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Bangkok, Thailand

 

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The Jews of Khao San Road

Ten-year-old Chabad House may serve as example for other Jewish communities.

TRAVEL FEATURE - 1000 words, 250-word sidebar and 3 photos

Story and photos by BAILA LAZARUS

Bangkok, Thailand
Travelling in 35-degree heat with what feels like 500 per cent
humidity is bad enough with a backpack full of clothing and other
necessities, but imagine if you had to add packages of food to the
load because you were trying to keep kosher while you travel. It's a
daunting task for any but the most committed backpacker.
So when Noach and Sarit Safra of Jerusalem realized they could
lighten their load slightly by eating at Chabad's kosher restaurant
in Bangkok, they were more than pleased.


"It's a wonderful opportunity," said Noach Safra as he dug into a
bowl of noodle soup in the air-conditioned room. "At least in
Bangkok, we don't have to worry about where we eat."
Part of a growing community of Jews in Thailand -- both residents and
travelers -- Ohr Menachem Chabad House serves one of the biggest
groups of Jewish backpackers in the world. They flock year-round,
mostly from Israel, to Bangkok's reknowned Khao San Road area and,
on any given day, you'll find them eating, chatting, relaxing and
reading in the nearby haven.


Chabad House, as it's familiarly called, celebrates its 10th
anniversary this year but the building in which the Safras stopped to
eat, consult their maps and say the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after
the meal) is a newly renovated Jewish center almost three years old.
The center is one of which Rabbi Yosef Kantor is particularly proud
and one which, he says, will serve as an example for Jewish
communities around the world.

"Our agenda is creating unity and breaking down barriers," said
Kantor in his office at the center. "It's a place where [Jewish
travellers] don't always have to be on their guard. Everybody feels
like they're in a Jewish coccoon."


The first permanent rabbi in Bangkok, Kantor came to the city with
his family in 1992 at the request of two established synagogues --
Beth Elisheva and Even Chen. He was part of the Chabad movement's
outreach program that established rabbinic leadership in growing
Jewish communities around the world. Within a year of working here,
he saw a need for a center for the thousands of Israelis and other
Jewish travellers who came through the Khao San area.


Kantor started organizing Passover meals for the travellers,
eventually setting up the small center in one of the local guest
houses. Although seders had been occurring at the other synagogues,
never had there been such a response as to the first one in the
Banglampoo area in April 1993. Just through word of mouth, hundreds
came. After that, year after year, the crowds grew, both for Passover
meals, as well as for Shabbat dinners. Eventually rabbinical students
came to help out with the meals and services, staying for months at a
time and, in 1995, a second rabbi, Nechamya Wilhelm, came to take up
permanent residence in the "Backpackers' Chabad" with his family. Now
the center serves free Shabbat meals for as many as 350 people on a
weekly basis and offers Rosh Hashanah services for more than 1,000.
In addition, there is a permanent rabbi, Levi Tzeitlin, conducting
services in another tourist desination, Chiang Mai, in northern
Thailand; and holiday programming is held regularly on the southern
resort island of Koh Samui.


Kantor feels that part of Chabad's success in the Khao San center is
due to the relaxed atmosphere.
"This is a place where they know that our agenda is one thing --
helping them in any way possible," said the rabbi. "We've constantly
felt an outpouring of appreciation."
In order to help the backpackers, Chabad House not only offers
subsidized kosher meals, but has a room for computers offering free
Internet access and telephones for free local calls, a synagogue, a
social hall for Friday night dinners and living quarters for Rabbi
Wilhelm and his family. A reading room has shelves of literature and
travel guides in numerous languages and even a television and video
library.


In addition to serving the thousands of travellers who pass through
the area every year, the development of the center has been a boon to
the community as well. Because of the critical mass the tourists
generated, the center now serves as a "clearing house" for kosher
food in Thailand, said Kantor, who is currently the resident shochet
(ritual slaughterer). In addition, it's been a destination for
yeshivah students to both continue their studies and learn about
outreach work. Former students have gone to Nepal, Sydney, Melbourne,
South America and Costa Rica, areas that attract many Jewish
backpackers where Kantor thinks this type of project would be
beneficial.


The center also brings in guest rabbis and speakers and takes people
out to retreats for seminars on such topics as the origins of belief
and monotheism.


"The work we could do here was something we could never do in
Israel," said Kantor.
Still, perhaps the "relaxed" atmosphere of the center is not one that
really supports the type of Jewish involvement that Chabad would like
to promote. After one Shabbat dinner, with people still saying the
Birkat Hamazon, one traveller pulled out his cell phone right at the
table to make plans for later in the evening.
"We have to look at each experience in the moment," said Kantor. "So
he's talking on his cellphone -- but at least he came to a Shabbat
dinner."


For details on synagogue locations, service times and Shabbat meals,
visit www.jewishthailand.com, e-mail ykantor@ksc15.th.com, call
011-66-2-663-0244 or fax 011-66-2-663-0245. Bangkok is 15 hours ahead
of Pacific daylight savings time.

Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator living in Vancouver, Canada. Her work can be seen at www.orchiddesigns.net.


SIDEBAR:
Though Rabbi Yosef Kantor became the first permanent rabbi when he
was sent to Bangkok in 1992, the Jews of Thailand (formerly known as
Siam) had long conducted services before that and had, in fact,
established an organized community in 1960.
Jewish of Middle Eastern and European origins settled in Thailand in
the 19th century as businessmen and traders. Many came as a result of
the Holocaust, knowing that the monarchy in Siam had been friendly to
Jewish settlers there. In 1950, Israel established an embassy there.
Known for their acumen in irrigation, many Jews came to Thailand to
act as consultants on agricultural projects. The Jewish Association
of Thailand was established in 1960.
With the Vietnam war came Jews who were serving in the U.S. armed
forces, as well as a rabbi, supplied by the U.S. government, who
conducted services for both army servicemen and local Jews. More Jews
arrived in the 1970s and 1980s fleeing persecution in Iran.
As the community grew, lay leaders would conduct services or a rabbi
would be flown in from Hong Kong. In 1992, the community requested
that Chabad send an outreach rabbi to become a permanent fixture in
the community.
In the last decade, a Jewish kindergarten, day school, day camp and
yeshivah were established, as well as the first Jewish cemetery in
Thailand.
Excerpted from A Decade of Jewish Unity: Chabad of Thailand, Ruth
Gerson and Stephen Mallinger-Abravanel contributors.


Photos by Baila Lazarus:

Chabad's sign competes with local Thai advertisements to point the
way to the center. (BL40)
Rabbi Yosef Kantor in the synagogue at Ohr Menachem Chabad House.
(BL205 and BL211)
Travellers relax in the dining room in Chabad's kosher restaurant. (BL90)
01/2004

 



Chabad's sign competes with local Thai advertisements to point the way to the center.



Rabbi Yosef Kantor in the synagogue at Ohr Menachem Chabad House