Although the Kingdom of Cambodia is rich in natural resources, decades of war, genocide, and political unrest have left it one of the world’s poorest countries. Amid the abject poverty, there is a beacon of light—a beautiful Chabad Jewish Center, in the heart of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital.
This Passover, my friend and I made the 8,000 mile journey from Brooklyn to Cambodia. Our bullet list for this trip was pretty straightforward—to make a meaningful connection with every Jewish person who calls Cambodia home.
David lives in Siem Reap, four hours away from the Chabad Center in Phnom Penh. We travelled there before the holiday to meet with some of our Jewish contacts. When we phoned David and introduced ourselves, his hostility was apparent immediately. “NO, I am not interested,” he said curtly, ending the call.
We couldn’t be satisfied with that. Without further ado, we pressed redial.
“David, we travelled so far to be here, and all we want to do is give you some matzah, can we please stop by for a few minutes?” Reluctantly, he agreed.
Several hours later, we found ourselves in David’s apartment. “Sit down,” he told us. “I have something to tell you. As you know, I didn’t always live here. But I’ve visited many times. Five years ago, I went through a really big crisis. I decided to run away and the best place I could think of was here. My parents raised me like their parents raised them—with the beauty of traditional Judaism. But I left that behind too. I wanted out of everything.” At this point, David cleared his throat, while tears filled his eyes. “Then, you boys called me. You heard my knee-jerk reaction. You called again. And I remembered that today is my father’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing). My father was a great man, a proud Jew. I know he must be happy that you’re here with me now. So…would I be able to put on tefillin in my father’s honor?”
We quickly recovered our bearings, and helped David with the tefillin and prayers. We then reached for the matzah we had brought, but David put out his hand to stop us. “Thank you, but there’s no need for that. I will be coming to spend the Seder night with you.”