As China's economy grows, so does Chabad

With China's GDP set to grow at 8% annually a Jewish community now numbering over 10,000 is starting to flourish.

chabad china 88 (photo credit: )
chabad china 88
(photo credit: )
It's Friday evening in Guangzhou, a chaotic metropolis of 10 million people. As the sun starts to set over traffic-clogged Huan Shi Road, a handful of young men gather for Shabbat services at a makeshift synagogue located atop a Kodak photo-processing lab. By the time darkness falls, no less than 40 men are praying fervently. When services are over, they join their wives and children in the synagogue's dining hall for a kosher chicken dinner complete with freshly baked challah, local vegetables and Manischewitz wine. Welcome to Chabad of Guangzhou, one of the newest outposts of Yiddishkeit in China. "Before I came here, Starbucks was the 'in' place for Jews," Rabbi Eliyahu Rozenberg said. "Now if you want to see a Jewish face, you come to Chabad." The Israeli-born Rozenberg was sent to Guangzhou less than a year ago with his wife, Pnina, and baby daughter, Michal, to run the Chabad synagogue. Rozenberg, 25, says he's up to the challenge: He already has served as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Russia, Venezuela, Belarus and Chile. "Here in Guangzhou, we have about 200 local Jews that I know of," he told JTA. "They work in banking, textiles, shoes, trading, everything." China's fourth-largest city is the capital of wealthy Guangdong province, which accounts for 12 percent of the country's economic output. Like elsewhere in this vast nation of 1.3 billion people, the booming economy has attracted a rush of foreign investors to Guangzhou, many of them Jews seeking spiritual as well as material fulfillment - and Chabad is moving in to meet their needs. "One or two years ago, religious Jews spent Shabbat alone in their hotels. Now even the non-Orthodox come, because they want to see other Jews," Rozenberg said. "We do a minyan," or a prayer quorum of at least 10 men, "every morning at 8 a.m. Some mornings, we have 30 or 40 people." Among them is Patrick Dauvillaire, 35, a French businessman of Moroccan origin. He lives in an upscale Guangzhou apartment complex with his wife Gu Qin, 34, and their daughters Sarah, 5, and Ilana, 1. Thanks to donations from local Jews and visitors, Rozenberg says, Chabad soon will leave its second-floor temporary headquarters near the Garden Hotel and move into a property with a Sunday school and mikvah, or ritual bath. "I want to make a strong community here," he said, "to open a school and a kindergarten. We recently brought a chef in from Israel and, God willing, we'll soon open a full-service kosher restaurant." That's nothing short of a miracle for Chaim Daniel Buxbaum, a New York attorney who has lived in Asia since 1963. "I'm here longer than any Jew in Guangzhou," said Buxbaum, 72. "Even though there was no organized religious life in Guangzhou, the Canton Fair attracts many Jewish businessmen, and so we organized minyanim so they could pray together." Chabad of Guangzhou is only three years old, yet Chabad-Lubavitch is hardly new to China. The first Lubavitch rabbi in China was Meir Ashkenazi, spiritual leader of Shanghai's Congregation Ohel Moshe from 1926 to 1949. Before and during World War II, Ashkenazi spearheaded relief efforts for thousands of European Jews who had taken refuge in Shanghai. Virtually all of Shanghai's Jews left the country after the Communist takeover in 1949, and Jewish life on the mainland disappeared until the 1980s, when China's growing economy began attracting outsiders. Today, anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 Jews live in China, not including another 5,000 in Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997. Virtually all of them are foreigners: American, Israeli, British and French citizens working as factory managers, financial advisers, English teachers and tour guides. Thanks to a gross domestic product forecast to grow by 10 percent in 2006 - and 8 percent annually over the next five years - more Jews are flocking to China every day. "This is one of the most positive developments in the Jewish world," said Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, the Hong Kong-based director of Chabad's Asian operations. "China is a big story, and its growing economy will demand more and more Jewish people, whether they're selling simple trinkets or setting up highly sophisticated operations." Seven Chabad houses currently serve the community: two in Hong Kong and one each in Beijing, Shanghai, Pudong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The new, 10,000-square-foot Rohr Family Chabad Community Center of Beijing is due to open in late August, and contains the city's first new mikvah since World War II. Last week, Chabad officially dedicated its new Shanghai Jewish Center in the presence of Avtzon and 200 guests. The Shanghai Jewish Center, in operation since 2003, is actually a large villa located within a gated community off busy Hong Qiao Road. It boasts a synagogue, mikvah, preschool and six classrooms. The center's new name, Ohel Yisroel, was chosen by two major benefactors: Georges Bohbot and Max Azria. A third philanthropist, George Rohr, was instrumental in funding the Shanghai center, as well as the new synagogue in Beijing. Center director Rabbi Shalom Greenberg notes that at least 50,000 Jews visit Shanghai every year. "Ninety percent of the Jews who come to China come not because they fall in love with Chinese culture, but because there are opportunities." Thanks to funding from Rohr and other sources, within the next 18 months Chabad plans to inaugurate at least three more centers in China. Avtzon says he's not yet sure where, but likely candidates include the booming industrial cities of Qingdao, Nanjing, Xiamen and Hangzhou. Chabad also is looking at the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which like nearby Hong Kong is now a special administrative region of China. Avtzon said his yearly operational budget is $2 million, not including capital projects. Chabad has just purchased a new property in Guangzhou for $1.2 million, one in Beijing for $1.3 million and one in Shanghai for $1.8 million. "We are absolutely determined that the infrastructure of Judaism in China should be Chabad. That's why we set up a JCC in each place, because Chabad cares for Jews in a way few other organizations do," he said. "We have the right balance of not compromising Jewish values and tolerating those who do. But tolerance does not mean we have to endorse intermarriage." That's led to problems for Dauvillaire, who attends Chabad services in Guangzhou regularly. "Chabad will not allow our daughters to attend their Talmud Torah because their mother is not Jewish," he complained. "If I want to convert, it's because I'm really interested in the religion," said his wife, whose mother is Buddhist and her father an atheist Communist. "But they don't want to open their doors to outsiders. It's not fair." Yet even if it wanted to, Chabad couldn't convert Gu Qin to Judaism because of a national law against proselytizing. Avtzon and other Jewish leaders are trying to get Judaism accepted as an official religion in China. While this wouldn't give rabbis a green light to convert Chinese spouses of foreign Jews, it would put Judaism on an equal footing with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religions. In the meantime, Avtzon said, "our major headaches are finding ways to make Judaism appealing and attractive in this very money-driven society, and finding the necessary resources to sustain and fuel our growth."