Jews of Bangkok

By Barbara Kingstone

The last time I was in Bangkok, I visited Beth Elisheva Synagogue. It was during the High Holidays and Rabbi Yosef Kantor was preoccupied with the various demands on his time. However, he was kind enough to invite me to the holiday lunch after the service. Due to my time constrains, I wasn’t able to accept but I promised myself that if I ever did return to the Land of Smiles, I would set up an appointment with Rabbi Kantor.

That done, I was most surprised when I arrived at the address given me. It wasn’t the synagogue but an anonymous building on a very ordinary street filled with local restaurants and cyber cafes. The only clue that this was the right destination was that there was a white truck in front of the entrance with the signage-Chabad of Thailand.

Before entering I decided to take the mandatory-for-writers photo. And within what seemed like nano seconds, I was accosted by a guard who suggested that I erase the digital image. However, once I told him that I had an appointment with the rabbi, there were warm apologies and the explanation for obvious reasons why it is uncomfortable for strangers to be with camera in hand.

Once inside, again there were some surprises. The front large room was filled with people of all ages…eating. This was the only kosher eatery in Bangkok and if the food was as good as the scent, then there were good reasons for the filled table..

And just over the threshold of that door, was a smaller room which had desks, each accompanied with computers. Here too, every seat was filled. I was told that these were free of charge for travellers, usually young Israeli backpackers who wanted to stay in touch with their family and friends. Over 100,000 Israelis youths come to Bangkok each year.

Upstairs, Rabbi Kantor was in his small office on the phone. His hand signals indicated that he’d be off in short order and to wait just outside the door which I patiently did.

The Australian born, Rabbi Kantor is young…only 36 years old. However, with his very full beard and confidence, he appeared much older. The father of 7 is a philosophic man with great compassion for the Jewish community in Bangkok, small as it is.

In this country with 95% Buddhists, for the Jews, Thailand has always been a nation of tolerance where they were always welcome.

As early as 1601, the records show there was one Jew who lived here. By 1863, Abraham Navarro, the first documented Jews, came to work as an interpreter for the English East India Company.

By 1890 more families arrived from Russia and in the 30s then there were those Jews fleeing discrimination from Nazism in Germany. The next in-flow was from Syria and Lebanon. In the fifties, American, Iraqi and Iranian Jews, arrived and by 1964 the Jewish Community of Thailand was established. Now between 300- 500 Jews live in Bangkok. Traditionally, they have been involved in trading and production of precious jewelry.

In 1979 the Beth Elisheva Synagogue was consecrated. Land had been donated by Elizabeth Rosenberg Zerner, the Thai born daughter of the first Jewish citizen….

Beth Elisheva, named after Rosenberg Zerner, has a mikveh, Sunday and nursery school and weekly adult classes on Judaism.

Chabad House, where I was now sitting was consecrated in 1995.

Rabbi Kantor, the son of an American mother and Australian father, arrived in Bangkok in 1992. He now divides his work hours between the synagogue and Chabad House since “this is where the activity takes place.”

There are services on Friday night and Saturday. As for minyans “in the last few years, we’ve had daily minyans in our office attached to the Shangri La Hotel. That’s just 10-15 minute walk from Chabad House, ” says Rabbi Kantor.

Rabbi Kantor sees the community as multi- pronged. “There are the locals who live here, the business people that travel and all the backpackers and others young people who come here.”

Although many of the Israelis who visit, grew up in Israel. “They may not be religious and not know what Jewish is. They know about Israelis and non Israelis,” says Rabbi Kantor, dressed in a very business like suit. “But in the Diaspora like Australia and North America, there’s a stronger feeling of Jewishness.”

On our way for a site inspection of the kitchen, the rabbi tells me that the reason there’s no signage outside stating that there’s a restaurant on the premises is because “we’re not looking for the eating traffic but for the Jewish kids coming here after their army service. The barriers melt and there’s such a strong feeling of friendship.”

The meat and chicken are slaughtered on the Chabad premises and it’s sold to the local Jewish community. They also bake their chalahs here. “We have kosher food now which has made life wonderful,” he says as we stop at a closet size area where shelves are filled with products. “Kosher food is a basic of Jewish life,” he says handling various cans for my inspection.

As for the synagogue, it easily seats 200 people when necessary, usually on the High Holidays. The three torahs are 20th century, the oldest about 30 years old. But on the list of things to do, is a new torah in memory of the 18 Jewish people who died during the tsunami in 2004.

Asked how he likes living in this complicated city with over 6 million populations, he answers without hesitation. “I genuinely love the work and being able to help Jews in need since there’s no welfare here. So if somebody is down and out and needs assistance getting home or if someone passes away and the body has to be repatriated, we have to help the family, they land up here. We’ve even been able to establish a cemetery in Bangkok.”

As for anti- Semitism, Rabbi Kantor smiles broadly. “They don’t know who we are. Our concern isn’t with the Thais but with terrorism.”

The bottom line is that the Jews of Bangkok are in good hands.

Chabad House,
96 Ram Butry Banglumpoo
Tel 2629 2770

Beth Elisheva Synagogue
121 Soi Sai
Nam Thip 2 (Soi 22)
Sukhumvit Rd
Tel. 2258 2195