Conversion: Kimia Sun

Kimia Sun was born a refugee. 

Her parents were survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rogue, which claimed nearly 2 million lives in the late 1970s. The couple was among the lucky ones and escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Sun was born and spent her first months. Next, the family traveled to the Philippines, where Sun’s parents learned English and purchased plane tickets for America.  

When Sun was just a toddler, she arrived with her family in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents were Buddhists and her father had been a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but they converted to Christianity. Sun was raised a Southern Baptist, but at age 13, she decided it wasn’t right for her. “It just didn’t gel with me,” she said. “I asked my parents if I may stop going to church. I just didn’t understand or agree with what I was learning in Sunday school. ”

At that point, she essentially disconnected from organized religion. “From then on, I called myself a universalist, and that lasted all the way through college. I didn’t have a religious home. I believed in God and the goodness of people.”

Then, when Sun moved to Los Angeles six years ago, she lived with and worked for an Israeli family in the Hollywood Hills. She shared Shabbat dinners with them and picked up on some Hebrew words. “They were so open to all my questions,” she said.

Living with the family sparked Sun’s interest in Judaism, and that interest was solidified after she dated a Jewish man and read books about the religion. Although she was intrigued, converting initially didn’t cross her mind. After she and the man broke off their relationship, however, one of her friends persuaded her to look into becoming a Jew. “He said I have a Jewish soul,” she said. 

Sun, who today lives in Hollywood and works at Sunrise Brands, which assists apparel companies, began to take classes at Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program. The lessons she learned prepared her to pursue a Conservative conversion. 

“I remember the first day of class he broke down the etymology of the three main religions,” she said. “For example, the Christian people are ones who adhere to God or want to please God, Muslims are people who serve and fear God, and Jews are those who struggle with God. That caught my attention. Sometimes my prayers are more like debates or arguments with God, and I never knew if that was acceptable or not. I just knew that this was my relationship with Him.” 

For a year, Sun took classes and learned Hebrew with the rabbi’s wife, Miri Weinberg. Sun started preparing her own Shabbat dinners and put together a Rosh Hashanah meal. Temple of the Arts became her synagogue, and she spoke to the congregation there about her conversion. In June 2010, Sun completed her conversion at American Jewish University with the West Coast Rabbinical Assembly. “My experience in the mikveh was almost indescribable,” she said. “It was so unique, so special and uplifting. I felt really aligned with God.”

Since her parents had undergone their own conversion, they understood Sun’s need to find to herself spiritually. Her dad revealed to her that in the refugee camps, where a day’s worth of food consisted of a handful of rice and a chicken wing, an Israeli United Nations worker had given her pregnant mother extra food. The worker also helped them learn English. 

Out of all the Jewish traditions she’s learned about over the past six years, Sun said one of her favorites is honoring the Sabbath. “It’s super important to me, because it’s a time to acknowledge all of the hard work that you’ve done all week long and then you rest. I think that can be taken for granted. I love all the traditions. Everything has a specific meaning and purpose on Shabbat, and I love how it centers around your family and friends.”

The holiday she connects to most is Passover, because of her family history, she said.  “I really connect to the symbolic meaning of this holiday. [You] remember to be thankful for your freedoms and also to remember and pray for those who are still in oppression or in captivity. Maybe I relate to this most since my family and I survived the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.”

Before Sun discovered Judaism and took it on, she said she, like a lot of people, was a spiritual wanderer. “A lot of people feel a little bit lost or disconnected. I was one of those people.”

Now, however, that has changed. “Judaism brought me closer to God. I feel connected, grounded and complete,” she said. “In a way, it gave more meaning and purpose to my life.”

Anne Frank diary resonates with Cambodians

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (JTA)—As a young girl in the early 1990s, Sayana Ser often spent the night cowering in fear with her family in an underground shelter her father had dug beneath their home on the outskirts of this capital city.

Outside, marauding bands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas battled it out with government forces. Meanwhile, brutal mass murder was still fresh on civilians’ minds.

A decade later, as a 19-year-old scholarship student in the Netherlands, Sayana chanced upon the memoirs of another girl who had feared for her life in even more dire circumstances.

It was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, the precocious Jewish teenager who hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam until her family’s hiding place was discovered and she was sent to her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“While reading the book I couldn’t hold my tears back,” Sayana recalls. “I wondered how Anna must have felt and how she could bear it.”

Sayana now is the director of a student outreach and educational program at a Cambodian research institution that documents the Khmer Rouge genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, up to 2 million people—a fourth of the population—perished on Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in one of the worst mass murders since the Holocaust.

Sayana, who wrote her master’s thesis about “dark tourism,” or touristic voyeurism at genocide sites in Cambodia and elsewhere, also visited several Holocaust memorials and death camps.

“I couldn’t believe how one human being could do this to another, whether they were Jews or Khmers,” she says.

On returning home, she sought permission to translate the Anne Frank diary into Khmer.

The Holocaust classic was published by the country’s leading genocide research group, the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It is now available for Khmer students at high school libraries in Phnom Penh alongside locally written books about the Khmer Rouge period. Such books include “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which recounts the harrowing experiences of a child survivor of the killing fields.

“I have seen many Anna Franks in Cambodia,” says Youk Chhang, the head of the documentation center and Cambodia’s foremost researcher on genocide.

A child survivor himself, Chhang lost siblings and numerous relatives in the mass murders perpetrated by Pol Pot and his followers.

“If we Cambodians had read her diary a long time ago,” he says, “perhaps there could have been a way for us to prevent the Cambodian genocide from happening.”

Anne Frank’s message, he adds, remains as potent as ever.

“Genocide continues to happen in the world around us even today,” Youk says. “Her diary can still play an important role in prevention.”

Although the story of Anne and her resilient optimism in the face of murderous evil has touched millions of readers around the world, it may particularly resonate with Cambodians, Sayana adds.

“Under Pol Pot, many children were separated from their families. They faced starvation and were sent to the front to fight and die,” she explains. “Like Anna, they never knew peace and the warmth of a home.”

Inspired by Anne’s diary, she adds, some Cambodian students have begun to write their own diaries to chronicle the sorrows and joys of their daily lives.

Children in Laos, too, can soon learn of Anne’s story and insights.

In the impoverished, war-torn communist country bordering Cambodia, almost a million people perished during the Vietnam War, while countless landmines and a low-level insurgency continue to take lives daily.

Yet with books for children almost nonexistent beyond simple school textbooks, Lao students remain largely ignorant of the world and history. In a private initiative, an American expat publisher is now bringing them children’s classics translated into Lao, including Anne Frank’s diary.

“I was describing the book to a bright college graduate here and gave him a little context,” says Sasha Alyson, the founder of Big Brother Mouse, a small publishing house in Vientiane, the Lao capital, which specializes in books for Lao children. He recalls the student asking, ‘World War II? Is that the same as Star Wars?”

Anna Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” he says, will provide Lao children with a much-needed lesson in history.

Cambodia’s killing fields revisited

I can vividly remember the first time I visited the Museum of Tolerance, in seventh grade. Not personally knowing anyone who had survived the Holocaust, I had been shielded from the grisly details of World War II. Simon Wiesenthal’s museum showed how horrible the Holocaust actually was and left me appalled for days.

I had a very similar experience this summer when I visited Cambodia with Rustic Pathways, a company that takes students to the underdeveloped regions of the world to participate in various community-service outreach programs. After hearing the chairman of Rustic Pathways, David Venning, speak about the genocide sites of Cambodia, I knew that some way or another I would get myself on his trip. I had originally planned to go to the northern region of Thailand, but the day before I left I changed my plans and set out for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

In 1975, during the Vietnam War, an extremist communist party, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia. Pol Pot, its leader, planned to turn Cambodia into an example of Maoist Communism. His vision was to get rid of all intellectuals and to have everyone work as farmers and live equally. During this takeover, the Khmer government trafficked many people out of the cities and into the farmlands. Those who were deemed dangerous to the government (the educated, the ruling class and just about anyone with a different point of view), were systematically tortured in the notorious S-21 building and killed in mass graves, which became known as the killing fields.

While in Cambodia, we visited the killing fields and S-21 (Toul Sleng), a high school that was turned into a security prison. S-21 is located in an average neighborhood, and from a distance looks like a normal school building.

But as soon as I approached, I noticed the barbed wire along the walls. Once inside it was evident what a horrible place it really was. Each room still had the torturing tools lying on the floor, while in the hallway I could still see dried blood on the floor. Every time I entered a new room, feelings of uneasiness, sadness and detestation overcame me.

And the final rooms of the prison were filled with the pictures of the prisoners. Every single person had a look of misery and emptiness. Pictures of the prisoners that hung on the walls not only honored the victims, but put a face to the genocide; those in S-21 were tortured and interrogated and sent to the killing fields after a few days. In the end, no one escaped or survived Toul Sleng.

The killing fields are located a short distance away from S-21. It was hard for me to imagine how tens of thousands of innocent people could be systematically killed and buried in mass graves in a field that is only a couple of acres. The field is so small that I had to maneuver my way through the small paths that surrounded the mass graves.

These mass graves are very similar to those of World War II. The people were ordered to dig their own graves and as soon as they finished, they were summarily killed and buried. But instead of shooting the prisoners, in Cambodia they would execute them with everything from hammers to sharpened tree branches. There are still bones half-buried in the ground and piles of clothes next to the graves.

In the center of the field there is a stupa, a memorial for all who were killed during Pol Pot’s rule, towering over the undeveloped region. This tower, however, is filled with thousands and thousands of human skulls. I understood that I was standing in the exact place where so many were killed senselessly.

These fields have been compared to Auschwitz, and even though I have never visited that sight, I could imagine that one would get a very similar feeling. An estimated 1.7 million people died under Pol Pot’s rule alone. This number might not seem comparable to the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust, but in reality 21 percent of the population was wiped out in just four years. The systematic killings have left their mark on the Cambodian people — it is almost impossible to find more than a few people over the age of 60 in a single day in Phnom Pen.

It may appear that Southeast Asia is finally recovering, but if you take a closer look, you notice that many things have not changed. For the past 20 years, the Burmese government has been burning hill tribe villages and carrying out an “ethnic cleansing.” Burma’s Karen, Shan and Karenni people have been targeted because they refuse to concede power to the government. This genocide is not well known because the Burmese government conducts all of its attacks in secret and does not let any information leave the country.

So, in response, the best thing that you can do is spread the word.

Elie Wiesel put it best: “None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness…. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Phillip Nazarian in the 11th grade at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to

Sad encounter prompts sex trafficking docudrama

The inspiration for “Holly,” a docudrama about child sex-trafficking, came as Israeli-born producer Guy Jacobson inadvertently wandered into a notorious red light district in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh five years ago.

“It was a dusty street like any other, but suddenly, I was surrounded by 15 little girls — 5, 6 and 7 years old — who were aggressively soliciting me for sex,” Jacobson said in a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment, now the headquarters of the Redlight Children Campaign he has co-founded to help fight child prostitution. “I was struggling to remove their hands, and most of them realized that I was not a potential client, but one of the littlest girls kept saying, ‘I yum yum very good; I no money today, mama-san boxing me,’ which meant the madam of her brothel would beat her up. I gave her $20 and walked away, but I knew I had to return and do something about this horrific problem.”

In the summer of 2004, Jacobson did return to that dusty street and the adjacent brothels to film “Holly” — accompanied by 40 bodyguards wielding M-16s to protect the cast and crew from gangsters.

The drama tells of Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old virgin, and Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American smuggler who becomes obsessed with saving her from the pervasive, government-backed industry. It proves to be a fool’s errand, and while “Holly” has been lauded on the festival circuit (one reviewer called it “a work of serious, contemplative outrage”), it has also been criticized for “dousing its drama with the cold water of education,” in the words of another.

Critics have also noted that it is among several recent films on sex trafficking, including “Trade” and the documentary, “Very Young Girls,” which “is working its way into the popular culture since the U.S. Congress passed human trafficking legislation in 2000, said Carol Smolenski of ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA). An estimated 2 million child sex workers toil in what the United Nations deems the fastest growing criminal enterprise worldwide.

The hyper-realistic portrayal of such a child’s life has made “Holly” a darling of human rights activists (the United Nations hosted a VIP screening with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-N.Y.] on the host committee); The New York Times published two stories on the movie, one also focusing on the Red Light campaign, before it opened in New York two weeks ago, earning a No. 2 slot for all-around box office receipts.

While the prostitution drama may well recoup its budget of several million dollars, the effort was not about the money, Jacobson insisted. “I don’t mean to offend anybody, but for me, this is a global crime against humanity, similar to the Holocaust,” he said. “And once you see the film, you can no longer say you didn’t realize the scope of the problem, only that you don’t care.”

Jacobson, 44, said it is no coincidence that almost everyone involved in making the film grew up in Israel, including the writer-director, Guy Moshe, and New York financiers Smadar and Amit Kort, who were so moved by early drafts of the script that they vowed to give Jacobson whatever he needed to produce it. “We’re used to operating under stress, and making this film was like a miniwar,” he said.

Jacobson drew on his experience in Israeli intelligence during the Lebanon War to research “how a 12-year-old prostitute really feels” in Phnom Penh. While posing as a pedophile client, he chatted with the girls, their pimps and clients in cafes and “bought” a time upstairs with various girls in order to photograph their rooms, which were tiny, dirty, and decorated with magazine cutouts of puppies and kittens (he would ask them to take a shower so he could snap pictures and tell them he wasn’t in the mood when they returned.)

It took 15 drafts (and Moshe’s reworking of the script) to get the tone just right: “Go a bit too far and the film becomes unbearable, and if you don’t go far enough, it won’t raise awareness,” Jacobson said. The filmmakers included neither sex nor nudity in order to avoid exploiting the subject matter.

Moshe said he also drew on his Israeli military service — in an elite special forces unit in the Gaza Strip during the intifada — to make the film. His job was to seek out and arrest terrorists, and while he declined to elaborate, he would say, “You’re still a child mentally, but you’re thrown into situations and experiences that many much older people never go through. It makes you identify more with people enduring the bleaker side of life.”

Because of their wartime experiences, neither Moshe nor Jacobson were alarmed when they received a call from Interpol agents just before they were to begin production, reporting that contracts had been taken out on their lives. The filmmakers were advised to leave the country immediately.

“Then just three days before the shoot, we learned officials were going to shut down the movie unless we paid them an obscene amount of money,” Moshe said. “We had to negotiate with them around the clock, and that debacle ended with me counting out $60,000 in cash — with a bodyguard standing behind me — to a delegate with his own bodyguard.”

Moshe and Jacobson smuggled the scenes shot each day to secret locations outside of Cambodia (“That meant I didn’t see dailies until 17 days into the shoot,” Moshe recalled), and a co-producer was detained at the airport as she tried to leave the country with much of the equipment (she laid low for a week by hiding in seedy hotels under an assumed name).

The scene based on Jacobson’s memories of being solicited by a 5-year-old posed a different set of challenges. Moshe obtained his child actors from an orphanage run by a social worker, who wanted to help eradicate the real-life problem. In order to protect the girls, who did not speak English, he taught them their lines phonetically so they did not know what they were saying. ( Two psychologists were on the set.)

We dare not murder memories of genocide

Amnesia of the past foreshadows amnesia of the future. Forget yesterday's tragedy and the threat to tomorrow is denied. Forget the first genocide of the 20th century — the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 — and the memory and atrocities of the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur turn invisible, and the world response is muted.

The Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lempkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it in large part by what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Armenia was the cautionary record of a mass murder of a people, which tragically and shamelessly the world has and continues to repress.

Amnesia is a sickness and feigned amnesia is a blasphemy. To choose to forget what happened to the martyrs is an insult to their memory and a danger to our children. As the philosopher Cicero sagely observed, “Not to know what happened to you before you were born is to remain forever a child.”

Infantilizing ourselves and our progeny is dangerous, and silence is lethal. We dare not murder memory.

The Hebrew term for remember (zachor) appears 169 times in the Bible. Memory is a sacred mandate. Jewish World Watch, founded almost three years ago and comprised of over 50 synagogues of every denomination throughout Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, was formed to use its energies to make people aware of and stop genocide. Its initial focus has been on the ongoing genocide of the persecuted people of Darfur.

It continues its work in Darfur and Chad by building and supporting medical clinics; creating water wells; sending solar cookers for women intimidated, branded, tortured and raped by the Janjaweed in the fields where they have to forage for scraps of firewood to cook; providing educational materials to children desperate for any sense of normalcy, and a social worker dedicated to providing grief counseling to a population where every single family has lost at least one of its members.

No two dyings are the same. No two holocausts are the same. Darfur is not Rwanda; the killing fields of Cambodia are not the crematoria of the Nazi death camps.

Every genocide is singular. But a kinship of suffering unites us all. To play the shameless game of “one-downsmanship” is an invidious sport. My blood is not redder than yours, my suffering not more painful than yours. Hatred consumes us all indiscriminately.

We have enough tears to shed for others. Our tear ducts are not dried up. Our hearts are not so small that they cannot beat for and with another.

We join together to remember and to bind each other's wounds. In memory, we together raise our collective conscience and act out our resolve. “Never again” will we allow the threat of genocide to terrorize any nation, religion or ethnic community. Together we demonstrate our solidarity and mutual support.

On Friday, April 27, at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, Jewish World Watch will honor Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, a joint service of memory, including Armenian and Jewish choirs, liturgy, song and reflection. Prior to the 8:15 p.m. service, an Armenian Sabbath dinner will be served at 6 p.m. (by reservation only).

Harold M Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch.

Exhibit Links Shoah, Cambodia Genocide

Midway through Roland Joffé’s 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” journalist Sidney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, visits the family of his friend, Dith Pran, who has been captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The scene takes place in New York City, where Schanberg tries to comfort Pran’s wife. As the action unfolds, the camera allows us to see in the background graffiti spray-painted on a wall — there is a Star of David and underneath it what appear to be the words, “I suck.”

The juxtaposition of a Jew (Schanberg) and a Cambodian with the defaced Star of David subtly links the Holocaust, a genocide of the past, to the more recent Cambodian tragedy.

It is the synchronicity between peoples who have been massacred that inspired the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to exhibit “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide.” The exhibit features the photographs of Chantal Prunier, who visited Cambodia in the past year and came back with haunting images of mass graves, torture devices and survivors.

The 48-year-old Prunier, a native of France who has always been fascinated with Southeast Asia, devotes a number of photos to Tuol Seng, the infamous former prison. One image, a low-angle shot, is taken from beneath barbed wire that to this day surrounds the building. The low angle accentuates the menace of the spiked spirals.

The Tuol Seng photos also reveal a dilapidated structure whose interior and exterior brick and plaster walls have taken on faded pink and brown hues, earth-tone colors that blend in with the red traces of the land in other shots.

Beneath these color photos are black-and-white images, primarily archived photographs, accompanied by Prunier’s text. She uses the photos to narrate a brief history of the Cambodian people, quickly moving on to the genocide engineered by Pol Pot.

Pol Pot seized power in April 1975 and then liquidated more than 20 percent of his country, somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people, according to most accounts. Prunier estimates that the number may have been even higher if one factors in those who died of famine. She writes that “official sources indicate” more than 3 million people died from 1975 to 1979.

In an interview with The Journal, she noted that the Cambodian government claims the number of victims as 3.3 million. Even if that figure is inflated, the massacre approaches the unparalleled depravity of the Shoah.

Pol Pot especially targeted city dwellers and the educated, whom he believed had been corrupted by Western colonialists and imperialists. But he also targeted ethnic Vietnamese, exterminating thousands of them living as civilians in Cambodia, something Prunier does not mention other than in passing.

The exhibit’s thoughtful touches include floor lights surrounded with long twigs to evoke the Cambodian jungle, where so much of the suffering occurred. Dictator Pol Pot emptied cities to reshape his country through a forced agrarian revolution.

What was behind Pol Pot’s murderous madness?

A definitive answer is as unreachable as any attempted decoding of Hitler. One extreme view is that Pol Pot was provoked into his radicalism by the Nixon administration’s secret (to the American public) bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1969. The bombing was an outgrowth of the Vietnam War.

Cambodia was a neutral country, but its territory was being used for supply routes by the North Vietnamese. Prunier dismisses this blame-the-U.S. theory as the product of “some very devious people,” though she accepts that the bombing campaigns helped to energize Pol Pot.

Visitors to the museum might be shocked by photos of articles of clothing worn by the murdered that still float to the surface, some 30 years later, where water gathers after rainfall.

With some photos, the captions are curiously understated or even unnecessary. In one print, two Cambodians sit on a bench at Cheoung Ek, where many victims perished. More than the caption, their melancholy gaze tells the story.

Also on display is an iconic 1970s black-and-white photo, not taken by Prunier, of an unknown Cambodian woman with a disfiguring spot on her forehead and a tag with the number “27” clipped by baby pins to her black shirt. The numbered tags, the unmarked piles of skeletons, the unidentified clothes on the ground — all mirror the Holocaust and speak to the uniformly impersonal and dehumanizing nature of genocide.

Pol Pot was never brought to justice for these crimes against humanity. Just as the facts of his birth are disputed (some reports say he was born in 1925, others in 1928), his death in 1998 also remains shrouded in mystery. Reportedly, he suffered a fatal heart attack, even as he was being sought to stand trial at The Hague.

The Cambodian exhibit keeps with the museum’s mission, said Rachel Jagoda, the museum’s executive director. Jagoda, 32, has sought to broaden the scope of the Holocaust Museum since being hired three years ago. Her first major exhibit focused not on Jews, but on the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

Under Jagoda, the museum, which she says has the largest primary source archive of any Holocaust museum on the West Coast, has begun raising significant funds, more than $500,000 in the last year, compared to roughly $20,000 annually in the past.

She and board member Manfred Kuhnert also report that they have obtained more than $3 million in capital for a new permanent facility designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, which would be located in Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District. The new museum would be partially underground to simulate walking into a cemetery.

The current museum space on Wilshire Boulevard would never be confused with the Getty. The Cambodian genocide exhibit is small, shoehorned into the back of the first-floor museum, but the photos are powerful.

The most salient image may be the opening shot of the ruins of an Angkor temple. Superficially, it has nothing to do with the genocide. But flowing over the ruins are the multiple trunks of an ancient banyan tree whose roots, from a distance, resemble the bones of victims — of this genocide or any other. The people have vanished like the Easter Islanders, but the roots of their tragedy remain.

“Encountering the Cambodian Genocide” is at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. Free. Exhibit runs through Nov. 15. For information, call (323) 651-3704.