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Overshadowed by China, a few Jews hold on in Taiwan
September 30, 2007

By Larry Luxner

TAIPEI, Republic of China — As Typhoon Sepat bore down on Taiwan with flashing thunderstorms, eight rain-soaked men gathered in a little storefront shul in downtown Taipei to welcome the Sabbath.

Despite the wind howling outside, and the fact he didn't quite have a minyan, 89-year-old Rabbi Ephraim Einhorn held services just as he has done nearly every Friday since 1975. When the hour-long Shabbat eve service was over, Einhorn recited the kiddush, invited his fellow worshippers to enjoy freshly baked challah dipped in honey and asked who they were and from where they came.

It's a ritual Don Shapiro has witnessed more times than he can remember.

"Usually he wants your name, where you were born and what your occupation is," says Shapiro, a Rochester, N.Y., native who has lived and worked in Taiwan for 38 years. "Everybody has to give a small bio, and if you forget something, he'll remind you."

Such intimacy is possible only because there are so few Jews left in Taiwan, officially known here as the Republic of China.

In recent years, as Jews increasingly flock to communist China to take advantage of booming business opportunities there — Chabad-Lubavitch alone now runs seven synagogues in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen — the Jewish presence in democratic, staunchly pro-Western Taiwan is disappearing.

Today, no more than 150 Jews live among the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China. That compares to between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews on the mainland, not including another 5,000 in Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997.

IMost of these Jews in Taiwan and China are foreigners — mainly U.S., Israeli, British and French citizens working as factory managers, financial advisers, English teachers and tour guides.

"When I first came here, we had 80 to 100 people coming every Shabbat. Most of them were of Syrian descent, so we used the Farhi [Sephardi] siddurim," said Einhorn, who was born in Vienna and at one time headed the information department of the World Jewish Congress. "Before me, the only services in Taiwan were at the U.S. military chapel. After the military left, we transferred services to the President Hotel, which no longer exists. Now, we use Ashkenazi prayer books. I never know how many people will show up from one week to the next."

Until a few years ago, Jewish services were conducted in Room 419 of the five-star Hotel Landis. But these days, Einhorn's "synagogue" is actually a tiny street-level office within the hotel's human resources annex. Smaller than an average American living room, it's crammed with an ark for the Torah, bookshelves, a dozen black-lacquer chairs and a dining-room table piled high with siddurim and newspaper clippings.

On Erev Rosh Hashana and Passover, services and communal dinners are held at the American Club, not far from Taipei's world-famous Grand Hotel; those usually attract 50 to 60 people. The rest of the time, Einhorn is strictly a one-man show and the undisputed authority on Jews in Taiwan.

"I am the rabbi, the shamash and the treasurer. And I pay all the bills," Einhorn said, joking that "somebody's got to do it."

It's doubtful anyone has ever accused Einhorn of being too modest.

The businessman-turned-rabbi routinely passes out eight different business cards identifying himself — among other things — as chairman of Pickwick Co. Ltd., director of Republicans Abroad Taiwan, senior vice-president of the World Trade Center Warsaw, representative of the Polish Chamber of Commerce and honorary citizen of the states of Nebraska and Montana.

Einhorn is only too happy to tell JTA how he was "the only Jew in history who has worked in every Arab country in the world," having first come to Taiwan, of all things, as head of a Kuwaiti business delegation. And heνs eager to show visitors photocopied pages of books dedicated in his honor, along with magazine articles that mention his name.

"In 1975, just four months after arriving, I was at the funeral of Chiang Kai-shek. My picture is in the official book of condolences, along with Nelson Rockefeller," he bragged. "I'm also known as the father of relations between Taiwan and six governments: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary and the Bahamas."

Among the many tchotchkes on the rabbi's cluttered desk is a little plaque from Taiwan's Rotary Club, inscribed "To Dr. E.F. Einhorn, The Walking Encyclopedia."

"Einhorn is the glue that holds the Jewish community together," said William Ting, a 38-year-old, Taiwan-born corporate lawyer who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and converted to Judaism a year ago under Einhorn's supervision. "I met him at the European Chamber of Commerce four years ago, but I never discovered the rabbi side of him until a year later."

Aside from Einhorn's Friday night and Saturday morning services, there's hardly any Jewish life to speak of in Taiwan. The island does have, however, a Holocaust museum set up within a church in Tainan, about an hour and a half south of Taipei via high-speed rail; there's also a Jewish exhibit — organized by Einhorn — at the Buddhist-run Museum of World Religions in suburban Taipei.

And kosher food is available sporadically in this land of pork dumplings and fried oxtails. One place is the Landis Hotel, whose chefs are well-versed in the rules of kashruth; another is Jason's Supermarket, a Singapore-based outlet located in the trendy food court of Taipei 101, the world's tallest building.

Despite the dwindling numbers, Ting says he sees a bright future for Jewish life in Taiwan — but only if the current government drops its insistence on independence for the island and seeks closer economic cooperation with China.

That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. In September, President Chen Shui-ban petitioned the United Nations for membership; the bid failed.

Taiwan has been trying to reclaim its UN seat since 1971, when its membership was replaced by that of the People's Republic of China. China's strong business partnerships around the world bode ill for Taiwan's efforts for official recognition as a state.

"No one takes this seriously. It's a joke," Einhorn said. "Even if they don't recognize Taiwan diplomatically, we are the third-richest country in Asia. Everyone wants to do business with us."

That everyone includes Israel, which like most of the world adheres to the one-China policy and established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1994, the same year it opened an Israel Economic and Culural Office in Taipei.

In 2006, said the office's director, Raphael Gamzou, bilateral trade came to $1.3 billion — nearly as much as the $1.8 billion in commerce Israel recorded with much bigger China.

"Taiwan is one of our main trading partners in Asia," Gamzou told JTA. "The Taiwanese have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for Israel. They admire Israeli courage and resilience, and the innovative capabilities of Israeli high-tech companies."

Taiwan itself is becoming a major investor in mainland China, yet it's currently impossible to fly there directly; rather, Taipei-based executives bound for Beijing or Shanghai must fly through Hong Kong, a bureaucratic and logistical headache.

Locals hope that increasing trade with Israel — combined with successful negotiations to open direct air service between Taiwan and the mainland — could save Taiwanνs shrinking Jewish community from outright extinction.

"Unlike Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, Taiwan has never been a financial center. It was a manufacturing hub in the past, and that's why a lot of Syrian Jews came here, to set up textile and garment factories. But they all moved out when the economy tanked, because Taiwan is no longer competitive with China," Ting said.

"However, direct air links would do wonders for the Jewish community," he continued. "When that happens, you could fly from Taipei's downtown city airport to Shanghai in 40 minutes. This will attract a lot of skilled Jewish professionals who are sick and tired of the pollution and smog in other big Asian cities."

The community could also attract more non-Jewish Chinese interested in converting — but for all the wrong reasons.

"China's cult of money is well-known," warns Ting. "When some Chinese see Jews, they think, 'how can I get some of that wealth?' They believe all Jews are rich, even here in Taiwan."

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