7 June 2008 - 4 Sivan 5768 - ד' סיון ה' אלפים תשס"ח
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Taiwan Jewish Community Print

When the governing committee of the Jewish community of Taiwan meet to approve a new budget, or have elections, the meetings don’t last very long, and people never get into long discussions or disagreements. That’s because the Jewish community of Taiwan today is a one-man show, and that one man is the highly educated and thoroughly well traveled Dr. Ephraim F. Einhorn.

Downtown Taipei

“When people here have trouble with my name, I always say ‘Do you know Einstein?’ And of course, they’ve heard of Einstein, so I say, ‘Well, I’m also ‘Ein-, only it’s Ein-HORN, not Ein-STEIN.’”

Viennese-born Rabbi Einhorn chuckles as he talks about his thirty years in Taipei. He’s one of the few Jews to have worked in every Arab country, including Kuwait, Algeria and Morocco. He was in those countries at a difficult time, as they made the transition from colonial rule into independence. And he helped North African Jews leave for safer places.

Rabbi Dr. Ephraim F. Einhorn

In addition to serving as he community rabbi, he runs a successful trading company, as senior Vice President International
of the World Trade Center Warsaw, Honorary Representative for the Asia and Pacific Region of the Polish Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of Republicans Abroad Taiwan (the US political party), and advisor and informal diplomat to the government of Taiwan. Rabbi Einhorn is also is in demand as a guest speaker allover the world on Holocaust topics. The subject is especially close to him, as he lost both parents to Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.

Many of the Jews of Taiwan have connections with the Holocaust. But one special non-Jew is claimed as the “Taiwanese Schindler:” Ho Feng-Shan, who served as the Republic of China’s consul-general in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. In that capacity, he issued hundreds, if not thousands, of visas for Shanghai to desperate European Jews. He acted contrary to explicit instructions from his superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, and under heavy pressure from the Nazi government.

For his heroism, Dr. Ho was honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem with the title “Righteous Among the Nations.” Jews began to move to Taiwan in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as manufacturing began to blossom in the Republic of China. Rabbi Einhorn was a military chaplain for United States forces, operating out of a non-denominational chapel on base. At its height the community numbered 70 families from the U.S., Israel and France. Among the earliest groups was a large number originally from Syria. They were followed by groups of Jews from North Africa, which makes Rabbi Einhorn’s connection to that region an interesting one.

The Landis Hotel

The Jewish community in Taiwan over the past thirty years has included a large proportion of French Jews of North African descent. Many came to open manufacturing facilities, and then left when it became cheaper to produce elsewhere in Asia. Today more and more Israelis are moving to Taiwan, according to Rabbi Einhorn, because of increased trade between Taiwan and Israel. Hi-tech and defence are only two of the areas in which the two countries cooperate.

The community has always included people sent by companies for short-term postings, as well as long-timers and consular staff, and students from Jewish communities all over the world who spend a term or two to polish their Chinese or do a post-graduate programme. In contrast to communal life in many other Asian cities, the Taiwan Jews never built their own synagogue building, although during the 60’s and 70’s a rented house was used as a combination synagogue and recreation club, with a piano donated by one member and a billiard table by another. There have always been classes for the children and holiday dinners and Seders.

Since Taiwan in those days was the production center that China has become in the 21st century, with a large number of travelers and short-term visitors, Rabbi Einhorn undertook to make sure that everyone who showed up was able to get his needs met. “Today I never know how many people will show up,” Rabbi Einhorn says. “It could be five, it could be fifteen. Last Yom Kippur there were 85 people at the Landis Hotel for services.”

The mailing list includes around one hundred email addresses. The Landis Hotel is the de facto community center today, replacing the President Hotel. Services are held in a function room, complete with its own Ark and sefer Torah.

“When our community was largely Sephardi, of course we used nusach sephard,” Rabbi Einhorn said, when asked about the prayer book used in Taipei. “Now, we use nusach Ashkenaz,” the prayer book used most commonly by Jews of European ancestry. Rabbi Einhorn also keeps his private library of Jewish books at the hotel. An interest in Jewish manuscripts and early Talmud editions is something Rabbi Einhorn shares with his brother, who consults in that area for auction houses.

Kosher food is available, as the hotel staff understand kosher cooking requirements, and the hotel also bakes challah. Guests can even have fish cooked in double-foil sent up to their rooms.

While not a kosher restaurant itself, YY’s Steakhouse in Taichung has a separate kitchen and dining room, where kosher meat meals can be had on separate dishes, with separate cutlery. No milk is allowed in this section. Chef YY Hsu, the owner, is one of the few chefs in Taiwan familiar with kashrut requirements.

Don Shapiro, a member of the Taiwan community, notes that many Jewish visitors to Taiwan solve the kashrut difficulties by following a Buddhist vegetarian diet, as that eliminates not only meat but also fish and dairy. Interestingly, an unexpected bit of Jewish culture can be found in a corner of the Museum of World Religions in Taiwan. Established by a Burmese-born Buddhist monk, Master Hsin Tao, the museum – true to its name – devotes sections to Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as Buddhism.

The theory behind the museum’s establishment was respect for all faiths, tolerance for all cultures, and love for all life. Master Hsin established the museum as an attempt to relive metaphysical or spiritual suffering. He had observed thatBuddhist monks and nuns usually focused their energies on people’s physical suffering, and wanted to take a contrasting approach.

The Judaism collection includes examples of traditional religious artifacts—a seder plate and a sefer Torah among them. However, the Museum’s concept is to foster dialogue and exchange between the faiths, rather than simply serve as a repository for religious implements.

Services are held at the Matisse Suite, Landis Hotel

Rabbi Einhorn is often contacted by local Taiwan Chinese who become interested in Judaism after a visit to the museum, and want to learn more. He even gets the occasional interested person off the street joining services at the Landis. While he does not typically do conversions in Taipei, he has served on battei din (Jewish courts) for purposes of conversion elsewhere in Asia.

Other events of passage, such as bar or bat mitzvah or weddings, are of course occasions for celebration in Taipei as they are anywhere in the Jewish world. Most Jews in Asia find themselves seeking out aspectsof a formal Jewish life that they might not have bothered with living in their countries of origin.

Sometimes this happens naturally and gradually, like meeting someone Jewish at one’s place of employment and then going along to a service occasionally. Sometimes, however, something quite extraordinary happens that triggers a tremendous lifestyle change. That happened to an American Jewish family living in a village on the outskirts of Taipei.

Prof. Allan Schwartzbaum,on a Fulbright Scholarship andteaching at three universities in Taiwan, found an abandoned baby girl in the railway station on his way to Taichung early one morning. He took the child home, and eventually he and his wife decided to adopt her.

Prof. Schwartzbaum tells the story of what happened next in his book The Bamboo Cradle (Feldheim Publishers).
Jewish but not observant, the Schwartzbaums’ desire to provide their Chinese daughter with a nominal Jewish education led them ultimately into a completely different kind of life. It is the kind of event improbably enough only to happen to expatriates in a culture far different from their own.

As in other Asian tiger economies, life has been good for the Jews of Taiwan. The same disinterest on the part of the local government and absence of anti-Semitism one finds elsewhere in Asia has allowed Jews to feel at home and secure in the Republic of China.

And while the community is smaller now than it has been in the past, Rabbi Einhorn is optimistic about his kehillah. And the Jews of Taiwan have been blessed with Rabbi Einhorn.

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