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Booming economy fuels Chabad's explosive growth in China
JTA / June 15, 2006

By Larry Luxner

GUANGZHOU, China 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 fervently davvening. And when the prayers are over, they join their wives and children in the shul'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," said Rabbi Eliyahu Rozenberg. "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 P'nina and baby daughter Michal, specifically to run the Chabad synagogue.

Rozenberg, 25, says he's up to the challenge: he's already served as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Russia, Venezuela, Belarus and Chile.

"My first shlichut [assignment] was in Murmansk, the coldest city in the world. After that, I started bringing Yiddishkeit to Jews in remote places," he told JTA. "Here in Guangzhou, we have about 200 local Jews that I know of. They work in banking, textiles, shoes, trading, everything."

Guangzhou, China's fourth-largest city, is also the capital of wealthy Guangdong province, which accounts for 12% of Chinese economic output. Like elsewhere in this vast nation of 1.3 billion, the booming economy has attracted a rush of foreign investors many of them Jews seeking spiritual as well as material fulfillment.

"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," says Rozenberg. "We do a minyan every morning at 8 a.m. Some mornings, we have 30 or 40 people."

Among them is Patrick Dauvillaire, a 35-year-old French businessman of Moroccan origin. He lives in an upscale Guangzhou apartment complex with his Chinese wife Gu Qin, 34, and their two daughters: Sarah, 5, and Ilana, 1.

"China was closed for centuries, so there were few Jews here," said Dauvillaire. "In Guangzhou, it's mainly a Sephardic community, and a lot of Israelis are here. Chabad is the only game in town."

Thanks to donations from local Jews and visitors, says Rozenberg, Chabad will soon outgrow its second-floor temporary headquarters near the Garden Hotel and move into a newly acquired property complete with a Sunday school and a mikveh, or ritual bath.

"I want to make a strong community here," he said, "to open a bet sefer and a kindergarten. We recently brought a chef in from Israel and, b'ezrat hashem, we will soon open a full-service kosher restaurant."

That's nothing short of a miracle for Chaim Daniel Buxbaum, a New York attorney who's 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.

After the Communist takeover in 1949, virtually all of Shanghai's Jews left the country, 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 in 1997 reverted to Chinese control. Virtually all of them are foreigners: American, Israeli, British and French citizens working as factory managers, financial advisers, English teachers and tour guides.

And thanks to a Gross Domestic Product forecast to grow by 10% in 2006 and 8% 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."

At present, seven Chabad houses serve this rapidly growing community: two in Hong Kong and one each in Beiing, Shanghai, Pudong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

In early May, Beijing inaugurated its first new mikveh since World War II. In fact, the mikveh located within the new 10,000-square-foot Rohr Family Chabad Community Center of Beijing is the first mikveh in the Forbidden City's history.

And last week, Chabad officially dedicated its new Shanghai Jewish Center in the presence of Avtzon and 200 invited guests. Among them were Uri Gutman, Israel's consul-general in Shanghai, U.S. Consul General Kenneth Jarett and the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar.

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, mikveh, preschool and six classrooms. The Jewish boys and girls learning there come from such diverse countries as Chile, France, Israel and South Africa.

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 Beiing.

"This was the first Chabad house in mainland China," says the center's director, Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, noting 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."

Within the next 18 months thanks to funding from Rohr and other sources Chabad plans to inaugurate at least three more centers in China. Avtzon says he's not sure where yet, but likely candidates include the booming industrial cities of Qingdao, Nanjing, Xiamen and Hangzhou places most Americans have never heard of.

Chabad is also looking at the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which like nearby Hong Kong is now a special administrative region of China.

"The reality is that today, Chabad is a household word throughout Asia," Avtzon told JTA. In addition to its China operations, he said, "we have two Chabad centers in Japan, five in Thailand, one in Singapore, one in Nepal and one in India, and we're now opening in Vietnam and Laos."

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.

"When I came to Hong Kong in 1985, there were around 1,500 Jews here," he recalled. "There was hardly any kosher food, except for one elderly lady who sold kosher food at outrageous prices."

These days, Hong Kong has several kosher restaurants to choose from, and kosher food is readily available in both Beijing and Shanghai, each home to around 1,000 Jews.

"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. His wife Gu Qin whose mother is Buddhist and her father a Communist agreed.

"If I want to convert, it's because I'm really interested in the religion," she said. "But they don't want to open their doors to outsiders. It's not fair."

Yet even if it wanted to, Chabad cannot convert Gu Qin to Judaism, because that would violate a national law against prosyletizing.

"The government does not welcome foreign influence on the religious beliefs of locals," says Greenberg. "Missionary work is unacceptable in China. If you do missionary work, they'll kick you out."

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 the Chinese spouses of Jews to Judaism, official recognition would put Judaism on an equal footing with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religions.

In the meantime, says Avtzon, "our major headaches are finding attractive ways to make Judaism appealing and attractive in this very money-driven society, and finding the necessary resources to sustain and fuel our growth."

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