When the story broke that the daughter of a Cambodian princess was celebrating her bat mitzvah in Phnom Penh, the Jewish world wondered: Who is this Cambodian princess, and how did she become Jewish?

Here is the story of Susie (Sarah Bracha) Koroghli, granddaughter of His Majesty King Sisowath Monivong, who ruled Cambodia from 1927 until his death in 1941.

The Early Years

Susie’s mother, Princess Sisowath Neary Bong Nga, is the youngest of King Monivong’s 56 children, as the king had many consorts in addition to his wife. Opposed to the adulterousPrincess Neary Bong Nga decided she would not marry culture of the royals, Princess Neary Bong Nga decided that she would not marry and instead resolved to become a Cambodian nun. However, before his passing, her father compelled his family to marry her off by the age of 30. Desiring a solid marriage, the princess refused to marry a royal, and, fortunately, the current king, HM King Norodom Sihanouk, had changed the laws to allow a royal to marry a commoner. So her family arranged a marriage with Mr. Thay Sok, a member of the Cambodian Cabinet.

Thay Sok and Princess Neary Bong Nga moved to Washington, D.C., where Sok served as the Cambodian chargé d’affaires and worked to strengthen the ties between Cambodia and the United States. There they had their first daughter, Sathsowi (Susie). When Susie was 2 years old, the family moved back to Cambodia for six months, but they were forced to flee to Jakarta, Indonesia, due to civil war in Cambodia. Susie’s mother was able to bring one of her nephews out of Cambodia as well, and it was only years later that Susie learned that her “brother” was really her cousin. In Jakarta, the couple had their second daughter.

The family traveled the world, eventually returning to America. They spent a few years in Silver Spring, Md., before settling in Long Beach, Calif., when Susie was 6 years old. She attended public school and felt like any other girl growing up in Southern California. Aside from speaking Cambodian at home and attending a Buddhist temple on Sundays, Susie wasn’t raised with any specific Cambodian traditions. Although her mother told her she was part of the royal family, Susie didn’t quite grasp it. She recalls that her mother expected her to be poised, to “sit properly, eat properly and walk gently,” as befitted a royal. But although her mother was gentle and refined, she was not a typical royal. In Cambodia, a royal wouldn’t even sit together with a commoner, but Susie’s mother didn’t give her daughter the impression that they were above anyone else.

When Susie was 12, her father passed away, and the family moved again, this time to Fresno, Calif. In 1995, Susie moved to Las Vegas for a fresh start.

Introduction to Judaism

Susie was at a friend’s birthday party when she met Ray (Rahamim) Koroghli, a Persian Jew from Shiraz, Iran, who had come to study in the United States in the 1970s and never returned home due to the 1979 revolution. “I was tired; I had just come from work,” remembers Susie. But when she met Ray, she realized he was someone special. They began dating, but due to their religious differences weren’t ready to discuss marriage.

Several yearsIt was the first time she had heard about G‑d later, Susie was waiting for Ray at Chabad of Southern Nevada and caught the tail end of a class given by Rabbi Shea Harlig titled “What is G‑d?” Rabbi Harlig was discussing how G‑d is infinite and intangible, and Susie was fascinated. Although her Buddhist upbringing had taught her to be a compassionate, kind person, this was the first time she had heard about G‑d.

“I wanted to learn more and more,” says Susie. “I started learning from that day on.”

Susie and Ray traveled to Israel several times, which had a profound effect on her. The land that she was standing on was the very land she had learned about in her studies, and she could sense the richness of its history. “When I went to the Kotel [Western Wall] and to Tzfat, it felt so spiritual and holy,” says Susie. “I felt like I could connect to something bigger.”

Receiving Her Jewish Soul

In 2004, Ray and Susie were married. Ray, who had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, was happy that Susie was embracing Judaism. But she was not satisfied. She knew that halachah required her to convert to Judaism if she wished to remain married to Ray. “I wanted to have a portal between myself and G‑d, and I felt that the only way to do that was through a proper Orthodox conversion,” she said.

So in 2012, Susie took the plunge.

She went to the mikvah, accompanied by the rabbis and rebbetzins who had helped her along on her journey. But she was unprepared for the intense spiritual phenomenon that she would experience. “On the day of my immersion, I felt something strong and heavy hovering over my head,” recalls Susie. “I heard a ringing in my ears. I couldn’t even say the whole bracha [blessing], and I had to look at the poster. First, I thought I was just nervous, but when I came out of the water, my rebbetzins were hugging each other. They said, ‘Oh, did you feel that?’ Then I realized they had felt it, too, and it wasn’t just my emotions.”

Elior's (Susie's daughter) Bat Mitzvah at home in Las Vegas, September 2018. (L to R) Matanel, Eliav, Shawn, Elizabeth, Elior, Susie, HRH Sisowath Neary Bong-Nga & Ray.
Elior's (Susie's daughter) Bat Mitzvah at home in Las Vegas, September 2018. (L to R) Matanel, Eliav, Shawn, Elizabeth, Elior, Susie, HRH Sisowath Neary Bong-Nga & Ray.

Later, Susie learned that on the day of the immersion, the neshamah (“Jewish soul”) can hover over you like a cloud, waiting to enter.

Susie and Ray were slated to visit Cambodia for the first time, as Susie was going to represent her mother at the funeral of the late king HM Norodom Sihanouk. But as Susie learned, now that she had converted, she could not simply travel with her husband—or even live with him—until the two were remarried under a proper chuppah. So several days after the conversion, surrounded by friends, family, rabbis and rebbetzins, Susie and Ray celebrated their Jewish wedding. “It was so spiritual,” recalls Susie. “It was just, whoa. So beautiful and meaningful.”

Immediately afterwards, the two traveled to Cambodia, celebrating their sheva brachot (“seven blessings,” or post-wedding celebrations) at Chabad of Cambodia. At the sheva brachot, Susie shared the story of her conversion and the tangible presence she had experienced hovering above her. One of the attendees remarked, “It’s a modern-day miracle.”

In Cambodia, it hit home for Susie that she actually was the daughter of royalty. Streets were named after her family members, and there were statues of her grandfather around town. Everywhere she and Ray went, they were treated with courtesy and respect. She finally realized that the stories her mother had told her as a child were true. Although technically Susie has no title, she is referred to as “Keo,” meaning that her mother is a royal and her father is a commoner.

Navigating the Journey

After her conversion, Susie was determined to observe Torah and mitzvot to the best of her ability. “I feel that whatever we do with our soul has to be pure,” she says. She started covering her hair with a wig, dressing modestly and keeping a fully kosher home.

But Ray was not yet on board. Although he had wanted his wife to be Jewish, he hadn’t expected it to go this far. “It was a little rough in the beginning,” acknowledges Susie. “We were going in different directions. I wasn’t the same person he married.” Slowly, however, the couple grew together in their observance. They sent their three children to Jewish day schools and attended shul together.

Susie’s mother also wasn’t pleased at the beginning. But ultimately, she wanted her daughter to be happy, even if she didn’t relate to the path that Susie chose. She recognized that, despite her misgivings, her daughter was still living a life of peace and love. Today, Susie’s mother joins Susie and her family at their Shabbat table and is familiar with their Jewish traditions.

As an Asian Jew, Susie initially felt that she didn’t quite fit in, but now she feels accepted by the Jewish community and has formed meaningful friendships. Recently, at a Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) class, a student asked her if she feels different. Susie responded, “If you close your eyes, we’re all here for the same purpose—to learn, to serve G‑d, to do good. We all have the same soul.”

These days, SusieNow she feels accepted by the Jewish community is an active member of her Henderson Chabad community. She and her family love hosting all different types of people for Shabbat and holidays, from college students to yeshivah students, from Persian family members to Chabad community members. They fit 120 people into their giant sukkah, and as many as 300 people attend their annual Purim party.

“My life has so much more meaning now,” says Susie. “The friends I have, what I do every day—it’s not superficial. I chose this life. Learning Torah, doing mitzvahs—it brings so much richness to my soul.”

A Royal Bat Mitzvah

Wanting her children to appreciate their heritage, Susie decided to celebrate her daughter Elior’s bat mitzvah in Phnom Penh. They were joined by more than 30 family members, including Ray’s extended Persian family and Cambodian princesses living in other parts of the world. Elior’s bat mitzvah was the first Jewish milestone ever celebrated by the royal family, and it was chronicled in the Royal Palace Record Book.

Elior (in traditional Cambodian dress) with her parents, Ray and Susie Koroghli, and her brothers at a Chanukah menorah-lighting during the bat mitzvah celebration. (Photo: Kang Predi/Teh Ranie)
Elior (in traditional Cambodian dress) with her parents, Ray and Susie Koroghli, and her brothers at a Chanukah menorah-lighting during the bat mitzvah celebration. (Photo: Kang Predi/Teh Ranie)

While in Cambodia, the family had an audience with the current ruler, HM King Norodom Sihamoni, and the queen mother, HM Norodom Monineath. As the last surviving child of King Monivong, Susie’s mother was treated with reverence by all who met her. She and the queen mother had been childhood friends, and they embraced with joy. In an uncommon display of familiarity, the princess embraced the king as well. The historic meeting was broadcast on the Cambodian news.

Susie says her children loved the trip to Cambodia. “Now they know who they are—Persian, Cambodian and Jewish. They have to be proud of it and carry on the traditions.”

Message to Jewish Women

When asked what her message to Jewish women is, Susie answered: “Recognize your Jewish soul and be thankful. For me, it took me so long, and it was so hard to get my Jewish soul. You have it already; you have a portal to G‑d. You can ask G‑d for what you want. Use it and be grateful for that.”