Energetic Chabad rabbi nourishes Jewish Taipei

Jewish life in Taipei is undergoing a transformation, as Jewish life often does when Chabad envoys become part of the fabric of a community.

Chinese dragon 521 (photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
Chinese dragon 521
(photo credit: Lawrence Rifkin)
TAIPEI – Jewish life in Taipei is undergoing a transformation, as Jewish life often does when Chabad envoys become part of the fabric of a community.
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.
In September Tabib excited a lot of attention by organizing a Torah scroll dedication ceremony.
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 community.
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.
Avtzon and 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 Hong Kong.
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.
Unlike Kowloon, Taiwan actually had a rabbi before Tabib arrived on the scene.
Rabbi 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 island.
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 Taiwan.
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 Taipei.
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 time.
Donations are actually Tabib’s sole source of income.
“We 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 operates it.
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.
For Israelis, accustomed to slow and often unsatisfactory service, this is pure paradise.
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 religious.
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.
When 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 Affairs.
While in Israel, Su learned Hebrew and also picked up festival songs from his child, who attended a regular Israeli kindergarten.
When 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 guide us.
As we passed one temple after another, Yael remarked in a resigned tone: “Can you imagine, I’m stuck in the middle of idol worshippers.”
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 Aviv.