Hong Kongs Jews sailing happily into Chinese sun

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HONG KONG — In the days before 5,000 People's Liberation Army troops marched across the Hong Kong border heralding Communist Chinese rule, the Jews of this island nation were worrying.

Were they anxious, like others, over the end of 156 years of free-wheeling capitalistic rule?

No — they were confronting more pressing matters: Can one kashrut supervisor assure the kashrut of both a dairy and meat kitchen in a single community center? Must the president of the single Jewish day school's PTA be Jewish? Should an Orthodox rabbi lead a Shavuot study session jointly with a Reform rabbi?

Hong Kong's 3,000 or so Jews — in a nation of 5.5 million — are hardly quaking over the advent of Chinese rule. They're not running or hiding.

In fact, they are growing in number and making more money than ever. They're learning Mandarin to expand their interests in China, buying real estate to cement their interests in Hong Kong's booming property market and telling panicked friends to take it easy.

"When it comes to religion, the Chinese have never given us any problems," says Avishay Hamburger, general manager of United Development Inc. and president of the local Israel Chamber of Commerce.

"I tell people that the flag, the religion and the anthem of Hong Kong is money. Your money as a Jew is as good as an Indian's, as good as an American's, as good as anybody's."

Hamburger, 50, has reason to smile. As he lights a cigarette in his 20th-floor office, he can look out over the harbor, the Kowloon peninsula and on a clear day, the mainland beyond. He is a protege of the late Shoul Eisenberg, one of the most influential China brokers for world trade since the 1950s.

Based in Hong Kong, Hamburger supervises several of UDI's 14 offices and core businesses across China, makers of everything from hydroelectric power plants to toy pandas.

Of course, the amiable industrialist has been in Hong Kong only seven years. He says he couldn't begin to speak for the prominent Jewish families who helped build the colony, founded the Ohel Leah Synagogue in 1902 and made their fortunes in the China trade, like the Kadoories, the Sassoons and the Greens.

Dr. Judith Diestel can. British-born, she married the formidable Gus Diestel, whose family lived in Shanghai during World War II and built a successful brassiere-manufacturing business.

After 30 years in Hong Kong, she is a member of the community's highest authority, the Incorporated Trustees, and has an intimate familiarity with everyone and everything Jewish in Hong Kong.

"Nobody has said they're leaving because of '97," said Diestel, who lives in the same luxury apartment complex as Hong Kong's new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

"They're leaving because rents are too high, they're leaving because Hong Kong's expensive [or] for family reasons. What amazes me is that people with young children are as optimistic as we are."

For Jews, Hong Kong is a gilded shtetl.

In the property it owns on Robinson Road in the Mid-Levels district, the Jewish community has both Orthodox and Reform congregations, the Chabad-run Carmel Day School with 110 children and three kosher restaurants headed by a dashing young Danish chef who is also a part-time Kabbalist.

The community also has a swimming pool and health-club complex, a kosher food market and a bakery that produces mouth-watering challahs each week.

Not far away is a new $500,000 Chabad Lubavitch synagogue that holds services in the four-star Furama Hotel, and the breakaway Shuva Yisrael community, which runs the Shalom Grill and another synagogue on the Connaught Street waterfront.

Five years ago, the trustees leased half the property to Hong Kong's biggest property developer for an undisclosed sum, estimated to be in the region of $150 million to $200 million.

That makes it arguably the richest Jewish community per capita in the world.

Very few members of the 714 families who belong to the Jewish Community Center are native. Most are traders, bankers, lawyers and others who are on limited-time contracts with foreign companies.

The core members come from Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa, France and Australia, with a growing number of Israelis. Although a slim majority of those who come to synagogue are Ashkenazi by birth, Ohel Leah follows the Sephardi tradition of prayer set by the Sassoon family, which came from Baghdad and Bombay.

The divergent backgrounds have been reflected most recently in the search for a successor to Rabbi Shmuel Lopin, 53, a gentle man who is leaving in July after four somewhat stormy years at the pulpit.

A search committee has brought in three Ashkenazi candidates from the United States, Israel and Canada. But a solid half of the membership has put its weight and passionate lobbying behind the current kashrut supervisor and Torah reader, Rabbi David Zadok.

Lopin, despite his imminent departure, says he sees little reason for others to follow.

"The concern might come from the past history of the Jewish people, like those who point out that the Jews who stayed behind in Nazi Germany also thought things would be fine there," Lopin says.

Still, he adds, "The people here have been historically very friendly to the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism does not exist in Hong Kong or in any part of China."

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, 44, also sees few congregants following him back to Israel in August or fleeing to other parts of the world.

Weiman-Kelman, who has served as the reform United Jewish Community rabbi during a sabbatical from Jerusalem's Kol Haneshama congregation, says that "even the real pessimists say anything that happens isn't going to happen overnight."

However, he adds, "they have sent their money offshore."

But some 300 parents and children, members of Ohel Leah, the UJC and Chabad, drifted merrily into the age of Chinese rule aboard a rented ferry in the harbor.

They're calling it the "Haymische Handover Cruise."

"For us," says Hamburger, "Hong Kong is paradise."