By Faygie Levy Holt
On Sunday night, as residents of Hong Kong were ushering in the Chinese New Year, members of Hong Kong’s Jewish community – men, women and children – took the streets, quite literally, to distribute food packages to the city’s homeless.
The effort took place amid widespread social unrest. The next day, violent rioting erupted over a government crackdown on illegal street vendors, who were selling fishballs and other popular fare for the holiday.
But the tensions did not deter volunteers, who delivered packages that included a card written in both Chinese and English that said: “We want to wish you a happy new year and bring sunshine into your life.” Some 60 people were involved over a two-week period – under the auspices of a local humanitarian project called Shine – baking bread and cakes, decorating cards and packing everything up, though only a few did the actual distributing.
“I’m really excited about this, and I think it can have real potential for givers and recipients,” said Goldie Avtzon, who co-directs Chabad of Hong Kong with her husband, Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, and is helping to spearhead Shine. “This pilot project exceeded our expectations.”
She said the Jewish community in Hong Kong tends to be affluent and homogeneous. The less fortunate are not as present in Hong Kong as they are in other Asian cities, she added, making a program like Shine, which brings the needs of others to the forefront, a real necessity.
“I was introduced to the problem of homelessness in Hong Kong through my computer technician – a man from India who volunteers to help,” explained the Chabad emissary. “Hong Kong is a very happening place; you don’t think there are homeless and you don’t regularly see homeless people. But it moved me to want to bring the Jewish community to help them.”
Among those who participated in the project was the Gafni family.
“I was looking to get involved with volunteer work that combined the Jewish community with the local Chinese community, so as soon as I heard of ‘Shine,’ I asked to join the committee,” said Keren Shahar Gafni, who lives on Lantau Island – the largest of Hong Kong’s islands – with her husband, Tal, and their four children. “The first official project was the food distribution to the homeless for the Chinese New Year – not joining it was not an option for me.”
Noting that her four children, who range in age from 4 to 11, attend a local Chinese school, Shahar Gafni said: “We feel connected to the local community and see how lucky we are by being part of a loving big family and a greater Jewish community.”
Observing the response to the project, Avtzon thinks “it’s going to become something big and beneficial for both the people who give and the people who receive. We plan to have monthly and bimonthly events where people come together to do things for those in Hong Kong, as well as in Israel. It’s going to be an action-based program, as opposed to fundraisers.”
While Shine’s first official program was the food distribution for the Chinese New Year, it was actually the second time in recent weeks that the Avtzons and members of the local Jewish community came to the aid of Hong Kong’s homeless.
‘Outside Their Comfort Zone’
Two weeks ago, the city was in the throes of a cold snap, with the thermometer dropping to 38 degrees – a 50-year low, according to news reports. While this is indeed the coldest time of the year there, the average temperature ranges from the high 50s to the low 60s.
The Chabad center immediately emailed community members to pitch in. After delivering an initial donation of 20 blankets and 20 coats – and seeing the dire need among the homeless population—the emissaries knew they had to do more.
“There were people who didn’t even have shoes or socks,” said Goldie Avtzon. “So I sent another email asking for donations [or contributions]. The response was unbelievable. We raised between $2,000 and $3,000 in six hours.”
The money allowed volunteers to purchase additional items, including sweaters, scarves and boots. Avtzon recounted one particular image that stuck with her: A man was walking around outside in flimsy hotel slippers; thanks to one of the donors, he was able to trade them in for a pair of UGG boots.
“The outpouring was amazing. People I haven’t heard from in years said, ‘Yes, we want to donate and deliver,’ ” she said. “It was something incredible to see.”
Helping others in a tangible way is the ultimate goal of Shine. Said Avtzon: “I hope it does for others what it did for me, making people look outside their comfort zone. I want them to feel it – to be involved with their own hands.”