When Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Thailand, sent two young rabbinical students to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in the summer of 2006, it was, he said tongue-in-cheek, just “to confirm that there weren’t any Jews there.”

Of course, his full mission was to temporarily serve any Jews he could find, learning Torah with them, praying with them and encouraging them, but what the student came across was large enough to justify opening the newest Chabad House in Southeast Asia.

After final discussions this summer with Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters, Kantor announced that Rabbi Benzion and Mashie Butman of New York will permanently move to the Cambodian capital by the end of the year.

“The Jewish community in Phnom Penh is much like any other in our part of the world,” said the Bangkok-based Kantor. “It’s an eclectic mix of business travelers, Israeli expatriates and backpackers travelling across Asia after serving their terms in the Israel Defense Force.”

Butman was not among the rabbinical students who first went to the city three years ago, but ever since his predecessors spent that summer in Phnom Penh, the capital has been part of list of remote locations where rabbinical students run programs for major Jewish holidays and peak travel periods. Over time, Jewish residents and visitors built up more of a connection with Chabad that Kantor – who oversees activities throughout Indochina – began to think seriously about finding a family who could serve as full-time emissaries to the country.

Earlier this year, Butman and his wife took their one-year-old son to spend Passover in Phnom Penh, where they hosted holiday meals and services for a total of 125 people.

“Basically, we found that there are three types of people that we will be working with,” explained Benzion Butman, who hails from Lod, Israel. “There are local Jews, meaning the ones who have been living there for three years or more primarily as teachers, there are Israeli backpackers who come for a short time, and then there are people who are almost never in Cambodia for more than a few days or weeks at a time, but who travel there several times a year.

“Each group has its own needs,” he elaborated, “and they all need the general services, such as kosher food, that we’ll provide for the whole community.”

The rabbi was last in Cambodia this month, following up his family’s Passover visit with a tour that ended on June 20. He spent the time speaking with community members to finalize what types of classes and programs they wanted most. He also spent a few days at Chabad-Lubavitch of Vietnam, speaking with Rabbi Menachem and Rachel Hartman, who opened that country’s first Chabad House in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006.

“Vietnam is our older brother in this,” said Butman. “There’s a lot to learn, and having veteran emissaries in the area helps. We discussed the practical side of getting or making kosher food to feed hundreds, and understanding the local culture.

“With their help, we’ll have all of the preliminary items soon taken care of,” Butman said, referring to the Hartmans. “We’re excited about moving there and focusing on helping the Jews in that part of the world.”