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Friday, July 14, 2006

Chabad stakes claim in China

Larry Luxner

IT’S Friday evening in Guangzhou, a chaotic metropolis of 10 million people. As the sun starts to set, no fewer than 40 men gather for Shabbat services at a makeshift synagogue located atop a Kodak photo-processing lab.

After services, they join their wives and children in the synagogue’s dining hall for a dinner complete with freshly-baked challah and kosher wine.

Welcome to Chabad of Guangzhou, one of the newest outposts of Yiddishkeit in China. Israeli-born Rabbi Eliyahu 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, has already 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 said. “They work in banking, textiles, shoes, trading, everything.”

The booming economy has attracted a rush of foreign investors to Guangzhou – China’s fourth-largest city – many of them Jews; Chabad is moving in to meet their needs.

“One or two years ago, religious Jews spent Shabbat alone in hotels. Now even the non-Orthodox come, because they want to see other Jews,” Rabbi Rozenberg said. “We do a minyan every morning at 8am. 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, five, and Ilana, one.

Thanks to donations from local Jews and visitors, Chabad will soon leave its temporary headquarters and move into a property with a Sunday school and mikvah.

“I want to make a strong community here,” said Rabbi Rozenberg, “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.”

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 1926-49. Before and during World War II, Rabbi Ashkenazi spearheaded relief efforts for 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 foreigners.

Today, anywhere from 5000 to 10,000 Jews live in China, not including another 5000 in Hong Kong. Virtually all are foreigners: American, Israeli, British and French citizens working as factory managers, financial advisers, teachers and tour guides.

“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 who has also spent time in Melbourne. “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 Chabad Community Centre of Beijing is due to open in August. Earlier this month, Chabad officially dedicated its new Shanghai Jewish Centre. A large villa located within a gated community off busy Hong Qiao Road, it boasts a synagogue, mikvah, preschool and six classrooms.

Centre director Rabbi Shalom Greenberg notes that at least 50,000 Jews visit Shanghai every year. “Ninety per cent of the Jews who come to China come not because they fall in love with Chinese culture, but because there are opportunities.”

Rabbi Avtzon said his yearly operational budget is $US2 million, not including capital projects. Chabad plans to inaugurate at least three more centres in China within the next 18 months. Likely candidates include the booming industrial cities of Qingdao, Nanjing, Xiamen and Hangzhou. Chabad also is looking at the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

“We are absolutely determined that the infrastructure of Judaism in China should be Chabad. That’s why we set up a JCC [Jewish community centre] in each place, because Chabad cares for Jews in a way few other organisations 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 said.

Yet even if it wanted to, Chabad couldn’t convert Gu Qin to Judaism because of a national law against proselytising.

Rabbi Avtzon and other Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar who visited China last week, are trying to have 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, Rabbi 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”.

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