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Inside Bangkok’s Chabad House
As Hanukkah begins we tour the city’s Jewish-only sanctuary, where the wine flows and phone calls home are free
Free Internet, free dinner with red wine on Friday nights and help arranging a hotel in Thailand are some of the delights available in Bangkok’s Chabad House near the backpacker-thronged neighborhood of Khao San Road.
But first, the hosts want to know if you are Jewish.
A stout Israeli security guard will demand to examine your passport -- "do you have an Israeli visa?" -- scoff at any plastic identification you may offer and interrogate you in English and Hebrew.
The Israeli guard also warns that they earlier called the police and had a man "escorted to the airport, and put on a flight out" because the person took a photograph inside the building.
If the guard deems you kosher, however, Chabad House extends an invite to join their prayer-filled exhilarating Shabbat singing celebrations on Friday nights, led by bearded 37-year-old Rabbi Nechamya Wilhelm.
Chabad House "is for Jewish people, it is not for the public," says Rabbi Wilhelm.
Asked how his staff could determine if a non-Jew tried to bluff his way inside, Rabbi Wilhelm replies: "You can see from their Jewish nose." The Rabbi laughs before adding, "I was just joking.”
Making Jewish connections
Israeli businessman Haim Fuchs loves Chabad House. "I come here all the time to meet friends, because after work I am mostly alone, so without Chabad House I would be climbing the walls,” he says before forking into a free Shabbat dinner of boneless fish with chopped tomatoes, onions, hummus and a traditional bread loaf.
During their Friday evening meal in a big, upstairs dining hall, guests passed around sweet red wine in disposable plastic cups and frequently broke into loud, jubilant singing in Hebrew, creating a merry ambiance.
A larger-than-life portrait of Chabad House's late Lubavitch Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, dominates the dining hall. His Hassidic followers are recognizable worldwide by their big, flat, black hats worn atop uncut curling side burns and a beard.
Lubavitch missionaries and followers study the holy Talmud and Torah, probe the Kabala, yearn for the arrival of a Messiah and try to lure other Jews into their movement, which was spawned in 18th century Russia and is now based in Brooklyn, New York.
"You don't have to believe in them to come here to Chabad House," Haim says. "I would guess that less than 10 percent of the people here are Lubavitch.”
An Israeli woman named Yoki, eating across from Haim at a long table with other men, women and children, agrees.
"When one Jewish person meets another Jewish person, there is an instant connection, even if they don't know each other," says Yoki. "That is one of the reasons I like Chabad House. It is like a big family here. And they are so wonderful. I was able to telephone my relatives in Israel, for free, as many times as I wanted."
Rabbi Wilhelm said free calls were available for any Jewish person who wants to telephone Israel, as well as assistance finding a place to stay.
"Before I came to Bangkok, I e-mailed the rabbi at Chabad House and asked him for help to reserve a hotel room. He e-mailed me back, confirming my reservation at the Viengtai Hotel across the street," she says.
Patpong and security checks
Yoki explains that her brothers from Israel, who are eating with her, want to go to Patpong after the Shabbat dinner because "they heard about the bars."
She had seen the tacky red-light district on a previous trip but liked the night market and was preparing to escort them to the strip shows after the meal.
Younger Israelis at Chabad House appeared fresh out of the military, and were holidaying in Thailand. Others were thankful that Chabad House allows messages to be left for friends, and provides a synagogue for daily services and Jewish holidays.
Most visitors do not mind the security drill upon entry, as the Chabad-Lubavitch community center in Mumbai (Bombay) was one of the targets assaulted by Pakistani Islamists last year.
Before I came to Bangkok, I e-mailed the rabbi at Chabad House and asked him for help to reserve a hotel room. He e-mailed me back, confirming my reservation at the Viengtai Hotel across the street.
— Israeli tourist Yoki
The 163 people who were killed in the Mumbai attacks included six Jewish foreigners in the Chabad building -- among them, a rabbi and his wife.
A sanctuary for all Jews
In Bangkok, most of the 250 Jews at the Shabbat dinner are from Israel, but Jews of any nationality are welcome to visit anytime, whether they are traveling or based here.
Earlier on Friday evening in Chabad House's synagogue, about 70 men solemnly prayed and joyfully sang, led by Rabbi Wilhelm, including some who spontaneously danced in a circle.
The Shabbat service included a handful of American visitors, including a U.S. military prosecutor based in South Korea and two tourists from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Most brought their own yarmulke, or skull cap, because the synagogue and Shabbat dinner requires every male to somehow cover his head. But Chabad House also provides free temporary use of a yarmulke emblazoned with their logo.
Some men, however, simply wore baseball caps in the synagogue while a young man with dread locks used a wide cloth head band.
So, what is Shabbat?
Observing Shabbat dates back to the exodus of Jews from ancient Egypt. The synagogue is one of three in Bangkok which offer Shabbat services, kosher meals, and tend to the needs of local and foreign Jews.
Inside the building, life is normal on most days and evenings but during Shabbat -- sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday -- they strictly observe an interpretation of Orthodox Jewish law forbidding various forms of work.
The free use of computers linked to Internet is halted. The free telephone to call Israel with is yanked from its socket and carried away. And if you display a pen for writing you may be politely told by Rabbi Wilhelm that it is not allowed during Shabbat. Some manual labor, which must be done, appears to be performed by hired Buddhist Thais.
On the ground floor, Chabad House runs Bangkok's only kosher restaurant -- open to the public regardless of belief -- with vegetarian, fish, chicken and meat dishes. The restaurant also delivers kosher meals in Bangkok and "anywhere else in Thailand".
The five-story Chabad House is located at 96 Ram Buttri Road, one block parallel to Khao San Road. Chiang Mai, Phuket and Koh Samui, plus Luang Prabang in Laos, also offer a Chabad House, including a kosher restaurant.
During the Hanukkah festival, Chabad House stages "candle lighting at sunset, and each night there is a small party," Rabbi Wilhelm said.
The first Hanukkah candle will be lit on December 11, and continue for eight days until the final lighting on December 19.
"Rabbi Nechamya Wilhelm, who has been supervising the center's operations for a decade, has become something of a legend with young Israeli travelers," the Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center says on its website.
"Backpackers often arrive in Thailand with his name and address ready in hand, to seek the comforts of Chabad House's island of homey familiarity in a foreign ocean of oriental exotica."
Bangkok’s Jewish history
Historians of Siam say the first synagogue was already established by Jewish merchants in Ayutthaya in 1601. Britain's East India Company employed a Jewish interpreter here in 1683. Russian Jews fled to Bangkok from the Soviet Union in the 1920s, boosted by 120 German Jews who escaped the Nazis in the 1930s.
Japanese forces, occupying Thailand during World War II, imprisoned nearly 150 Jews in Kanchanaburi, site of the infamous "Death Railway." Most Jews in Thailand who survived the war moved on after Berlin and Tokyo surrendered. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish residents came from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and America.
Israelis mostly began arriving in the 1970s, attracted to Bangkok's gem and jewelry trade, while others sought to advise the Thai government about methods of dry agriculture, security and other issues.
In 1972, four Arab "Black September Ali Taha Group" gunmen invaded the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, denounced the "Zionist occupation of Palestine" and seized six hostages. After negotiations, the hostages were released and the siege ended peacefully. The guerrillas were given safe passage to Egypt, flying out on a Thai International plane.
Today, about 300 mostly foreign Jews live in Thailand. "Almost all of the Jews are involved in the trading industry and production of precious jewelry," according to Jewish historian Ariel Scheib.