As the tribe travels

Following the trail of Jewish people to Southeast Asia, one organisation ensures people of the faith always have a place to call home

Julie Masis
May 27, 2010

When French explorer Henri Mouhot travelled through Cambodia in the mid-19th century, he came across a group of people who did not eat pork, observed the seventh day of rest and circumcised their male children. In his diary, which is one of the earliest European accounts of Cambodia, he wrongly assumed that he had discovered one of the lost tribes of Israel. In fact, the people he encountered were Muslims.

Some 150 years later, Cambodia finally has its first Jewish centre. Rabbi Bentche Butman, 26, and his 23-year-old wife Mashie moved to Phnom Penh from New York at the end of November – and opened a Jewish temple in their living room. The Jewish Center of Cambodia, which is here for some 100 Jews and the constant flow of Israeli tourists, is currently awaiting recognition from the Ministry of Cults and Religion.

“Many people are wondering: Is there a need for a [Jewish] centre in Cambodia? Are there enough Jews?” Rabbi Butman says. “And our message is, ‘No, the quantity of Jews is too little and no place is too far and challenging for a centre to be open.’”

The synagogue – with cost about $120,000 – is the only place in Cambodia where homesick Jews can find free gefilte fish, challah bread and matzoh-ball soup every Friday evening. The Jewish Center also houses Cambodia’s largest Hebrew-language library – 1,500 books and a handwritten Jewish Bible, or Torah scroll, which the rabbi says costs $35,000.

“I feel safer because there is a synagogue here,” says Irina Afonina, 27, the owner of a local IT business, who is originally from Kazakhstan. While Cambodia does not have a Kazakh or an Israeli embassy, she said she can count on the Jewish centre if she ever finds herself homeless, sick, or broke.

“Jews help each other,” she adds. “If you’re in trouble, they will help with everything.”

When one Israeli visitor began to suffer from schizophrenia, the rabbi helped arrange his visa. Rabbi Butman also visits an elderly Israeli man, Pinny Tzvi, who was imprisoned for allegedly raping a Khmer woman.

While the Jewish Center of Cambodia is the latest synagogue to open in Southeast Asia, synagogues have been appearing in other countries in the region as well – thanks to the US-based Jewish organisation called Chabad Lubavitch. Chabad sends young couples to remote parts of the world to establish synagogues anywhere Jewish people might live or travel to. According to, there are currently 2,500 centres in 76 countries. The organisation’s goal is not to convert non-Jews but to provide a “home away from home” for Jewish people around the world.

A Chabad House in Mumbai, India, was attacked by terrorists in 2008, and the rabbi and his wife murdered, but Rabbi Butman says the incident did not deter him.

“It made me think twice, yes, but . . . the thoughts didn’t last for too long.”

In recent years, Chabad opened the first Jewish centres in Vietnam and Laos (though the centre in Luang Prabang is now temporarily closed), and added synagogues to tourist destinations in Thailand. Plans are underway to open a second Chabad House in Vietnam, reopen the one in Laos and start a Jewish centre in Indonesia – although Indonesian authorities have yet to approve the project.

Southeast Asia’s Jewish community is growing, mostly due to the increase in business visitors and tourists who are fascinated by the culture, says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the chairman of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries.

Teaching requirements: the Torah includes the entirety of Judaism’s founding legal and ethical religious texts (Nicolas Axelrod)The first synagogue in Vietnam opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006, and now has a kindergarten and a Hebrew School, said Rabbi Menachem Hartman of Vietnam. Vietnam is home to approximately 400 Jews, including 250 in Ho Chi Minh and some 100 in Hanoi, according to the rabbi.

Many Jewish travellers plan their visits to Southeast Asia based on stopovers at Jewish centres.

“For me it’s comforting to know there’s Chabad when I’m travelling,” said Talya Bock, 26, a finance professional from America who recently ate dinner at the Chabad House in Phnom Penh. “I plan my travels based on where I will spend the (Jewish) holidays.”

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