New Chabad Center On Phuket Island

Emergency over, Chabad's work is just beginning

by Rivka Chaya Berman - PHUKET, THAILAND

February 28, 2005

The beaches of Phuket Island, Thailand, sparkling with fresh sand flung ashore by the tsunami, stretch out against blue skies so gorgeous it’s easy to forget about the tsunami.

But it’s very much on the mind of Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor, Chabad representative to Thailand, who leased a storefront as synagogue space last week. Before the first Friday night services at the newborn synagogue were held, workmen’s drills hummed overtime to install the air conditioning works, a necessity for Phuket where February temperatures hover in the humid nineties.

Last Friday night, Chabad of Phuket served a traditional Jewish Sabbath dinner to a motley of fifteen or so Jewish relief workers, intrepid Israeli backpackers, and Phuket residents. “People were quite happy to find us here,” said Michoel Katsnellenbogen, a rabbinical student from London, England, who recently began a two-month stint volunteering for the Thailand Chabad. “They know of Chabad from other places so they are not surprised to find us here. Not surprised, but quite impressed.”

Close to twenty local Jews have been found—more than Katsnellenbogen had anticipated, reshaping his mission there. Retirees, businesspeople, and aging hippie beachcombers are among the Jews who call Phuket Island home. “Every Jewish person we meet seems to think he is the ‘only Jew’ on the Island,” said Katsnellenbogen. “We want to help Jewish people get together so they can enjoy a Jewish atmosphere.” Plans for individual Jewish study groups are in the works.

In addition to Friday night prayer services and dinners, Chabad of Phuket’s tsunami relief work continues. After Rabbi Kantor waded through the wreckage of several seaside villages and noted the many children’s toys washed up on the beaches, he began a toy drive for Thai children. “One of the most heartrending things for me to see during my visit were the thousands of battered toys strewn throughout the devastation,” Rabbi Kantor wrote. “When I then saw groups of kids walking around dazed with nothing to do I made a steadfast resolution: With G-d’s help, we will start a toy drive for the children.”

A worldwide response brought containers full of new toys to Chabad’s Bangkok headquarters. These toys will be distributed to Thai children in and around Phuket and other hard hit locales. According to Mendel Druk, the drive coordinator, “there are 83 institutions participating in The Toy Drive. The storage facility is crammed with shipments of boxes.”

“Our work in Phuket is not done yet and it won’t be until Moshiach comes,” said a harried Rabbi Kantor referring to the Messianic era of peace. Rabbi Kantor whose workload and obligations have only grown since December, confesses to being “overworked, overextended and pulled in many directions at once,” he continues undeterred.

On December 26th, as the tsunami wave receded, when the world innocently mourned a mere 5,000 deaths unaware of true scope of the horrific death toll, Chabad of Thailand swung into action. Rabbi Kantor and other Chabad rabbis delivered bags of rice and shelter supplies. Chabad even supplied a new stock of beach lounges to a Thai family whose livelihood depended on renting out beach chairs.

Last Friday night, Chabad of Phuket’s supply of traditional Shabbat foods like gefilte fish and challah were trucked in from Chabad’s well established headquarters in Bangkok. Since 1993, Rabbi Kantor and his wife, Nechama Dina, have been building Thailand’s Chabad into an institution with international appeal.

More than 500 people, mainly wandering Israelis and international businesspeople, join Chabad of Bangkok at the Community Center, Beth Elisheva, every Friday night, for Shabbat dinner. More than 7,500 kosher meals are served there each week. On Passover alone, 2,300 Jews come to Chabad for a traditional Jewish seder – Bangkok style.

While Chabad of Thailand has been in existence for twelve years, records note the presence of Jewish merchants in the area all the way back in the 17th century, according to an article by Stephen Mallinger, a member of Thailand’s Jewish community. One of the earliest modern hotels in Bangkok was established by the Rosenberg family in the 1890’s. Waves of Jewish soldiers during World War II and the Vietnam war passed through Thailand. The still-extant Jewish Community of Thailand (JAT) was founded in 1964.

Now, the new Chabad House on Phuket, born of tragedy, is the latest chapter of Thailand’s colorful Jewish history. It is a symbol of goodwill in action and a hallmark of Chabad’s credo that no Jew is too distant to be touched by the Jewish warmth.

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