When international businessman Seth Schreiber heard about the dedication of a new Chabad-Lubavitch center in Koh Samui, Thailand, he rearranged his schedule to make sure he could attend. That’s how he found himself arriving fashionably late for services on a recent Friday night, hearing a thunderous “Amen!” from 700 Jews who had come together for the celebration, which included a festive Shabbat dinner. In fact, the crowd was so large they had to have multiple seatings, and Schreiber didn’t get back to his hotel until midnight.
“It was the first time I was ever on any island in Thailand, and the experience was not what I expected,” he said on a happy note. “Rabbi Mendy Goldshmid was amazing, with great energy, and although many came to make this weekend happen, he is the one in the trenches in Koh Samui, making everyone feel at home, and he was doing this way before he even had a home or this amazing dedication.”
Goldshmid and his wife, Sara Hinda, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Koh Samui have been on the island for more than three years now. Schreiber hinted that Chabad has a “secret formula” for bringing Jewish people together. At least that’s true for him.
Schreiber, who spends half of his time on the road for work, said he appreciates the sense of home Chabad gives him when he’s away three or four months at a time. He recalled his first Shabbat in Hong Kong, where he met Jews from around the world gathered to share Shabbat with strangers, who, as he put it, “ultimately became like family” as the night progressed.
“Chabad represents an oasis in the middle of the world desert,” he said, explaining how over the years, he has found himself at Chabad in Guangzhou, China, and even at Selichot services before Rosh Hashanah at Chabad in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. What the emissaries undertake, he attested, is holy work: “They help their fellow Jews feel at home globally, and they are very good at what they do.”
The Koh Samui project has been in the works for two years, and it will give Chabad — which serves 70 to 100 community members there, in addition to packs of tourists that make Shabbat dinner a weekly event of some 300 to 500 people — space to grow. It will also allow their kosher restaurant to expand.
Marcel Dimenstein, left, snipped the entry ribbon for the new building, dedicated in honor of his parents, who also took part in the event.
About an hour’s flight from Bangkok, Koh Samui has been home to a Chabad House for almost 10 years, according to Rabbi Yosef Kantor, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Thailand. In that time, Chabad has moved twice. That’s why, said Kantor, everyone is so thrilled to have a permanent home, complete with a synagogue, restaurant, kitchen, Internet corner and coffee area.
“Thailand is one of the hottest destinations for Israelis,” he said, adding that more than 130,000 come through annually. Chabad’s past location, a rental, came with flooding problems, and simply pales in comparison to the size and quality of the new building, said Kantor.
“The last few years, we just didn’t have enough space,” he said. On their inaugural Shabbat, the rabbi joked, “even the new facility didn’t seem big enough!”
He said he hopes that even more people will walk through their doors, giving them the ability to have an even greater impact on Jewish lives. That includes reaching out to young Israelis, whose journeys tend to affect them long after they return home.
Mr. Dimenstein makes the traditional blessing upon affixing the mezuzah to the new Chabad building.
“When they’re traveling, they’re very open, they’re ready to have experiences they may not participate in back in Israel,” he explained. “Barriers come down. Everybody moves closer. A lot of the result is residual. Because they had a good Friday-night experience, they’ll want to do the same thing at home, or they might participate the next time they meet someone who wants to invite them to a Jewish experience or to put on tefillin.”
On March 10, the last letters of a new Torah were written, and celebrants marched in a procession before bringing the Torah into the building. Donor Marcel Dimenstein snipped the entry ribbon for the new building, dedicated in honor of his parents, who also took part in the event. The mezuzah was hung, the Torah taken in, and a luncheon and speeches followed. Emissaries from Hong Kong, and even as far away as Switzerland, attended to show their support.
“It was a beautiful moment,” said Chabad co-director Sara Hinda Goldschmid.
Celebrating after the last letters of the new Torah were written.
The center, now located on the second floor of a strip mall, offers classes and programming for Jewish holidays. Their message is one of fostering Jewish pride and unity, she said, and in their new building, guests will hopefully see holy work taking place and carry the experience with them on their journeys.
“I hope they know that they have an address for all Jewish and other needs,” she said. “We have a place for all guests, a welcoming place that’s nice and warm, where you can actually sit and have a coffee with an interesting book.”