Jewish Thailand, a Diaspora Story

Written by Roland Leiser on . Posted in Travel

A rabbi in Bangkok? I looked around the living room for signs of a Jewish home in this townhouse off of fashionable Sukumvit Road in Thailand’s capital.

 

Mala Davis, a Thai woman married to an ailing Jewish husband, told me that a rabbi prayed for him when he placed a yarmulke on his head during a recent visit.

Earlier this year, my Thai-born wife, Sue, her niece, and I went to see Mala and her husband, Chester, a World War II veteran of the Army Air Force. A long-standing friend, Mala, produced a YouTube video of the blessing to prove that such a thing happened in Bangkok, half-way around the world from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

A Jewish community in Thailand in fact exists, as I found out to my amazement. In my five visits to Thailand since 1972 (the year of my marriage), I was never aware of a Jewish population, with the possible exception of ex-pats on one- or two-year assignments for American companies or non-governmental organizations.

Startled by the revelation that there is a rabbi in Bangkok, I asked for his name and where I could find him. He is Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, 49, born in Brooklyn, New York, as was Mala’s husband. We talked briefly by phone, and he gave me a few more details about his unusual life. Holding dual U.S. and Thai citizenship, Rabbi Kantor is an imposing six feet tall with a slight trace of a New York accent.

Raised in Australia with an Aussie dad and a New York-born mom, he became chief rabbi and director of the Jewish Association of Thailand (JAT) in 1993 after moving from the U.S. with his Canadian-born wife and a daughter. (As the JAT director, Rabbi Kantor, along with 10 other rabbis, are responsible for overseeing the country’s synagogues, Chabad houses, and kosher restaurants.)

Before I requested an interview, however, I tactfully asked him what branch of Judaism he represented. He didn’t get my question at first, replying “the Jewish Association of Thailand.”

No, I said, “Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox?” Orthodox, he replied, and I paused. I didn’t want to show my ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, and professed that I was Reform, but with little Jewish upbringing. Unfazed, he invited me to Shabbat services the following Friday night and a post-service meal with his congregation in the synagogue, Beth Elisheva, which I had to decline.

As I expected, the Jewish community is small, definitely insular, old-worldly and, as Rabbi Kantor remarked, prospering. In response to my inquiry about the size of the congregation, he said “any Jew in Thailand is a member.” Asked to put a number on it, he replied that maybe 500 people are affiliated with a synagogue in Thailand and attend a service at least once a year. As for Jewish residents of Bangkok, JAT’s web site estimated there are nearly 200.

Synagogues and Chabad houses exist in Thai cities where I would have least expected them — in addition to Bangkok, they have in Chiang Mai, the second largest city 360 miles north of the capital, and the resort towns of Phuket and Ko Samui in the south.

And who are these people of the diaspora? There has been a Jewish presence in Thailand as early as 1601, JAT’s website states, but today the population reflects “all areas of commerce, technology, and corporate law,” plus retirees, as Rabbi Kantor explained. Gem dealers have been around for at least 20 years. Europeans, Americans, and Israelis have contributed to the mix in a 95 percent Buddhist country. In addition to Israeli backpackers, Thailand attracts tour groups, of which three attended Rabbi Kantor’s services the same night as I did.

In Bangkok, the Jewish children attend the synagogue’s Hebrew school on Sundays, but study at the city’s secular international schools with instruction in English.

The Bangkok synagogue, which dates back to 1981, was named for the Thai-born daughter of one of the first Jewish families, which donated land and a residence, according to the website. Surrounded by high metal walls, it is located on a corner next to a Japanese restaurant in a non-descript neighborhood. High up on the front wall, eight glass windows are inscribed with menorahs. The security guard, who monitors the entrance with a locked door, quizzed me about my visit before opening it to let me in.

Today, the building is undergoing a $2.1 million renovation and expansion that will almost double the synagogue’s size, Rabbi Kantor said, with a goal to finish the project by the end of next year. Plans call for enlarging the social hall, installing a new mikvah (ritual bath), establishing a kosher café and library, and adding lecture rooms and space for kids’ activities.

Other synagogue-sponsored facilities include a Jewish cemetery near Chinatown and the Chao Phraya River that snakes around the city. Until the community got its own cemetery, burials took place in a Protestant cemetery. Today 30 Jewish residents have been interred in their own final resting place.

On Kaosarn Road, a crowded hub of tourist activity, Rabbi Kantor presides over a Chabad House with a row of 12 computers, a lounge, copy machines, a library, a chapel, and a mini-market. The Kosher Place next door, under the supervision of the Chabad of Thailand, serves Western and Middle Eastern food (think pastrami and pita). But, of course, there’s also an Asian menu. Other chapels in the city include a Sephardic congregation in rented space at the office tower of the Shangri-La Hotel.

Initially, I hesitated to attend the rabbi’s service because I knew very little of the liturgy and the Hebrew in which the service would be conducted. Yet I overcame my doubts, entered the building, and sat silently for 45 minutes to observe my first Orthodox service after Assistant Rabbi Josef Goldberg vetted me for my Jewish bona fides. “Are you Jewish? Is your mother Jewish?”

The service started 15 minutes past the scheduled time of 7 p.m., and as soon as Rabbi Kantor entered and spotted this obvious stranger, he greeted me warmly. I gave him my business card and mentioned my interview request.

The prayers were conducted in “traditional Hebrew of 1000 years ago,” he told me by email, which I assumed was Biblical Hebrew. Indeed, I felt like I had stepped back in time 500 years. He gave his sermon in English, the only part of the 45-minute service that I could understand.

Rabbi Kantor sees his role as a shaliach (emissary) of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s Lubavitch movement to encourage vibrant Jewish communities around the world.

As I learned, this Jewish community in Thailand is really not so mysterious after all. “Google can find us,” the rabbi said.

By Roland Leiser

Roland Leiser is a freelance journalist and former Washington Bureau chief of Travel Agent magazine.