In These Five Flourishing Jewish Communities, No One Is in Any Rush to Immigrate to Israel

In Italian Merano inter-marriage isn't an issue, in Dresden no one cares about racism as long as they're not its target, and in Taipei kashrut is the biggest concern. The one thing they all have in common? Immigration to Israel isn't on their agenda.

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Children from the Jewish community in Taipei celebrating Hanukkah.
Children from the Jewish community in Taipei celebrating Hanukkah.Credit: Rabbi Shlomi Tabib
Limor Shmuel Friedman, Dana Regev, Eli Finarov, David Stavrou Kay, Ron Reitan
Limor Shmuel Friedman, Dana Regev, Eli Finarov, David Stavrou Kay, Ron Reitan

Nanaimo, Canada | Around 1,000 Jews

A map of Canada showing Nanaimo. The city is on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, which is located in the southwest corner of Canada. Credit: Haaretz

Ingathering of the exiles from across the sea

Sunday morning. Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is decorated for the recent visit of Prince William, his wife Kate Middleton and their children George and Charlotte. Three hours from there by plane, at the center of Vancouver Island, eight Hebrew-school students in Nanaimo waited, excited, for their own special guest: beekeeper Sol Nowitz, who will show them how honey, the viscous liquid in which they dip apple slices on Rosh Hashanah.

A Hebrew-school class in Nanaimo, British Columbia.Credit: Blumie Shemtov

Before his arrival, the children make a calendar with their teacher, Blumie, the wife of Rabbi Bentzi Shemtov. The Shemtovs came to Nanaimo from Ohio exactly a year ago, with two young children. A third, a girl, was born here. The change, they say — from Toledo to the Vancouver coast — is enormous. Vancouver Island is slightly larger than Israel. The population of Nanaimo is less than 100,000 and there are only around 1,000 Jews in the area, compared to 3,000 in Victoria.

Bentzi Shemtov explains that they followed Blumie’s sister, who lives in Victoria, to Vancouver Island, and that it was also an opportunity for them to establish a Chabad house in an isolated area. When they arrived, they discovered other Jewish families from the United States, as well as families from South Africa, eastern Canada, South America and Europe. There is no Jewish school in the area, so their eldest son enrolled in a long-distance Jewish learning program with students from Canada, Mexico, the United States and other countries.

Nanaimo was once a port for the region’s coal and lumber industries, but for several decades Vancouver Island’s stunning beaches have become the main attraction. At low tide, one can find crabs, sand dollars, seashells and starfish. Inland, there are green forests and dozens of small lakes. The Shemtovs live within walking distance from the beach.

A Hebrew-school class in Nanaimo, British Columbia.Credit: Blumie Shemtov

“When we buy new utensils, we simply go down to the sea ‘to tovel them,’” says Bentzi Shemtov, referring to the practice of making new dishes and cooking utensils kosher through immersion. They performed the tashlikh ritual on Rosh Hashanah at a nearby lake.

Most of the Jewish community’s organized activities, like the Hanukkah party and Rosh Hashanah services — take place in rented halls. There is no synagogue, and the Torah scroll is on loan from the city of Vancouver, located on the mainland, a 90-minute ferry ride away.

When Nowitz comes, he related that he immigrated from South Africa over 30 years ago. He says that people in the area, especially on Vancouver Island, value local products, and many have their own vegetable gardens and make their own wine. The honey that he collects does not need to be made kosher. “As long as it is pure honey, it is kosher as is,” Bentzi Shemtov says.

When Hebrew school is over, parents pick up their children, and a member of the community takes the Torah scroll and rushes to catch the 2 P.M. ferry to Vancouver, in order to return it — until the next time. (Limor Shmuel Friedman)

Dresden, Germany | Around 700 Jews

A map of Germany showing Dresden's location.Credit: Haaretz

Not afraid of PEGIDA

The enormous demonstrations by members of the anti-immigration group PEGIDA against what they call “the Islamization of the West” has put Dresden on Germany’s media radar. Every week for the past two years, these self-styled “European patriots” have called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to resign over her refugee absorption policy. Many Germans fear that followers of PEGIDA will not hesitate to branch out from anti-Muslim activities and to focus their hatred on other minorities in due time. But Jews in Dresden say they don’t feel threatened by the organization.

“I don’t feel in danger here,” says Yuri, a physician in the city for many years who came to Chabad House for Friday-night dinner, where he is one of 30 to 40 other regulars. “PEGIDA doesn’t oppose Jews. They are against Merkel and her politics. Dresden developed a stigma as if it were a city of Nazis, but it’s not true and it has to change.”

Still, Rabbi Shneor Havlin, Chabad’s emissary to the city for the past 14 years, admits that the extremist protests have intimidated him. “Even though Jews here say there is nothing to fear, it is after all many people uniting against a group of foreigners,” he says. “We are also foreigners, and we will always be foreigners in Germany.” The rabbi celebrated Rosh Hashanah with 150 people in the small synagogue in the Chabad compound, without any security arrangements.

Building the community sukkah in Dresden, Germany, in October 2016.Credit: Dana Regev

While Berlin is more popular with Israelis, many Jews have found a home in the tense capital of Saxony. Out of a total population of 500,000, Dresden’s Jewish community numbers 700, according to official data from the city’s central synagogue, or a few thousand, according to Chabad’s figures. The organization also counts Israelis and other Jews who are not affiliated with the community, including many old people.

Rabbi Shneor Havlin, Chabad emissary to Dresden, Germany.Credit: Dana Regev

Members began building the community sukkah on the Friday after Rosh Hashanah. “It’s the only day without rain in the coming days,” explains Havlin. “So we brought members of other communities to assist us.”

Ali Habiballah, an Arab from the Israeli city of Nazareth, operates a successful bar in Dresden. He prepares kosher food for Israeli tourists, holds evening sing-alongs for the Jewish community and imports wine and other products from Israel. He has lived in Dresden for 26 years and maintains close ties with its Jewish community. “PEGIDA are unemployed people who take out their bitterness on foreigners,” he says.

Habiballah says he has never experienced bigotry, “but there is definitely a change in the city’s atmosphere in the past year or two. “It’s a burning issue here,” he adds. A nephew, Hamoudi, who has lived in Dresden for eight years and helps him manage the pub, adds: “We need to do everywhere what we do here: Jews, Arabs, Germans — all eating from one plate. It’s possible.” (Dana Regev)

Taipei, Taiwan | Around 800 Jews

A map of Taiwan, showing the location of TaipeiCredit: Haaretz

Kosher, Taiwan-style

While Jews in Europe cope with anti-Semitic outbursts and terror attacks perpetrated or inspired by the Islamic State, the concerns of Taiwan’s Jews focus on their plates. The traditional Rosh Hashanah meal, held at a hotel in the capital of Taipei for 200 members of the community, required special preparation. The hotel koshered its kitchen for the occasion, and the cooks took care to observe all the dietary laws.

Only a few dozen families in the city keep kosher, and the community regularly imports kosher foods from Israel and the United States. Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, Chabad’s emissary in Taiwan, says this isn’t enough. There is not a steady source of kosher meat, so some families only have meat once a week.

“This year we brought a shipping container from Israel filled with kosher goods for the holidays, and even a sukkah to replace the makeshift sukkahs we built in the Jewish center in previous years,” says Tabib. He adds that many community members will fast on Yom Kippur and that a good turnout is anticipated for the community’s Sukkot activities.

Compared to China, where the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 10th century, Taiwan’s Jewish community is relatively young. The first Jews who arrived on the island were Jewish soldiers in the U.S. army, stationed on bases around the capital in the early 1950s. When Taiwan underwent its industrial revolution in the 1970s and the island’s products began to be exported throughout the world, dozens of Jewish traders and businessmen from the United States, France and Israel settled there with their families.

Members of Taiwan's Jewish community, with Rabbi Shlomi Tabib holding the Torah, at a procession for the dedication of a new Torah scroll.Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Although Taiwan and Israel had no diplomatic ties in the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of Israeli engineers lived in Taiwan as a result of defense cooperation between the countries. Israel helped Taiwan build a security system for its nuclear power plants. Other military deals between the countries remain a secret until today.

Taiwan’s Jewish community today consists mainly of families who have lived there for many years, as well as businessmen, families and individuals who came more recently and Jewish students from Israel and elsewhere. According to Tabib, who maintains a database that would put an espionage agency to shame, the community numbers some 800 people, 650 of whom live in Taipei.

Community members describe life with the Taiwanese as tranquil and quiet. They assert that the locals admire the Jewish people because of its long history, the traditionally strong emphasis on education and its revival after the Second World War.

“No doubt that East Asia in general, and Taiwan in particular, are for me and for others in the community the most relaxed and quiet place to live in,” says Tabib. In addition to dealing with kashrut issues and the frequent typhoons, community member are focusing on building a permanent synagogue and hope that a kosher restaurant will be opened next door to it. (Eli Finarov)

Umeå, Sweden | A few dozen Jews

A map of Sweden, showing the location of Umeå.Credit: Haaretz

Educating against anti-Semitism

Founded in the 17th century, this town in northern Sweden did not have a genuine Jewish community until recently. The few Jews who passed through or settled here did not live as a community or establish Jewish institutions. All that changed six years ago, thanks to three women who created a unique model for a Jewish community — not only is there neither a rabbi to lead it nor a synagogue, but there are no worship services and no life-cycle events such as circumcisions, weddings or funerals.

What there is a small organization, which arose out of a feeling of insecurity among Jews in the city. Its membership is diverse, coming from backgrounds religious and secular, Christian and atheists, with ties to Israel and people who have never even visited. There are no official figures on how many Jews live in Umeå, whose total population is around 120,000, but the organized Jewish community has around 50 members.

Carinne Sjöberg is the organization’s chairwoman. A former Israeli who has lived in Sweden since the 1980s, she is also a member of the city council. “You could say that everything started when my son came downstairs on his first day in second grade,” she recalls. “Although we aren’t religious, he decided to wear a kippa he got from my father when we visited the Western Wall” in Jerusalem. “I had to react in a way that didn’t hurt his feelings, and I asked him to remove the kippa. It wasn’t a simple matter.”

Sjöberg explains that while the idea of concealing one’s Jewish identity goes against her principles, she feared the kippa would stigmatize her son as a foreigner and immigrant, and that he would be teased in school. She later found out that this happened to many children, and decided to do something about it.

When she began her journey, Sjöberg discovered that residents of Umeå knew little about Judaism. “People didn’t know anything besides bible stories,” she says. “I encountered ignorance, embarrassing questions, strange reactions and accusations about Israeli actions. When I arrived in Sweden I wanted to adapt to my new country, but I also wanted my previous identity to be accepted here. I hoped that just as it is possible to walk around with a veil or turban, it would be possible to wear a kippa.”

Reality did not match her vision. Sjöberg talks about the ignorance about Jewish children in schools, humiliating treatment of Holocaust survivors in nursing homes, vitriolic anti-Israeli demonstrations and not inviting Jewish organization representatives to the Kristallnacht memorial ceremony, which became an anti-racism event, because of fear of clashes with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Carinne Sjöberg and Pia Hagman in the Jewish community center of Umeå, Sweden.Credit: David Stavrou Kay

All these developments motivated Sjöberg to found a Jewish organization that not only would provide a home for the city’s Jews but also take upon itself an educational and public mission. Her first partner was Sylvia Bäckström, a local retiree who serves as the organization’s treasurer. Bäckström is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, whose parents immigrated to Sweden after the war. She had hid her Jewish identity until the organization was founded.

The third member in the story is Pia Hagman. “I don’t have any Jewish roots at all, as far as I know,” she says. “I started becoming interested in Judaism at age 12, after I read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ When my daughter reached a similar age, she wrote a paper in school about the Holocaust. That is how we, through Carinne, reached Sylvia’s mother and heard her story.” The story deeply affected Hagman and informed her decision to contribute to the organization’s establishment.

Sjöberg and Hagman say that the problem of anti-Semitism and racism in the country became worse over the past few decades as economic crises, political forces and mass immigration combined to make Sweden less safe for Jews. However, despite many stories of anti-Semitic incidents involving Muslim migrants, they are cautious to assign them responsibility for the situation. “Jew hatred exists from the right-wing fringes to the left-wing fringes,” says Hagman. “It is something that has to be put on the table and discussed.”

And that is exactly what the three are doing. Sjöberg lectures in schools and various forums, and the organization collaborates with cultural and educational institutions and holds dialogue meetings. This activity has a price, and Sjoberg says local neo-Nazis have attacked and threatened her numerous times, and that there are still community members who are afraid to be exposed.

Despite the negative atmosphere, the Jewish organization in Umeå has helped many members feel comfortable with their Judaism. Last month, a new Jewish cultural center in the city was dedicated. It will host art exhibitions, holiday activities and Hebrew lessons. (David Stavrou Kay)

Merano, Italy | Around 50 Jews

Map of Italy showing Merano.Credit: Haaretz

Inevitable assimilation

“Let it be clear. Anyone who is registered in our community is a Jew in the Orthodox sense of the word,” declares the president of the Merano Jewish community, Dr. Elisabetta Rossi-Innerhofer. Merano, a former international trade city, shares a border with Austria. The proximity to its neighbor to the north contributes to the Jewish community’s multilingualism, speaking “Italian, German a little Hebrew and Yiddish,” according to Rossi-Innerhofer, whose Hebrew name is Elisheva.

Jewish settlement in the area began in 1901with the establishment of its first synagogue, which still stands. The rise of Nazism and fascism to power decimated the Jewish community, whose population dwindled from 2,500 before the war to just 50 today.

The city’s Jewish community was forced to cope with many difficulties because of its size. “In order to preserve our synagogue an activist needs a lot of strength, will and compromises. I run it personally and voluntarily,” says Rossi-Innerhofer. “There is no rabbi in our community, rather a cantor who runs services. By profession he is actually a car mechanic.” Community gatherings for the holidays become a complicated matter, and Rossi-Innerhofer says that the community does not celebrate minor holidays like Tu Bishvat for logistical reasons.

There is no Jewish school in the area because of the Jewish community’s size, but the community does not have problems with religion like secular Israelis, such as the circumcision issue. “Circumcision was never a matter of discussion here,” says Rossi-Innerhofer. “Everyone registered in our community undergoes it.”

The Jewish community in Merano, Italy.Credit: Gigi Bortoli

However, when asked about assimilation, it seems that size does matter. “There are definitely mixed marriages,” she admits. “It happens when a community is so small, but there is a preference to avoid them.”

Last year, the community was shook up after one of the city’s council members declared that he was a proud fascist, praising Mussolini and Hitler. “We don’t feel any anti-Semitism in our daily lives, but we live in complicated times,” says Rossi-Innerhofer. “Radical Islam is making a seemingly irrational tie with neo-Nazis with the clear goal of attacking Jews, but the times when Jews shut up and hid in a corner ended long ago.”

Regarding the boycott of Israel, Rossi-Innerhofer asserts that the community actively and unequivocally opposes the boycott, divest and sanctions campaign. “It is a movement that is hostile not only to Israel but to Jews all around the world,” she adds.

It is hard to end the conversation without a question about moving to Israel. Rossi-Innerhofer has a pat answer. “None of us is considering it at the time,” she replies. “Until recently we even had reverse ‘aliyah’ and we received three Israelis who married Italians. But we don’t rule it out in the future.” (Ron Reitan)

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