Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Jews of Taiwan

On the sweet potato-shaped island of Taiwan, there is a small but established and functioning Jewish community.  The community started to take root on ihla Formosa in the 1950s with the U.S. military presence that was based on the island.  The present community began to take shape in the 1970s as the Asian Tiger’s growing economy brought international entrepreneurs to its shores. 

Today, the Jewish community is overwhelmingly found in Taipei, and meets on a weekly basis at the Sheraton Hotel. After fighting through the daily foreignness of life in Taiwan, there is a comforting feeling to coming entering the suite that doubles as the synagogue and entering a decidedly Jewish world.  The golden-hued synagogue room is filled with books of Jewish learning, and pictures of Jewish life.   

If you are in Taipei and plan on attending services, be sure to bring your business cards.  The rabbi of the community, Rabbi E.F. Einhorn, will request it and respond with a plethora of his own cards.  The grandfatherly Rabbi Einhorn leads the traditional services in a pleasant, meandering manner.  He directs the services, and offers a weekly sermon reading, often a passage from the words of his favorite sage, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.  After the services conclude, the congregants go around to introduce themselves and mention from where they hail.  The services conclude with kiddush of the sweet wine, and delicious fluffy challah and honey.  After eating heaps of rice all week, there is nothing better than some good soft challah.

There is a regular weekly congregation for Sabbath services that stands at a dozen to twenty persons.  For the high holidays, the congregation swelled to more than 60 people.  I spent the high-holidays in Taiwan, for a pleasant series of services that packed the little synagogue to the brim. 

The congregants are a mix of Americans, Canadians, Israelis, Russians and all other diasporic assortments.  Congregants range from businessmen to students learning Chinese to those traveling in the region and looking for a little Sabbath welcome. 

There are also a number of Taiwanese who attend the services. “Made in Taiwan,” as Rabbi Einhorn says.   Those like Tony Lin, who while living in San Francisco became interested in Judaism and now studies the faith, or Grace, whose grandfather was Jewish and she is reconnecting with the faith.  Some come because of their connection with Israel like Daniel Hu, who spent time researching at the Technion in Israel, or Anna Shen— the press officer at Israel Economic and Cultural Office (ISECO), the Jewish State’s de facto embassy.

Interestingly, there is even a holocaust museum in the central city of Tainan, run by a Taiwanese priest named Chou Chou An of Messianic Jewish extraction.  There is also a burgeoning Christian population in Taiwan.  I met a number of Taiwanese Christians who said with fervor that they pray for Israel.  Unfortunately, Israel is one of the many countries that do not recognize Taiwan.  Recognized by only 23 countries, most being small, poor and on the fringes of international society, Taiwan faces greater diplomatic isolation than the Jewish state.  With nearly a million Christians in Taiwan, and given the island’s affluence, Taiwan would be a ripe market for tourism to Israel and a receptive audience for cultural diplomacy.

Although small, the Jewish community of Taiwan remains a pearl in the crown of the Jewish communities of Asia.

PS: I received a note from Shlomi that there is another synagogue in Taiwan at the new Taipei Jewish Center
Kosher food is also available there.

Thanks for letting me know, Shlomi.