Thai Tikvah

While that may sound like an old Jewish joke, it's an arrangement that well suits a community which feels at home in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation but keeps a low profile.

The three synagogues serve as a rough guide to the makeup of the permanent and transient Jewish community here.

Worshipers at the showpiece Bet Elisheva synagogue tend to be wealthier suburbanites. The three-story building serves as community center and houses the sanctuary, the meeting and recreation rooms, the mikvah, and the living quarters of the youthful Rabbi Yosef Kantor and his family.

There are daily preschool classes for six children, and a Sunday school for older kids is in the planning stages. The preschoolers are taught by two young women, still in their late teens, who arrived two months ago from Kfar Chabad in Israel.

Bangkok, as the gem-trade capital of the world, has attracted a large number of Israeli businessmen. They, along with tourists staying at the more expensive hotels, pray at the appropriately named Even Chen (Precious Stone, in Hebrew) in the center of the city.

Serving the lower end of the economic scale is the Ohr Menachem synagogue, which, with a kosher kitchen, is part of Bet Chabad. It caters to the stream of backpackers, an estimated 15,000 a year from Israel alone, who stay at the nearby cheap hostels and guest houses.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, with wife, Dvorah Leah, and son, has been spiritual leader of the Bangkok Jewish community for four years. Photo by Tom Tugend

The first contingent of Jews arrived in Thailand at the turn of the century, mainly from Middle Eastern countries.

These Sephardic Jews were joined in the 1920s by groups of Ashkenazim, said “Jacob,” whose father arrived here from Russia, via Italy, in 1920.

Jacob, who requested that his real name not be used, represents what is now the oldest Jewish family in Bangkok. He is president of the Jewish community, as his father was a generation earlier.

Besides the Israeli businessmen, the community includes a sizable segment of American Jews. The men, mainly lawyers, got to know Thailand while serving with the U.S. military or the Peace Corps, liked what they saw and decided to stay.

Jacob's request for anonymity is grounded in his sense of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In 1973, the Palestinian Black September group seized the Israeli Embassy here — although Thai authorities were able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

Four years ago, Jacob says, police apprehended a terrorist “by a stroke of luck. He had enough explosive material to level everything within a mile radius in the heart of the city.”

Surveying his constituency, Jacob notes that, “basically, all of us are Orthodox; we have no Reform or Conservative Jews here.” The community gets together for Purim and Chanukah parties, and, during the past year, celebrated one wedding, one bris and a few bar mitzvahs, and welcomed one young Thai woman as a convert.

As for the burden of the presidency, Jacob confides that “just because it's a small community doesn't mean it's an easy one.”

What attracts Jews to live in Thailand?

“It's a nice country with friendly people. All religions can function freely, and there are good business opportunities,” says Jacob.

There is also no anti-Semitism, perhaps because “the Thai have no idea what Jews are,” as one resident put it.

In the past, the community had a hard time attracting and then keeping rabbis. “We had one who stayed for a year, and then a second one who left after six months,” says Jacob.

Four years ago, community leaders turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who dispatched Rabbi Kantor. The 28-year-old native of Australia has “done a terrific job,” according to Jacob.

Kantor and his wife, Dvorah Leah, who hails from Los Angeles, are now well-settled and are raising a family. He relies primarily on e-mail to stay in touch with Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn and with the rest of the world.

Some things about Thailand, though, are hard to get used to, including the extremely hot and humid weather. “Sometimes, I dream of just taking a pleasant walk, like in Los Angeles,” says the rebbetzin. “Now [in February], it's the middle of the winter, and the temperature is 100 degrees.”

Mindi Gerlitzky, one of the two young teachers recently arrived from Kfar Chabad, is struck by other phenomena.

“I was shocked to see so many Israelis here,” she says.

Israeli tourists now flock to Thailand at the rate of 50,000 a year, according to Yaakov Avrahami, the No. 2 man at the Israeli Embassy.

Besides the 15,000 backpackers, there are some 35,000 mostly middle-aged visitors, attracted by cheap package tours and the regular El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Bangkok.

The Israeli Embassy was opened in 1957, but the Thai reciprocated in opening an embassy in Tel Aviv only last year. One reason for the latter move was to serve the estimated 20,000 Thai nationals now working in Israel, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Trade between the two countries runs at $500 million a year, with the balance almost 2 to 1 in Israel's favor. Thai exports are mainly in diamonds and gemstones, and imports from Israel include machinery, electronics and communication equipment.

Diplomatic relations between Thailand and Israel function smoothly, says Avrahami, and, judging by the three English-language dailies in Bangkok, Thailand's people and government seem well-disposed to the Jewish State.

Entrance to Bet Elisheva, one of three synagogues in Bangkok which also serves as community center. Photo by Tom Tugend