[By: Ariel Scheib]

Despite its small size, the Taiwan Jewish community has remained vibrant for some five decades, ensuring the continuation of Jewish life in this important corner of East Asia. The Jewish community of Taiwan dates back to the 1950s, when Jewish servicemen in the American military were first stationed there. As Taiwan’s industrial and trading capacity grew, Jewish businessmen from the United States, Israel, and Europe, joined Taiwan’s Jewish community.  During that period of rapid economic growth, Shabbat and holiday services were held regularly in the U.S. military chapel (open to civilians as well as military personnel), ordinarily officiated over by lay leaders.  The nearest rabbi was the U.S. military chaplain based in the Philippines, who would visit Taiwan several times a year.

During the 1960s, an informal Orthodox congregation began to meet at the President Hotel, then the leading business hotel in Taipei. Taiwan was then emerging as a major export center and Jewish buyers of garments, shoes, and other products were constantly visiting the island. A minyan was assured for virtually every service - consisting of both visitors and residents - and the hotel kitchen was taught how to bake challah and other Jewish delicacies.

In the mid-1970s, the Taiwan Jewish Community Center was established in a rented house in the suburban area of Tienmu, where many of the expatriate families resided.  In 1975, the Community received formal recognition from the government when it was allowed to register as a non-profit organization. Among the founders was Yaacov Liberman, who served as the community president for the first decade.  Liberman, who had grown up in China as part of the Russian-Jewish community that had sought refuge there, was the representative in Taiwan of the Eisenberg trading group from Israel.  At the community’s peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, membership included more than 50 families and events were held at the Center several times a week.

The size of the Community then began declining due to changes in Taiwan’s economic structure.  Some of the industries in which the members were most active, especially garments and footwear, became less competitive in Taiwan as labor costs increased.  Many individuals affected by this change relocated to other countries in Asia, causing the community to discontinue the rental of premises to maintain a community center in 2003, as it could no longer afford it.

Regular community events are still organized and religious services for Shabbat and holidays have been held at a Taipei Hotel.  After holding the services for many years in the Landis Taipei Hotel, formerly known as the Ritz, the community moved the venue in 2008 to the Sheraton Hotel. Services are officiated over by the only Rabbi in Taiwan, Dr. E. F. Einhorn, who has lived in Taipei for over 25 years.  Many Jewish visitors to Taipei who are Shomer Shabbat choose to stay at the Sheraton because of its convenience to services. The hotel has also been trained to provide kosher meals of fish cooked in aluminum foil. The numerous Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, many of which offer buffets (some of them quite elaborate), are also a solution for those keeping kosher. While on average only eight to ten congregants turn out for weekly Shabbat services, 60 to 100 people usually fill the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

During the past decade the Israeli presence in Taiwan has expanded. High-tech companies and individuals with technical skills found many opportunities here, often in cooperation with Taiwanese enterprises. The match of Israeli technology and Taiwanese manufacturing capabilities made for a strong partnership. An example of the Israeli companies active in Taiwan is Orbotech, which provides testing equipment and services to the semiconductor industry.

The growing business potential prompted the Israeli government to establish the Israel Economic & Cultural Office (ISECO) in 1993.  It currently has a staff of seven Israeli nationals and nine local employees. Like the trade offices in Taiwan of most other nations, ISECO is similar in function to an embassy.  However, since formal diplomatic relations exist with Beijing, the ties with Taiwan must be carried out in an unofficial way.

Sources: "A down-home davening...In Taiwan" by Neil Steinberg;
"Jewish Taiwan";
"Taipei's Jewish Community has Deep Roots" by Cody Yiu;
World Jewish Congress;
"Introduction to the Taiwan Jewish Community" by Don Shapiro.

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