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Around the Jewish World: Jews of Hong Kong Taking Transition of Power in Stride

March 25, 1997
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It’s Barbecue Night at Hong Kong’s Jewish Community Center, and the lower-level function room is packed.

Jews ranging in age from toddlers to septuagenarians, and in religious observance from completely secular to fervently Orthodox, are lining up at the buffet tables.

They are seeking their fill of steak, turkey shashlik, corn, pasta, salad, halvah and more — all under the watchful eye of the island’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.

Anyone who belongs to one of Hong Kong’s four Jewish congregations is entitled to membership in this resplendent community center, which also houses a Jewish day school, two synagogues, a kosher restaurant and a deluxe swimming pool and health spa complex.

It is less than four months until the British turn over control of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China; a large digital clock in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square counts down the seconds until July 1.

But there are few signs of anxiety about the transition among those partaking of the Sunday night smorgasbord.

“I’m not worried,” says Yaron Meir, an Israeli from the town of Hadera who came here with his wife, Ziv, five months ago to open a candle-making factory in the neighboring Chinese province of Canton.

“I don’t think it will affect foreigners.”

Stephane Wilmet, whose cosmetics firm transferred him here from Paris in 1994, agrees.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” he says confidently. “There’s going to be a big party, and that will be it.”

“I think I’ll be here a long time,” he adds.

But pressed a little further, Wilmet concedes that the new regime will not be as democratic as its British colonial predecessor.

“It will be authoritarian rule in Hong Kong for sure,” he says. And he also believes that the transition will “further close China for foreigners. Foreign companies are going to have a tougher time doing business in China. It’s going to be China for the Chinese.”

That should be a concern for Hong Kong’s Jews, many of whom do business with or on the Chinese mainland.

But Wilmet’s friend, Axelle Sznajer, sees the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong as a business opportunity. People see it as a way to get easier access to the enormous Chinese market, she says.

Sznajer, a Belgian native, came here a year ago with her husband Michel after working in London for three years. She is in finance; he is a management consultant.

Like many of the expatriates in Hong Kong, they are young — in their mid-20s – – and ambitious. They come here planning to spend a year or two, end up staying a little longer, but always know that they can return home if the going gets tough.

And that, in fact, seems to be why the Jews of Hong Kong are not worried.

There are no Jewish “natives” here to speak of, other than a handful of Sassoons and Kadoories, the Iraqi Jews who came here decades ago and made vast fortunes.

This makes Hong Kong basically a business opportunity for most of the Jews here, rather than a homeland to which they have deep emotional ties.

For the time that they are here, their home away from home is the Jewish community center.

The center was built two years ago as part of a complex that includes two 47- story towers of luxury apartments with a breathtaking view of Hong Kong’s Central District.

The land it sits on was a barren lot, in the center of which stood the historic Ohel Leah Synagogue. The majestic Sephardi-style synagogue is still there – – the architects simply built the housing and community center complex around it.

And now this piece of prime real estate has netted the Jewish community trust a sum reputed to be in the millions of dollars.

For Hong Kong’s tiny but affluent Jewish community, what matters more is that they now have a place to worship, educate their children and swim.

“It’s a great community,” says Sznajer, the Belgian native. “I love the feeling of being at home — that’s important.”

“The strength of the community,” she says, “is that you have one center for everyone.”

Indeed looking around the dining room, where 50 or 60 people have gathered for the weekly get-together, one sees a woman with a sheitel, the wig worn by many married Orthodox women, in one corner; a secular Israeli in jeans and a T-shirt in another corner; and plenty of people who seem to be somewhere in between – – some with head coverings, many without.

These various types of Jews share not only the same swimming pool, but also the same restaurants and day school.

But this diversity is also a source of tension. The old joke about two Jews needing three synagogues certainly applies to Hong Kong.

On an island where the Jewish population is at best a few hundred, there is a Reform congregation, a mainstream Orthodox one and a Chasidic one that holds Shabbat services in a converted suite of the luxurious Hotel Furama Kempinksi. Across the bay in Kowloon is a fourth, fervently Orthodox congregation.

The largest one at present is the Reform congregation, whose rabbi for the year is Levi Kelman, founder and religious leader of the Progressive congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.

Kelman had decided last summer to take a yearlong sabbatical and was trying to figure out how to spend it when he got a call from Ben Frankel, one of the most active lay leaders of the Hong Kong Jewish community.

Frankel asked Kelman whether he would consider coming, even for just a few months. Less than four weeks later, Kelman, his wife Paula and their three children arrived here.

Seven months later, they have settled in well and are enjoying it.

“The way things work here,” he says, “if you’re here of six months, you’re an old-timer.”

In fact, many people come for much shorter stints, though they may do so repeatedly.

Take Eli Mirzoeff, who has been coming to Hong Kong to do business for a week or two at a time since the early 1970s.

This time he brought his son Adam and his daughter-in-law Chavi. All three are fervently Orthodox and live in New York. Whenever they are here, they stay at the Furama Kempinski and daven in the Lubavitch synagogue there.

In the 25 years that he has been coming here, Mirzoeff has seen the Jewish community grow stronger. “The `frumkeit’ has increased,” he says, using the Yiddish word for religious observance.

Speaking of the upcoming transition to Chinese rule, Mirzoeff says, “We don’t know what will happen. I personally believe it will not affect our business, but it all depends on how the Chinese behave.”

His son Adam, who has visited once before, agrees.

“There’s a lot of doubt” about the future, he says, but “overall, I don’t think it will change.”

Rabbi Netanel Meoded, leader of the fervently Orthodox congregation in Kowloon, is even more at ease. “I’m absolutely not concerned about the changeover,” he says emphatically.

Meoded, who came here from Jerusalem a year and a half ago, says he believes that the new government will be even friendlier to the Jewish community.

“The Chinese people like the Jews,” he says. “If there’s a change, it will be good for the Jews.”

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