(lubavitch.com) When Goldie Avtzon, Chabad representative to Hong Kong, decided to throw a surprise party in honor of her husband’s 50th birthday last week, she had modest expectations.
“I thought it would be nice to make an event where people here could celebrate with Mordechai on a personal level,” says Goldie.
It wasn’t only that more than 200 guests, representing a full cross section of the community turned out, or that people who’ve been touched by Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon flew in for the event from as far as New York and Australia.
“The event was charged with real joy for the occasion and appreciation for what Mordechai stands for,” says Goldie, who doubled her husband’s surprise by launching a new Torah scroll in his honor, at the party.
Named "The Roving Torah," it will be on loan to new Chabad centers opening up in China and beyond. By evening’s end, all the guests dedicated their own letters in the Torah.
Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon has been a force in Hong Kong’s Jewish life for the last 25 years, and a pioneer Chabad representative in Asia, who also led the opening of other Chabad Houses in Asia. The change under his watch has been remarkable, and while he is careful to share credit with others for the transformation, many name Rabbi Avtzon as the driving force for yiddishkeit in Hong Kong.
Yossel Wolhendler has been traveling the New York-Hong Kong route for the last 23 years. “Rabbi Avtzon transformed Hong Kong Jewish life in no time,” he says, describing the Chabad emissary’s passion and commitment in his work to create a viable Jewish life for residents and travelers.
When the Avtzons arrived here, there was no Jewish day school. They started a small preschool in their living room, and eventually founded Hong Kong’s Carmel Jewish Day School, which today has an enrollment of 300 students.
Rabbi Avtzon started the first daily minyan, and today there are several daily prayer services. When he arrived, the JCC was serving non-kosher food. Rabbi Avtzon went immediately to work to change that, and since then, kosher food eateries have grown in Hong Kong.
To be sure, says Yossel, who became a close friend of Rabbi Avtzon and observed his tenacity and dedication, “It wasn’t easy. There were always challenges, but Rabbi Avtzon dealt with them and achieved what he set out to achieve.”
Yossel points out that Rabbi Avtzon reached individuals over the years on many levels, inspiring not only a changed landscape, but a spiritual awakening among countless Jews who have traveled through Hong Kong over the years.
“The community here has grown to deeply appreciate Rabbi Avtzon. Whenever there’s a crisis, whenever there’s an emergency, he’s the one they turn to.”
Rabbi Avtzon’s latest achievement: Hong Kong’s prison is now serving kosher food to its Jewish prisoners. As chaplain of the prison, Rabbi Avtzon worked long and hard, cutting through a lot of red tape to effect this change in a culture that is not kindly disposed to its prisoners.
Asked how many Jews are incarcerated: “At the moment, one,” says Rabbi Avtzon.
“But he deserves to have kosher food.”
Speaking to the guests at the party, Mr. Ephraim Zion, a well known diamond merchant, governor of the GIA and long time resident of Hong Kong’s Jewish community, expressed his feelings about the commitment Rabbi Avtzon has brought to his calling:
“What a tumultuous and eventful ride these 25 years have been. What a transformation in our Jewish life! Your accomplishments were not only confined to Chabad Houses or Jewish Centers.
“One of your most important achievements was the establishment of the Carmel School. It all started with a pre-school concept known as Torah Island, which I am sure most of you are not aware of. To see all those kids learning Jewish songs and holidays was such a joy. This little enterprise gave birth to the idea of setting up a Jewish school.
“Mordechai, when you proposed this idea, most people did not believe it was possible and many had doubts about such a school and some even ridiculed this idea as a Don Quixote dream. But you did not relent. For you there was no room for doubt, for negativity, or obstacles. These words did not exist in your vocabulary.
“On the contrary, you saw every challenge or difficulty as an opportunity for growth, development and for achieving your desired goal. You knew that Jewish survival is dependent on Jewish education and without Jewish education our future generation was at stake. For you, it was clear and natural that in a place like Hong Kong, all the more so that a Jewish school should have been established in order to bring us closer to our heritage.