary."
This week, as we celebrated Shavuot, we're reminded that the Torah was given in a wilderness. It's a good time to salute those who make it flourish there.