Hundreds of revelers packed a Jerusalem ballroom Saturday night in tribute to an institution that from thousands of miles away has managed to unite Israelis of all political affiliations and modes of religious observance: Chabad-Lubavitch of Thailand.
The Feb. 2 gathering topped off a weekend-long celebration known as a Shabbaton; in this case, it was the organization's 12th annual reunion party. Over the years, thousands of Israeli backpackers, tourists and business travelers have found their way to the network of Chabad Houses in Thailand, which began in 1993 with the establishment of the Bangkok-based Jewish Association of Thailand, directed by Rabbi Yosef Chaim and Nechama Dina Kantor.
"We are a home for every Jew in Thailand," explained Nechama Dina Wilhelm, co-director with husband Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm of Chabad of Bangkok-Ohr Menachem. "This Shabbat was just amazing. It was an opportunity to see that the connections don't have to end in Thailand, but can continue for people after they get home."
As they sipped glasses of white wine and munched on a selection of cakes, those who came to the reunion party reminisced about their times in Thailand. Some had visited the Asian nation during backpacking trips across the continent after getting out of the army; some went there as part of family vacations.
In their Saturday night conversations, many revealed that their interactions with Chabad were their only Jewish experiences in Thailand, a country where many non-kosher restaurants cater to Israeli crowds with menus in Hebrew.
"It's only because of the Chabad House that I liked Thailand the most," said Snir Yoran, 24, a psychology student from Jerusalem who met his girlfriend Mor Ginsburg, also 24, in Thailand in the middle of a seven month trek through the region.
"The Wilhelms are the most amazing, special and wonderful people," continued Ginsburg, a restaurant worker from Kibutz Tzora in the center of the country. "When you're with them, you feel like you're at home with your mother and father."
Today, added Ginsburg, she and Yoran celebrate Shabbat together in part because of their experiences at the Bangkok Chabad House.
In an address, Yosef Chaim Kantor said that there are literally reams of stories about people's Jewish pride being awakened through Chabad in Thailand.
Blessings All Around
Nechama Dina Wilhelm of Chabad of Bangkok-Ohr Menachem with an Israeli who visited the Chabad House during a trip to Thailand.
"Three weeks ago, someone was coming to Thailand and first called Rabbi Wilhelm and Rabbi Chaim Eliezer Ashkenazi
," an administrator with Chabad of Bangkok, Kantor told the audience. "He asked if we needed anything, and they gave him a long list, and he packed it all in two heavy suitcases."
At the airport in Tel Aviv, the ticket agent wouldn't allow the bags through because they were overweight, Kantor continued, but the man explained to the agent that they were for "Jews who worry about all the Jews in Thailand." She let the bags through, and the man blessed her.
"Each and every Jew has the ability to give a bracha," said Kantor, using the Hebrew word for "blessing." "A Jew's job is to give blessings."
Levana Anijar, a Ra'anana hair salon owner who last July took her family of four on a month-long trip to Thailand to celebrate daughter Lee's bat mitzvah, said that they were at Chabad every day. She said that what amazed her was that the legions of post-army Israelis in Thailand, whom many would consider secular, seemed to experience a Jewish reawakening at the Chabad House.
"I was very excited by how the young community, which apparently didn't have any connection to Judaism, wanted to keep kosher," said Anijar. "They made sure to come for the services and Shabbat meals."
After Kantor's speech, the crowd broke up into wide circles of dancing men and women – in deference to religious custom, the genders were kept separate during the dancing – with religious men donning hats locked arm in arm with men sporting dreadlocks. Some wore the knitted skullcaps characteristic of Israel's national religious and modern Orthodox communities; others covered their heads with the satin skullcaps typically given out at synagogues and weddings.
"I don't always make it to all the Shabbat services here," said Itamar Cohen, 23, who traveled in Thailand with army buddy Moshe Beri, 22, for a month after they finished their mandatory service. "But in Thailand, I went to all of them."
After the event, Kantor said that Chabad in Thailand has grown tremendously since he and his wife arrived 15 years ago. Today, there are five Chabad Houses; the one in Bangkok boasts a new backpacker center with computers, phones, couches, free coffee and cookies. The network of emissaries who staff the locations host the reunion in Israel in order to replicate the unity that visitors to Thailand experience during their journeys.
"People say that they came to Bangkok and found out that the 'religious' are nice," said the rabbi. "In Thailand, we transcend the stereotypes."