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Jewish Travel

24 Hours in Shanghai

By | China, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Exploring the city’s inspiring Jewish history during a brief visit

Aish.com/Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — April 2018

SHANGHAI — China’s largest city of 23 million people features one of the most dazzling skylines in the world, a booming economy and a compelling mixture of Eastern and Western cultures.

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai’s dramatic skyline

But not many people are aware that Shanghai also offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the history of one the most unique Jewish communities in the Far East.  As a city that accepted about 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe, Shanghai became known at the time as a “Noah’s Ark” for Jews who had no other place to go.

With only 24 hours to explore the city at the conclusion of a 14-day Asian cruise on the Holland America Volendam, I opted to take a half-day “Tour of Jewish Shanghai.”  It was led by Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli-born journalist who has lived in Shanghai for the past 17 years.

With a style that was part history professor, part standup-comedian, Dvir taught our group of 15 tourists – mostly Americans – all about Shanghai’s Jewish past and took us to the sites that helped bring to life a Jewish community that once thrived here.

It took me just a 20-minute walk from where the Volendam was docked to join the tour.  Appropriately, we met at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, which was built by Sephardic Jews from Bagdad, who were part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai in the late 19th century.  This group included two prominent families – the Sassoons and Kadoories.

Dvir Bar-Gal

Dvir Bar-Gal leads a “Tour of Jewish Shanghai”

“People came here with nothing and created an economic empire in the Far East,” noted Dvir about the Baghdadi immigrants.

A second wave of Jews arrived in the 1920s, Ashkenazim fleeing pogroms and revolutions in Russia.

From the Fairmont, our group walked one block to The Bund, Shanghai’s pedestrian riverfront with a spectacular view across the Huangpu River to the city’s enormous skyscrapers.  It was at The Bund where Dvir told us about the third – and most famous – wave of Jewish immigrants.

From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted about 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.  Most came from Germany and Austria, which had stripped Jews of their citizenship and encouraged exile before turning genocidal.  Outside of the Dominican Republic, Shanghai was the only place that allowed Jews to enter as it did not require a visa.  In fact, by 1939 more European Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai than in any other city in the world.

Shanghai Jewish refugees

Monument at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Why did China offer Jews a safe-haven from the Nazis when so many other countries turned their backs?  Dvir says it wasn’t a conscious decision by the Chinese government.  In fact, Shanghai at the time was an international city not completely under Chinese control.  Several foreign powers, including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, claimed portions of the city and a visa was not required to enter Shanghai until August 1939.

Still, Dvir says once the Jews arrived, they were treated well by the Chinese, who have long been known for their lack of anti-Semitism.  Dvir believes there are many reasons for this, including that the Chinese identify with Jewish suffering, relate to their status as an underdog and were “oppressed themselves by foreign powers.”

Jewish life in Shanghai prospered during the 1930s.  At one time, there were six working synagogues and about 10 Jewish newspapers.  Jews lived harmoniously with the Chinese in a section of town called the Hongkou District, which was dubbed “Little Vienna” because so many Austrian Jews lived there.

The final group of Jewish refugees to arrive in Shanghai included about 300 Polish Jews from the famous Mir Yeshiva, which ultimately became the only European yeshiva to emerge from World War II intact.  The Jews from Mir Yeshiva first escaped in 1939 from Poland to Lithuania, where they received transit visas from the Japanese consulate general in Kovno, Chiune Sugihara.

Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The renovated Ohel Moshe Synagogue

All told, Sugihara issued more than 3,500 visas to Jews, earning him the title “the Japanese Schindler.”  With the help of several overseas Jewish organizations, the Mir Yeshiva students and rabbis and other Jews who had received visas from Sugihara made it safely to Kobe, Japan, before arriving in Shanghai in 1941.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied Shanghai, which ended the flow of foreign funds to the Jewish refugees, who were becoming increasingly impoverished.  The Japanese also imposed restrictions on where Jews could live, creating a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” better known as the Shanghai Ghetto.

Conditions in the ghetto were difficult but a vast majority of Shanghai’s Jews survived the Holocaust.  Most emigrated to Israel, the United States, Australia and Hong Kong after the Communists took control of the government in 1949.

Dvir drove us by van to the city’s Hongkou District where we walked through narrow streets and parks lined with blooming cherry-blossom trees to explore the traces of what once had been bustling Jewish life in the area.

The highlight was a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on Changyang Road, which contains exhibits, monuments and an exhibition hall in which more than 140 photos are displayed with a multi-screen projection system.  Dvir served as an adviser to the Chinese government when it opened the museum in 2007.

Shanghai Jewish newspaper

A newspaper from 1941 on display at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

The museum also houses the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, built by Russian Jews in the 1920s.  It later became the hub of Jewish life when the community was ghettoized in the 1940s.  After the war, the synagogue was confiscated by the Communists and converted into a psychiatric hospital.  It reopened in the 1990s and was later restored to its original architectural style in 2007.  The building has been inscribed on the list of architectural heritage treasures of Shanghai.

Ohel Moshe is not used for religious services and the city has only has only one other remaining synagogue – Ohel Rachel.  The largest synagogue in the Far East, Ohel Rachel was built by the Sassoon family in 1920.  But it currently does not host services on a regular basis and is not open to visitors.

With no functioning stand-alone synagogues, Shanghai’s current population of about 4,000 Jews have a choice of praying at one of three Chabad branches or in private venues.

Chinese acrobat show

A Chinese acrobat show

The tour also included a visit to a home where Jewish refugees once lived and the former site of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provided immense financial support to Shanghai’s Jewish refugees during their years of hardship.

Dvir says about 3,000 tourists take his tour every year, a majority of whom are Americans.  He adds that before their arrival, many had no idea about the city’s rich and inspiring Jewish history.

“Some people have some knowledge about Jewish life here, but it is vague,” he says.  “It comes to life when they take this tour.”

For information about booking a Jewish tour on a trip to Shanghai, email: shanghaijews@hotmail.com.  The cost for a half-day tour is about $70.

After the tour was over, I had a few hours left to enjoy Shanghai before I needed to return to the Volendam.  I chose to see a Chinese acrobat performance at a downtown theater, where I watched an amazing array of gymnasts, jugglers and motorcyclists who speedily whirled their vehicles inside a cage.

Shanghai at night

Shanghai at night

Back on the ship at 10 p.m., I took one last look at the city’s wondrous skyline – lit up like a pinball machine – and reflected on what I had learned during my 24 hours in this crowded and frenetic city.

Perhaps an exhibit at the Jewish Refugees Museum best sums up what a Holocaust historian has called “the miracle of Shanghai.”

In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister, visited the site and inscribed the following:  “To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Kosher pad-thai?

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

New Chabad facility in Phuket, Thailand opens its doors to throngs of Jewish travelers

Aish.com — February 2018

PHUKET, Thailand — It was a Thursday night last August when Rabbi Mendy Segal, the chief Jewish emissary, or shluchim, of this island off the southwestern coast of Thailand, received a phone call every rabbi dreads but must deal with on occasion.

Phuket Rabbi Segal

Rabbi Mendy Segal on the rooftop of the new Chabad Phuket House

Two Israelis were in a Thai jail on drug charges and needed the rabbi’s help to bail them out.

The call came at the worst possible time.  Chabad Phuket had a series of events planned that coming weekend in conjunction with the opening of a swanky new $4 million facility and people were coming from all over the world to celebrate.  Rabbi Segal barely had a second to spare.

Still, he planned to go down to the police station the following morning to offer his assistance.  When you’re the only rabbi in a popular tourist destination where there are so many Jewish visitors, it’s an unpleasant – but necessary — part of the job.

Then, he learned that the two men arrested were actually Arabs with Israeli passports.

Should he go, or should he stay and plan for busy weekend ahead?  He sought counsel from the chief rabbi of Thailand in Bangkok, Rabbi Yosef Kantor.

“And he said, ‘Mendy, you go,’” recalls Rabbi Segal.  “You have to be a mensch.  God wants you to be there.”

Hebrew in Phuket

There are several Israeli-owned businesses near the Phuket Chabad House

So Rabbi Segal went down to the jail Friday morning and helped get the two men released on bail.  In the process, he met one of their friends, another Israeli named Vadim.

“I started to talk with him and learned his mother is Jewish.  I was so happy.  I found out the reason I came.”

Vadim, whose father was Arab, had never set foot in a synagogue before.  He was afraid it would cause tension in the family back in Israel.  But after some coaxing from Rabbi Segal, Vadim came to Chabad.

“He put tefillin on for the first time in his life,” says Rabbi Segal.  “And then he came for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  We didn’t see a happy ending in this type of situation.  But then we found out he was a Jew.  This is the purpose of Chabad – to help another Jew without thinking about getting anything back.”

In Phuket on vacation, I recently wanted to learn about Jewish life on the island and check out the new Chabad campus, now one of the largest facilities of its kind in all of Asia.

Phuket Chabad House

The new six-story Phuket Chabad House is located on a quiet side-street

I walked 30 minutes from my condo down one of the main thoroughfares in Patong, Phuket’s busy tourist hub known for its white-sand beaches, water sports and bawdy nightlife.  I had heard Patong was popular with Israelis but had no idea what awaited me as I got within a few blocks of Chabad.

There were several signs in Hebrew marking Israeli-owned businesses, including travel agencies, restaurants and car/motorbike rental outlets.

Miracle of miracles, in this island paradise in the Andaman Sea, I found myself strolling through a Jewish neighborhood.

Just two blocks from the beach, a “Chabad House Thailand” sign directed me down a side-street lined with parked motorbikes to the six-story building called the Dimenstein Family Campus.

But I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting my passport and the guard at the entrance understandably wanted to ascertain that I was telling the truth when I said I was an American Jew and not a potential security threat before letting me inside.

“Can you say the Kiddush?” he asked.

Fortunately, I rose to the occasion.

Although I rarely attend services as an adult, my post bar-mitzvah years as the oldest son reciting the blessing of the wine at our family Shabbat dinners back in Arizona came in handy and I quickly launched into the prayer to prove to the guard that I really was a Jew, albeit a mostly secular one.

Kosher pad-thai in Phuket

Kosher pad-thai for lunch at the Chabad House restaurant

He stopped me well before I got to “borei p’ri hagafen,” smiled and nodded for me to go inside.

Upon entering, I was introduced to Rabbi Segal.  The 40-year-old Israeli has been leading Chabad’s chapter here for nearly three years, along with his wife and co-director, Miriam.

Inaugurated this past August – the weekend when the two Israeli Arabs were arrested — the new Chabad Phuket building offers an array of facilities and amenities of which some larger and less transient Jewish communities would be envious.

In addition to a synagogue that can hold up to 300 worshippers, the 26,000-square-foot facility features a mikvah, rabbinical quarters, a social hall that can seat 400 people, and a busy Kosher restaurant that serves everything from hamburgers to Middle Eastern fare to Thai dishes.  Kosher meat is imported from Argentina.

I tried the pad-thai, a local noodle dish that was a bit on the bland side.  Rabbi Segal explained that Israelis, who make up about 70 percent of the clientele, tend not to like their food too spicy.  And kashrut law puts limitations on the Israeli chef’s use of certain spices.

“Could be the regular pad-thai tastes better, but to make it Kosher, you have to make it in the right way,” says Rabbi Segal.

Chabad Phuket synagogue

The synagogue can accommodate up to 300 worshippers

Phuket is not a large island.  The population is less than 400,000 and it’s only about 200 square miles, which makes it less than half the geographic size of my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

But more than 5 million tourists visit each year, including a large contingent of Israelis, many of whom fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to Bangkok (Phuket is a 75-minute flight from Bangkok) and spend weeks or even months travelling around the country after completing their military service.

Rabbi Segal says it’s impossible to determine how many Jews live in Phuket year-round, although he guesses that it’s likely only “a few hundred.”

In 2004, Phuket was ravaged by an Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  While Indonesia was hit the hardest, Thailand also was in the path of destruction.  The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, causing about 250 fatalities and extensive damage to the island’s hotels and beaches.

Many tourists, including young Israeli backpackers, were stranded without food, water or shelter.  That was the genesis of Chabad Phuket.  The group dispatched a group of emissaries that offered assistance.

Patong Beach

The popular white-sand Patong Beach is just a five-minute walk from the Chabad House

“They helped not only Jews, but non-Jews” says Rabbi Segal.  “They came here to give food, a place to sleep and to help find Jews who had passed away.  The tsunami woke people up to let them know that this place needed a branch.”

Chabad quickly outgrew the small building in which it started.  In August 2015 ground was broken for the new facility; it opened two years later.  About $4 million was needed for construction.  Thus far, about $3.25 million has been raised, thanks in part to a generous donation from a Swiss family, the Dimensteins. (To make a donation, visit JewishThailand.com and click on “donate” or email Rabbi Segal at phuket@chabadthailand.com).

When the additional funds are raised, there are plans to install a sukkah and chuppah on the building’s rooftop for weddings and other special events, a venue that would offer spectacular views of the Andaman Sea and surrounding mountains.  Rabbi Segal, who works 15-16 hours a day, seven days a week, needs help and plans are underway to add living quarters for rabbinical students from Israel to help carry some of the load.

Already, the new building has brought a 50 percent increase in visitors.  During the winter high season, Rabbi Segal says about 500 people typically come for Friday Shabbat dinner.  Two seatings are needed to accommodate everyone.  About 700 worshippers attended Rosh Hashanah services last September.

What’s it like to be a rabbi in an island paradise?  Rabbi Segal says the demands of the job give him virtually no time to enjoy the weather, scenery and attractions that bring so many tourists to Phuket.

“When you’re in Chabad, you’re on a mission,” he says.  “You’re not here to enjoy the beaches because the job is inside the Chabad House.  This place is open from the morning to the night and we’re here all day, so we don’t have the time to go out and enjoy it.  The rabbis of Chabad don’t really get to enjoy the beauty of the places they stay.”

Andaman Sea

Day cruises on the Andaman Sea near Phuket offer spectacular scenery

When the rabbi does get out into the community, he has found the Thai people warm and welcoming of Jews, with no hints of anti-Semitism.

“We respect them. They respect us,” he says.  “It’s something you don’t see in different places in the world.  They are really nice people.”

Even though I’m not particularly religious, whenever I travel, I make an effort to connect with the Jewish community – no matter how large or small.  It greatly lessens the culture-shock of visiting places so far from home.  There is a sense of comfort derived from being with other Jews, even if our religious views might be widely divergent.

While I don’t keep Kosher or wear a kippah outside of synagogue, I’m always looking for ways to intertwine my sense of Jewish identity with my travels.

When I told Rabbi Segal that my visit to the Phuket Chabad Center happened to coincide with my deceased father’s 94th birthday, he was kind enough to recite the Kel Maleh Rachamim, a remembrance prayer for the soul of the departed.  After reading the prayer in Hebrew, he took the time to explain the meaning behind it in terms I could understand.

Chabad now has about 3,500 chapters in more than 85 countries.  The Hasidic group, which I’ve grown to appreciate over the years for its hospitality and acceptance of non-religious Jewish travelers like myself, has a presence in four different Thai locations – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Phuket.

All offer an oasis of Jewish values and relative tranquility in a country with a reputation for being one of Asia’s most boisterous party spots.

There is an old Hasidic saying:  “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.”

Such is the case with Chabad Phuket.  It was born 14 years ago following a deadly tsunami.  It has now ascended to heights even few shluchim would have imagined possible.

__________________________

Editor’s postscript:  On one of my final Friday evenings in Phuket, I accepted Rabbi Segal’s invitation to attend Shabbat services.  The synagogue was packed; men and women were segregated by a wall.  It was a very different service than what I’ve experienced in the past.

Afterward, I sat down to Shabbat dinner with about 500 people (there had to be two seatings as the social hall only has space for 400).  The food was traditional Jewish fare — salads, fish and chicken — and plentiful.  In between courses, there was a lot of clapping, singing, dancing and praying.  Some people even stood on their chairs.

Rabbi Segal couldn’t have been more gracious.  He made sure I had an English prayer book during the service and sat me next to a fellow American at dinner so I’d have someone with whom to converse.  I emailed him a thank you note a couple of days letter.

His reply summed up Chabad’s overriding mission: “Thank you very much for coming,” he wrote. “It is our pleasure to make another Jew happy.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Boise’s Surprising — and Splendid — Historic Synagogue

By | Idaho, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Idaho’s capital home to the oldest temple west of the Mississippi

Jewish News Service/Jewish Week of New York — December 2017

BOISE, Idaho — Sometimes you’ll find the most splendid synagogues in the places you least expect.

Boise synagogue

Boise’s Ahavath Beth Israel, the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi

Such was the case during my recent three-day trip to Boise, Idaho, a popular gateway for skiing, river rafting and hiking that isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of Jewish life.

Yet, there at 11 N. Latah St., just a five-minute drive from downtown, sits the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

And it’s far more than just a beautiful wood building.  As I learned, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is the centerpiece of a surprisingly robust Jewish community with a fascinating history.

I was able to meet Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director, who was kind enough to show me around the building on the busy day before Yom Kippur eve.

“People love this building,” she said.  “We can’t believe how blessed we are.  It’s cozy, it’s homey and the acoustics are great.”

Boise, a city of about 200,000 residents at the base of the Rocky-Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is the state’s capital and largest city.  Rooted in the potato industry, the area has recently emerged as a budding high-tech center and growing destination for tourists.  The locals pronounce it Boy-see, not Boy-zee.

Nina Spiro

Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director

Before my visit, I had read about Ahavath Beth Israel and knew a little about its history.  It was built in 1895, when there were only about 25 Jewish families in Boise.  Many had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and worked as merchants, farmers and ranchers.

One of the original members of Beth Israel – as it was known at the time — was Moses Alexander, who became the mayor of Boise and later was the first elected practicing Jewish governor in the entire country.  He served two terms, from 1915-1919.  There is a display at a museum inside the Idaho State Capitol in downtown Boise trumpeting that historical distinction.  To this day, Alexander remains the only Jewish governor in Idaho history.

Today, more than 120 years later, Moses’ grandson, Nathan Alexander, is still a member of the congregation.

For several decades, Boise actually had two synagogues.  After World War II, with the arrival of more Jewish families in the area, Congregation Ahavath Israel was built.  The two congregations merged in 1987 to become the present-day Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.  Both buildings continued to be used; one as an education center, the other for religious services.

Ahavath Beth Israel stained-glass windows

An original stained-glass window inside Ahavath Beth Israel

But by the end of the 20th century, the congregation had grown to more than 200 families and needed to expand.  Because of the lack of land available where the existing buildings were located, the congregation decided that the original synagogue would need to be moved to a different site.

So, in the middle of a cold October night in 2003, members of the congregation were joined by some 500 people from the Boise community to walk alongside the synagogue while it was slowly moved by truck about three miles to its new location on Latah Street.

Today, the synagogue sits on a beautifully landscaped campus that also includes a 100-student religious school that meets weekly, a social hall, library and administrative offices for the synagogue’s full-time rabbi and other staff.

The interior of the synagogue still features the original wood columns and stained-glass windows.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the community is so diverse in its religious orientation and the ages of its members – from retirees to young families — Spiro describes Ahavath Beth Israel as “reconservadox.”  While it tries to meet the needs of both religious and not-so-religious members, the congregation is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and emphasizes music in its services and events.

In fact, the synagogue has its own klezmer band called “The Moody Jews,” a popular group that performs monthly at a temple event called “Shabbat Unplugged” and at community interfaith events.

Unfortunately, Idaho has a reputation for being a haven of extremist hate groups.  Indeed, about 10 years ago, the Aryan Nation leafletted some Boise neighborhoods with anti-Semitic and racist literature.  Spiro’s home was among those that received the offensive literature.

Anne Frank Memorial

The Anne Frank Memorial near downtown Boise

“It was pretty shocking,” she recalls.  “Since then, a lot of work has been done.”

To demonstrate its tolerance, Boiseans have erected the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, which occupies a prominent place adjacent to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, a tree-lined paved pathway that follows the Boise River through the heart of the city.

The memorial first came to Boise in 1995 as a traveling exhibit but the response was so overwhelming by Idahoans, community leaders decided to build a more permanent tribute.  In 2002, the Anne Frank Memorial opened to the public.  Featuring a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank, it’s an inspirational and contemplative site in a beautiful setting.

Despite the small pockets of anti-Semitism in Idaho, Spiro describes Boiseans as “welcoming” and interested in learning more about their Jewish neighbors.

“We’re constantly hosting tour groups and church groups,” she said.  “They want to visit the synagogue.  They want to know about Jewish history.  They want to learn about Judaism.”

Spiro says visitors to Boise are welcome to attend Shabbat services, which are held Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and other temple events as well.  For information, visit the congregation’s website:  cabi-boise.org.

Even if you’re not able to attend services, just driving by and marveling at this magnificent, historic structure would undoubtedly mark a highlight of any Jewish traveler’s visit to Boise.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Moscow’s preeminant Jewish cultural site

By | Jewish Travel, Russia | No Comments

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center chronicles Jews’ up-and-down Russian history

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — July 28, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia — It’s been open less than five years but the venue already has been labeled by some as the most important Jewish cultural site in all of Europe.

Moscow Jewish Museum

Entrance to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is housed in a former bus garage

After spending a July afternoon inside Moscow’s tastefully designed, informative and high-tech Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the moniker seems well-deserved.

The museum, housed inside a former bus garage built in the 1920s in a northwest Moscow neighborhood, opened in 2012 at an estimated cost of $50 million.  It’s a must-see for Jewish visitors to Russia’s capital city who want to learn about their ancestors’ complex, up-and-down history in a part of the diaspora that once was home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

My visit to the museum was a highlight of a two-week Volga river cruise on the Scenic Tsar that began in Moscow and ended in St. Petersburg.  On my first free afternoon in Moscow, I toured the facility and met with Anna Sokolova, the head of the museum’s research center.

She told me that the museum was built with the strong support of the Russian government.  Even President Vladimir Putin personally donated one month of his salary – about $10,000 – for construction.  Since the opening, Putin has visited the museum several times.

“It showed that it’s really important to the Russian government to fight anti-Semitism and that the Jewish community is a very important part of the country,” says Sokolova, who speaks five languages, including Hebrew.

Jewish Museum in Moscow

The museum attracts about 300,000 visitors a year

Last year, the museum attracted 300,000 visitors, up a whopping 50 percent from the prior year.  Even more growth is anticipated in the coming year.  With the approval of Russia’s Ministry of Education, the museum is launching a program in September in which all middle-school children in Moscow will be required to visit the venue as part of a school fieldtrip.  It’s a huge leap from an era in which Jewish history and culture was rarely discussed in public schools.

“It was mainly forbidden during Soviet times, so it’s really important to speak about it now,” says Sokolova.

Using panoramic films, interactive screens and numerous artifacts, the museum chronicles Jewish history dating back to the rule of Catherine the Great in the 18th century.  There are exhibitions devoted to the origins of Russian Jewry, the role Jews played in the 1917 revolution, the Holocaust, and a section called “Perestroika to the Present.”

I especially enjoyed strolling through a recreated shtetl from the 19th century, which included a small synagogue, Shabbat table, Jewish school and marketplace. It’s one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Jewish Museum exhibit

Exhibits are high-tech and interactive

“The shtetl became the heart of Judaism and it helped people to keep their traditions alive,” says Sokolova.

The shtetl even included an exhibit in which visitors could have their photos taken and then digitally integrated with the costume of a profession of their choice, such as a tailor, matchmaker, musician, teacher or blacksmith.  I chose to digitally don the garb of a 19th century rabbi.

Indeed, the museum was designed to keep visitors as engaged as possible with most exhibits featuring some type of interactivity.

“The idea was to create something in the form of ‘edutainment’ – education and entertainment together,” says Sokolova.  “The format is designed to be very interesting for every age.”

In a partnership with the Russian State Library, the museum also houses the “Schneerson Collection,” which includes significant and once inaccessible works of the Lubavitcher rebbes dating back to the late 18th century.  The collection was nationalized by the Russian government during the Communist period; it was moved to the Jewish Museum in 2013.

In addition to its permanent collection, the museum houses about a half-dozen temporary exhibits a year, some of which are on non-Jewish topics.  Exhibits are mostly in Russian, although some also contain English descriptions.  The venue is open every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.  For more information, visit the museum’s website: www.jewish-museum.ru/en.

Accounts vary about the current size of Russia’s Jewish population as many people with Jewish roots don’t practice their faith and have intermarried.  But it’s estimated that about 200,000 Jews remain in the country, making it the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.  Most Jews live in Moscow and its surrounding communities, where there are about 20 working synagogues.

St. Petersburg synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, the second-largest synagogue in Europe

“We are seeing since the 1990s many people are coming back to Jewish traditions and to their roots, which were almost killed in the Soviet Union,” says Sokolova.

Two weeks later, at the end of the Volga River cruise on the Scenic Tsar, I had the chance to visit St. Petersburg’s stunning Grand Choral Synagogue. It’s the second-largest synagogue in Europe (Budapest is home to the largest).

Consecrated in 1893, the Moorish-styled building is a registered national landmark.  It can accommodate up to 1,200 worshippers at one time; the complex also houses a kosher restaurant and supermarket.

My grandparents immigrated from Russia, so the Jewish sights in Moscow and St. Petersburg held special meaning.  Despite the challenges my ancestors and other Jews faced in Russia, it was especially heartwarming to learn that Jewish life in the country has not only endured over the centuries, but now even seems to be enjoying a modest revival.

“We can see that the Jews managed to keep their traditions despite all the pogroms and despite state politics, which was quite often pretty anti-Semitic,” says Sokolova.  “The situation in Russia has changed drastically.  The Jewish community feels free now.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Preserving Jewish Life in Taiwan

By | Jewish Travel, Taiwan | No Comments

Taipei’s Jewish Center meets the needs of locals and foreigners alike

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 5, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When you’re the only full-time rabbi in a relatively small and isolated Jewish community – like that found on the Asian island of Taiwan — you’re expected to do much more than lead religious services.

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib in the sanctuary of the Taipei Jewish Center

Among the many duties performed by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, director of the Taipei Jewish Center, are hand-delivering Kosher food to visiting Israeli Knesset members, leading a weekly discussion group on Jewish-related topics, and working with the Taiwan Minister of Education to develop Holocaust education in the local schools.

And, while it’s not his favorite part of the job, the rabbi will occasionally even slaughter a chicken in accordance with strict kashrut law.

Such is the busy life of the Chabad rabbi, who moved to Taiwan in 2011 from Israel with his wife Racheli to open the Taipei Jewish Center, the only synagogue on this island of about 24 million people that is just over 100 miles east of mainland China.  At 13,855 square miles, Taiwan is slightly bigger than the state of Maryland.

Tabib estimates the Jewish population in Taiwan to be about 1,000, 85 percent of whom live in Taipei, the capital and largest city. Taipei, which features the eighth-tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (so-named because it has 101 stories), is a densely populated metropolitan area with about 7 million residents.

Unlike China, where the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 10th century, significant numbers of Jews didn’t arrive in Taiwan until the 1950s.  Many of the first wave of newcomers were American soldiers.

Taipei Jewish Center

The Taipei Jewish Center is located in the Daan District in downtown Taipei

In subsequent decades, American troops left Taiwan but Jews in other fields arrived.  Some work in the country’s thriving high-tech industry, while others are employed as diplomats, in the diamond business, banking and education.  Additionally, there are numerous Jewish tourists who visit the island.

Regardless of their age, occupation or level of religious observance, Jews wanting a chance to connect with other Jews and celebrate Shabbat and other holidays are always welcome to visit the Taipei Jewish Center.  Tabib says Friday night services and dinner typically attract 30-40 people, most of them visiting tourists and business people.  However, getting a minyan for Saturday services can often be a challenge.

“There are not many observant people residing here,” lamented the rabbi, who added that “a large percentage” of Jews living in Taiwan have intermarried.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Center is busy catering to the needs of both locals and visitors alike.  It houses the sole Kosher kitchen on the island, importing most of its food from Israel and the United States.  Aside from serving food at the facility, an average of 10-15 meals per week are delivered to hotels, businesses and convention centers.

View of Taipei

View of Taiwan’s capital city from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

The Jewish Center also offers a Sunday Hebrew school, coordinated by Racheli, with assistance from two volunteers from Israel.  About 25 children are currently enrolled, aged 3-10.

Tabib said being an isolated community with a small staff has both its pros and cons.

“It’s kind of challenging being far away from everything — any other synagogue or any other rabbi,” he said.  “It gives a lot of responsibility on our shoulders being here, and with that, we also have a lot of satisfaction when things go well.”

The 33-year-old Tabib, who spent three years in Hong Kong as a rabbi, said the Taiwanese people have – for the most part – been quite welcoming.

“Overall, their approach is very positive,” he said.  “The Taiwanese people are known to be very generous to foreigners.  It is embedded in their culture that the Jewish people are smart and successful and I think most of them look to us in a positive way.  That said, many people here don’t know much about Judaism.”

Unfortunately, there was an incident in December involving a high school parade in which students dressed as Nazi soldiers and carried swastika banners.  As a result, the principal of the school resigned.  A few years earlier, a restaurant with a concentration camp theme opened but soon closed due to controversy.

The rabbi attributed the incidents more to ignorance than blatant anti-Semitism.

“People don’t really know about the Nazis,” he said.  “I’m not saying this is an excuse, but these people have no intention to go against the Jewish people or the state of Israel.”

Still, the rabbi is working with the Taiwanese government to enhance Holocaust education in the schools.

“We are working on a plan where people will have more education to learn what happened during World War II,” he said.  “Once they are given the facts, they will back off and say ‘this isn’t something we stand for.  This isn’t something we want to endorse.’”

The Jewish Center is located in a building on a side street in a commercial district of Taipei called Daan, not far from the city center.  Tabib said visitors are welcome to contact him for information about services, other events and obtaining Kosher food: rabbi@jewish.tw.

Ultimately, he would like to see a permanent synagogue erected, the first in Taiwanese history.

“The problem is we want to buy land, but land here is really expensive,” he said.  “You wait for a big donor.  You wait for a lot of things for something like this to be possible.”

In the meantime, Rabbi Tabib goes about his daily business – doing whatever needs to be done to preserve Jewish life in Taiwan – even if that means slaughtering a chicken every now and then.

“There are many challenges for us, so we need to do a lot of things on our own,” he said.  “I think telling our story and showing that we have a thriving community here demonstrates that there is a future for the Jews in Taiwan.  If there is anybody who is thinking of moving here because of business reasons, they should know that they will be in safe hands.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

India’s Jews: Curry and Kreplach

By | India, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Contributions of country’s Jewish community far outweigh its size

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — September, 2016

MUMBAI, India — Numbering only about 5,000 in a country of more than 1.2 billion people, Jews constitute a minuscule fraction – 0.0004 percent — of the inhabitants in the world’s second-most populous country known far more for curry and cricket than kreplach and kippot.

Gateway of India

The Gateway of India greets visitors to Mumbai

Yet the unique historical legacy and important contributions of India’s Jews have far surpassed their size ever since they first began arriving in this south Asian country more than 2,000 years ago.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit five functioning synagogues in India and learn more about the Jewish presence in a country that historically has experienced little anti-Semitism and in which Jews continue to practice their faith; where raditional Judaic roots are entwined with colorful facets of Indian culture.

My trip to India was part of an 18-day Asian cruise on the 650-passenger Oceania Nautica that began in Hong Kong and included stops in Cochin and Mumbai, where the cruise concluded.  In both Cochin and Mumbai, I took tours arranged through the ship that included visits to Jewish-related sites.

Perhaps the country’s most famous Jewish attraction is found in Cochin, a port city on the Arabian Sea located on India’s southwestern coast. Jewish traders from Judea first arrived in Cochin in 562 BCE, making it India’s oldest Jewish community.

Even though only a handful of Jews now live there, an older section of Cochin is still commonly referred to as “Jew Town.”  Its centerpiece is the oldest functioning Jewish house of worship in the former British Commonwealth – the Paradesi Synagogue.

Cochin Synagogue

The historic Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin

Built in 1568 by Spanish and Dutch Sephardic Jews, Paradesi (which translates to “foreigners” in several Indian languages) remains an enduring symbol of what was once a thriving Jewish community that had seven working synagogues.  For much of its early history, the synagogue served a community of foreign-born Jewish spice dealers.  In 1968, the 400th anniversary of the synagogue was celebrated in a ceremony attended by Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister.

Since there aren’t enough male Jews living in Cochin to form a minyan, Paradesi only has services when enough foreigners join with locals to celebrate a Jewish holiday.  In accordance with Hindu tradition, visitors are required to enter the synagogue barefoot.  Other facets of Paradesi that are the result of Hindu influence include the wearing of brightly colored clothing and the distribution of grape-soaked myrtle leaves during various festivals.  Unfortunately, our ship was in Cochin on a Saturday, when the interior of the synagogue was closed.

But we were able to admire the synagogue’s exterior in a courtyard at the end of Jew Street, which includes a 45-foot tall clock tower that was added to the complex in 1761 and was restored a decade ago with funding from the World Monuments Fund.

Cochin Jew Town

Busy street in the “Jew Town” section of Cochin

“Jew Town” remains a popular tourist attraction in Cochin and the busy street on which the synagogue is located is full of shops selling everything from Judaica to t-shirts to Indian spices.

Two days later, the Nautica docked in Mumbai, the 13th largest city in the world with a population of about 18 million.  Known as Bombay until 1995, the city is home to most of the country’s Jews and has eight active synagogues.

I was fascinated to learn about a historic community of Indian Jews called Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”), who arrived in India several hundred years ago and comprise a majority of Mumbai’s Jews to this day.

Some believe that the Bene Israel are one of the disputed lost tribes and migrated to India after centuries of travel through western Asia from Israel.  The 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India; historians think he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.

Shaar Harahamim Synagogue

Mumbai’s oldest synagogue, Shaar Harahamim, built in 1796

Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India.  Later, they became leaders in the country’s new film industry.

At its peak in the late 1940s, the Jewish population of Bombay reached nearly 30,000.  But it has since dwindled to about 4,000, as most Indian Jews have immigrated to Israel.

I was one of 16 passengers on the Nautica who signed up for a half-day tour in Mumbai called “Jewish Chronicles of India.”  The excursion was led by Yael Jhirad, a Bene-Israel who has been conducting tours of Jewish sites in Mumbai for more than 20 years.  Jhirad, whose husband, Ralphy Jhirad, is a prominent leader of the Indian-Jewish community, says Jewish tourists are often surprised to learn about the very existence of Jewish life in the country.

“Jewish visitors are most fascinated by the presence of Jews in India for the past two millennia,” she says, adding that what makes the community especially unique is “its survival in spite of being disconnected with the rest of the Jewish world for centuries.”

Jhirad took us to four synagogues in Mumbai, including the oldest – Shaar Harahamim (“The Gate of Mercy”), built in 1796 by a Bene Israel, Samuel Ezekiel Divekar.  The street on which it is located is named Samuel Street in his honor.  We later visited Magen David, a tall blue Orthodox synagogue that was built in 1864 by David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew who became the leader of the Mumbai Jewish community.

Inside Shaar Harahamim

Tour guide Yael Jhirad shows visitors the interior of Shaar Harahamim

Jhirad says Jews have encountered little anti-Semitism in India and get along well with the majority Hindu population as well as Mumbai’s large Moslem community.  However, there was a terrorist attack in 2008 by a militant Islamic Pakistani group in which several Mumbai sites were targeted, including the Chabad House.  The rabbi and his wife were among the more than 160 people killed in the attacks.  Chabad reopened the facility in 2014.  Despite the attacks, Jhirad says relations between Jews and Moslems in Mumbai remain on solid footing.

To arrange a tour with Jhirad of the Jewish-related sites in Mumbai and other attractions in the area, including the famous Gateway to India that was built to welcome King George and Queen Mary during their visit in 1911, send her an email at: yaeljhirad@hotmail.com.

India is not an easy place to visit, especially for inexperienced travelers.  Mumbai is congested, loud and just crossing the street can be a dangerous challenge as cars and motorbikes rarely stop for pedestrians.  What you’ve likely heard about the country’s wretched poverty is not an exaggeration and difficult to witness firsthand.  The food, while tasty, is often substandard in terms of sanitary conditions.  In short, for many Western visitors, the place epitomizes the term “culture shock.”

Perhaps that’s why seeing the Jewish sites in India was so comforting and enriching.  In a sea of crowded chaos and confusion, walking through Cochin’s “Jew Town” and visiting Mumbai’s splendid surviving synagogues brought much-needed solace and a meaningful connection with a little-known, resilient and historically remarkable Jewish community on the other side of the world.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Myanmar’s Miraculous Musmeah Yeshua

By | Jewish Travel, Myanmar | No Comments

The historic and beautifully maintained synagogue in Yangon survives thanks to one family

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 13, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar — At first glance, there is nothing extraordinary about the two-story synagogue nestled between paint and fabric shops on 26th Street in bustling downtown Yangon.  It’s certainly not the oldest, largest or most architecturally ornate synagogue you’ll see overseas.

Yangon synagogue

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Myanmar’s only Jewish house of worship

Yet in its own way, Musmeah Yeshua is one of the most remarkable Jewish houses of worship in the world.  The fact that is still survives – and functions – is a testament to a determined Jewish-Burmese family that has almost single-handedly sustained Judaism in a country in which a once-thriving Jewish population has dwindled to only about 20 people.

During a recent trip to Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia formerly known as Burma, I visited Musmeah Yeshua and met with Sammy Samuels, the leader and voice of the country’s tiny Jewish community.  My three-day trip to Yangon was the highlight of an 18-day Asian cruise on the luxurious Oceania Nautica that began in Hong Kong, with stops in Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, before ending in Mumbai, India.

The Samuels family has been the caretakers of the synagogue for generations.  Even though there aren’t enough Jews living in the country to sustain a synagogue, the family felt it was important to preserve the spirit of the Jewish community and give foreigners a place to pray.

“It started with my great-grandfather,” says Samuels.  “He had a strong attachment to the synagogue.  He also was the head of the community at that time, so if he had left, the synagogue would have been closed.  Before he passed away, he made my father promise to keep the synagogue alive.  I made a similar promise to my father as well.”

It was a promise Sammy willingly kept when his father, Moses, died last year.  Sammy, 35, was honored to continue his father’s duties as overseer of the synagogue, which was built in 1896 for the increasing population of Iraqi and Indian Jews who immigrated to Yangon (then known as Rangoon) when it was a British colony.

Built in the Sephardic tradition with the bimah located in the center of the sanctuary and a women’s balcony upstairs, the interior has been beautifully maintained.

Myanmar's Sammy Samuels

Sammy Samuels, the leader of Myanmar’s tiny Jewish community

In the early 20th century, the Jewish community peaked at about 2,500 people.  Many Jews left the country during the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II, and more followed after the Burmese army assumed power in 1962.  But the military government is now loosening its grip on power and democracy is coming to Myanmar.

“Last November, I voted for the very first time in my life,” says Samuels.  “It was very emotional.”

But Samuels warns that change will come slowly in a country in which the military has controlled virtually all walks of life for more than a half-century.

“A lot of people have high hopes,” he says.  “They hope the country will change tomorrow.  And I’ve been telling them it will take time.”

Samuels, who has a degree in international business from Yeshiva University in New York, owns a travel agency called Myanmar Shalom Travels that has 32 employees, with offices in New York and Yangon.  His company offers tours to Myanmar for both Jewish and non-Jewish tourists.

Musmeah Yeshua interior

The beautifully maintained interior of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

The synagogue is financially sustained from proceeds generated by the travel agency as well as donations from visitors.  Samuels says 40-50 tourists visit the synagogue each day, which is open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily except Sundays.  Most of the visitors are non-Jewish.

“My father believed that if anyone was interested, they could come,” he says.  “We don’t ask whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian.  He welcomed everyone and treated them the same way.”

The synagogue doesn’t have a rabbi and it’s been more than 50 years since regular services were held.  Lay-led Shabbat services take place a couple of times a month during December and January, the high season for tourism in Myanmar.  A rabbi – usually from the United States — is brought in to conduct services during the High Holidays.  But if Samuels knows a group of Jewish visitors will be in town during the Sabbath, he makes sure they are aware they have a place to pray and enjoy the fellowship of other Jews.

“I see so many American visitors who come here to Yangon, and the highlight for them is lighting the Shabbat candles and drinking the Kiddush wine together with the community,” he says.  “They never thought they would do something like that in a country like Burma.”

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Musmeah Yeshua is located just down the street from a mosque and many of the businesses on the block are owned by Moslems.  Samuels says the two groups have peacefully coexisted for decades.

“They are very nice people,” he says of his Moslem neighbors.  “The relationship has been wonderful.  We respect them and they respect us and we hope to continue that way.”

Yangon, a city of more than five-million people, is full of wondrous Buddhist temples – including the famed 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda — and stately British colonial buildings.

During my cruise on the Nautica, I also visited synagogues in Singapore and India.  But the one in Yangon made the most lasting impression.  Other tourists apparently agree that Musmeah Yeshua is worth visiting.  In 2013, the synagogue was voted the third-highest ranking attraction out of 41 sites in Yangon, according to TripAdvisor.

Samuels summed up Musmeah Yeshua’s importance to both foreigners as well as the local Jewish community:  “Who would think that in a country like Myanmar where there are so many Buddhist temples that a synagogue would exist?  So it’s a very unique place.

“We have all these visitors coming in and we have a connection.  Because of this, we have never felt alone.  It’s a feeling that we love.”

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki’s Rich Jewish History

By | Greece, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Greek museum showcases Jewish heritage in city formerly known as the “Madre de Israel”

Oregon Jewish Life Magazine — September, 2015

THESSALONIKI, Greece — When thinking of the historical hubs of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe, most Jews evoke stories of their ancestors’ “old country” — places like Poland, Germany, Hungary and Russia.

But Greece?

Erika Perahia Zemour

Erika Perahia Zemour discusses an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki

Surprisingly, as I learned during a recent visit, Thessaloniki, Greece, the country’s second-largest city, has one of the richest and most vibrant Jewish histories in the diaspora.  In fact, Jews were such an integral part of the city’s heritage, Thessaloniki once had 32 working synagogues and was known by the moniker, “Madre de Israel” (Mother of Israel).

The highlight of my spring trip to this northeastern Greek port city of about a million residents was a visit to the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum.  There, I met with Erika Perahia Zemour, a Greek Jew who has managed the museum since it first opened in 2001.

“Everybody is surprised to learn that,” she says of the significant role Jews played in the city’s history.  “If they don’t have a grandfather or a neighbor who came from Thessaloniki, they don’t know about this part of the world.”

Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki

The museum has 3,000 objects on display

If there is anyone qualified to talk about the history of Jewish life in Thessaloniki, it’s Zemour.  In addition to managing the museum, she has traced her family back 16 generations in Thessaloniki to 1504.  Both of her parents were Holocaust survivors.

Located in downtown Thessaloniki in a building that once housed a leading Jewish newspaper, the two-story museum displays some 3,000 objects honoring the countless contributions of the city’s Sephardic community and painting a vivid picture of everyday life.  All exhibits are in Greek, English and Hebrew.

There is an exhibit devoted to Jewish history – including an easy-to-digest timeline showing the evolution of the Jewish community through the centuries — and a separate room about the Holocaust.  The ground floor features a number of historic gravestones originally from the massive Jewish cemetery, which was later destroyed by the Nazis.  There also is a library with some texts dating back to the 16th century.  Visitors interested in researching the Holocaust can access a computer database containing the names of 37,000 victims.

It is believed that Jews were among Thessaloniki’s first inhabitants, arriving more than 2,000 years ago.  But they didn’t develop a huge presence here until after the Spanish Inquisition forced them to flee Spain in 1492.

Ancient headstones

Ancient Jewish gravestones are displayed on the museum’s ground floor

Jews found Thessaloniki – then part of the Ottoman Empire — to be a safe-haven from the anti-Semitism spreading across other parts of Europe.  For the most part, they lived peacefully alongside Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians, and prospered in such fields as medicine, printing and education.

The Jewish population in Thessaloniki reached a peak of 80,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when they comprised half of the city’s population.  So strong was Jewish influence in the city, the bustling port of Thessaloniki was actually closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.  At one point, the Jewish cemetery housed more than a half-million tombs.

Thessaloniki was incorporated into the Greek state in 1912; five years later, a fire destroyed most of the city’s Jewish Quarter, leaving 50,000 Jews homeless.  It crippled the Jewish community and many Jews immigrated between the two world wars.

In 1941, Greece was invaded by the Nazis, who forced the city’s Jews into a ghetto, then deported about 50,000 of them to concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  Less than 4 percent of Thessaloniki’s Jews survived the Holocaust.

After a slow start when the museum first opened 14 years ago, word got out and its popularity has been steadily growing.

View of Thessaloniki

        View of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city

“I remember our first year; if we saw two visitors per week, that would be great,” Zemour recalls.

A half-dozen years ago, Israeli guidebooks began mentioning the museum and traffic soon soared.  Last year, the museum attracted nearly 14,000 visitors.  Zemour says that 70 percent of them are from outside of Greece, with Israelis constituting the largest group of foreign visitors, followed by Americans.

About 3,000 Greek students toured the facility in 2014 on class fieldtrips, a segment of museum visitors that has jumped dramatically in the last two years.  Zemour was told that an official in the Greek Ministry of Education recently recommended that more classes visit the museum to raise awareness of the Holocaust, a subject that is not typically taught in Greek schools.

“This year, it’s been really incredible,” she says of the class fieldtrips, noting that in March there were two or three class visits every day.  “It’s important that they (Greek schoolchildren) learn what a Jew is, and that Jews are Greeks.  And last, it’s important that they learn what happened to the Jews during the War.”

In addition to the museum, there are other Jewish-related sites in Thessaloniki, all within walking distance of each other.  Across the street from the waterfront – a gulf that opens into the Aegean Sea — is a haunting Holocaust memorial. Designed by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid, it depicts tortured victims melded together in a burning menorah.

Synagogue of the Monasteriotes

   The Synagogue of the Monasteriotes

The oldest surviving house of worship, the Synagogue of the Monasteriotes, is also worth seeing.  It opened in 1927 and became the center of the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation.  The building survived the War and later, a 1978 earthquake.  It is now used only for high holidays and special events.

I also visited Thessaloniki’s most iconic site, the White Tower, the sole survivor of the 24 towers overlooking the sea that were once part of the city’s fortifications.  The tower now houses a fascinating museum of the city’s history, including a number of exhibits referencing Jewish life.  The top floor of the tower offers beautiful views of the Thessaloniki waterfront.

Today, only about 1,200 Jews live in Thessaloniki, a tiny fraction of the number of Jews who thrived here more than a century ago.  The city has one full-time rabbi, who presides over a synagogue called Yad Lezicaron.  It opened in 1984 and is located in the city center a few blocks from the Jewish Museum.

“We are not observant here in Greece, at least not after the war,” says Zemour of the local Jewish community.

Regardless of one’s faith or heritage, Zemour says no visit to Thessaloniki is complete without a visit to the Jewish Museum, where the vitality of Jews’ contributions to the city’s past – and the ultimate tragedy of the Holocaust — is tastefully chronicled.

“If people want to learn the history of Thessaloniki, they have to come here,” she says.

© 2015 Dan Fellner

Fairbanks synagogue Or HaTzafon

Fairbanks: Alaska’s Frozen Chosen

By | Alaska, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Fairbanks’ Jewish community welcomes visitors to the northernmost synagogue in the world

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — December, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — They proudly call themselves “the frozen chosen.”

It’s a clever moniker, and one that fits.  Located less than 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the small and tight-knit Jewish community of Fairbanks, Alaska, must endure long, dark and brutally cold winters in a remote place where being an observant Jew can be as taxing as the Iditarod dog race.

Malta Chabad

Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world

Yet Congregation Or HaTzafon (Light of the North) has remained intact for more than 30 years.  And despite a membership of only about 50 families, it has even managed to acquire and maintain its own house of worship.

At a latitude of 65 degrees north, this gives it the distinction of being the northernmost synagogue in the entire world. (Trondheim, Norway, is a close second.  There is a Jewish congregation in Murmansk, Russia, that is farther north than Fairbanks, but it does not have a permanent synagogue).

I recently had the opportunity to visit Or HaTzafon and meet with four of the congregation’s leaders during a visit to Alaska’s interior on a Holland America land tour following a cruise on the 1,450-passenger Volendam from Vancouver, Canada, to Skagway, Alaska.  When I found out I would have a free afternoon in Fairbanks, I sent an email to the temple.  Within minutes, I received a response inviting me for a visit.

Before my arrival in Alaska, I wanted to learn more about the Jewish presence in the country’s 49th state.  I discovered that Jews have played a surprisingly prominent role in Alaska’s history ever since it was purchased from Russia in 1867.  Initially, Jews were heavily involved in the fur trade.  At the end of the 19th century, Lewis Gerstle, a Jewish steamboat operator, provided transportation to the Yukon during the famous Klondike Gold Rush.  An Alaskan river now bears Gerstle’s name.

Ernest Gruening

Bust of Ernest Gruening on display at the Alaska Capitol Building in Juneau

In 1920, a Jew named David Leopold was elected mayor of Anchorage.  Ernest Gruening, a doctor and journalist originally from New York, served as governor of the Alaska Territory from 1939-1953 and was elected one of Alaska’s first two U.S. senators when it achieved statehood in 1959.  During the cruise, I visited the state capitol building in Juneau and found a bust of Gruening on the second floor.  An inscription beneath the statue calls Gruening “the father of Alaskan statehood.”

Fairbanks was established in 1902 and just two years later, its Jewish community was founded with the arrival of Robert Bloom.  Originally from Lithuania, Bloom ran a general store in Fairbanks until 1941.  He was one of the founders of the University of Alaska and led the city’s Jewish community for nearly a half-century.  In the Clay Street Cemetery, just a block from my downtown hotel, I was able to see the Hebrew headstones of some of Fairbanks’ first Jewish residents.

Today, there are an estimated 6,000 Jews living in Alaska.  Of those, some 40 percent belong to the state’s three synagogues – two in Anchorage (a Reform temple and a Chabad congregation) and Or HaTzafon in Fairbanks.  Only about 6 percent of Alaskan Jews were actually born in the state.

Interestingly, a study in the 1990s by a professor at Brandeis University found that Alaskan Jews are actually more observant than those in the lower 48 states.  “Rather than this move to Alaska being an expression of assimilation, the first things that they do is try to connect up with other Jews,” wrote Professor Bernard Reisman, who added that contrary to public opinion, Alaska “is not a Jewish wasteland.”

Fairbanks has a large U.S. military presence and Jewish chaplains brought in by the military to meet the needs of GIs sustained the city’s Jewish community from the early 1940s until the 1980s.  But by then, military numbers dwindled and the Jewish chaplaincy ended, leaving the civilian community on its own.

In 1980, the Jewish Congregation of Fairbanks was incorporated.  During its early years, the congregation used facilities at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright to hold religious services and Sunday school classes.

I walked three miles from my hotel to Or HaTzafon, which is located in a quiet residential area near the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  On the way, I passed several nondescript strip malls, a migratory waterfowl refuge and a store selling gear to gold prospectors.

Or HaTzafon, a Reform congregation, may not be a visually aesthetic temple, but its mere presence is – in some ways — as inspiring as some of the most architecturally splendid synagogues I’ve visited in Europe.  Built in the 1970s as a residential duplex, the building was later converted into a day-care center.  It was purchased in 1992 by the congregation for $80,000, with another $50,000 needed for renovations.

Cantor Kenneth Feibush

Cantorial student Kenneth Feibush in the sanctuary of Or HaTzafon

“We had two or three sugar daddies,” recalls Brenda Baxter, a member of the congregation since 1986 who now winters in Tucson.  “Within a year, we paid off the mortgage.”

The temple can’t afford a full-time rabbi, but each summer brings in a student chaplain to conduct services.  For the past two summers, Kenneth Feibush, a 26-year-old cantorial student at the Hebrew-Union College in New York, has completed internships at the temple.  He likes the informality of the congregation, which allows him to try some things that might not fly in a more traditional East Coast synagogue.

“Everyone here is open to new ideas,” says Feibush, who lives at the synagogue when in Fairbanks.  “I’m glad to be a part of that and to help shape the community.”

For the High Holy Days, the congregation brings in a retired rabbi from Juneau.  For the rest of the year, services are led by members of the temple.  Thad Keener, a fifth-grade teacher in Fairbanks and past president of the congregation, says not having a full-time rabbinical presence suits the personality of the congregation just fine.

“We’re a diverse community and we come from so many different parts of the country with our own different upbringings,” he says.  “So we come here with an Alaskan, individualistic kind of thinking.  We don’t want just one show in town.  So the lay leadership allows for this kind of variety.”

Frozen Chosen shirts

        A “Frozen Chosen” shirt for sale in the synagogue’s gift shop

The congregation enjoys solid relationships with other churches in Fairbanks, and for the past 17 years has even staged an annual Jewish film festival during the winter.  Last year, about 300 people – most of them non-Jews — attended six different movies related to Jewish topics.

Feibush says that during his two summers here, he has been impressed by the closeness of the Jewish community, noting an extremely high turnout for bar mitzvahs and other family events.

“Here, we are each other’s family,” he says.  “There’s a mutual love for each other that’s really something special.”

Like many small congregations, Or HaTzafon has financial challenges.  Heating costs alone are about $7,000 a year.  The congregation has come up with a creative way to raise money – selling “Frozen Chosen” tee-shirts in its gift shop.  The shirts, which cost $22, feature icicles hanging from the upper bar of a Star of David.

To inquire about purchasing a shirt, visiting the temple or making a donation, contact the temple at orhatzafon@mosquitonet.com.

Some other northerly synagogues have filched Or HaTzafon’s “frozen chosen” slogan.  But the congregation’s leaders say that no other temple can use the phrase with as much conviction.

“As the farthest north, we’re a little more frozen,” says Feibush with a smile.

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Bangkok's Grand Palace

The Jewish Traveler: Bangkok

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

In this city of nine million, the contributions of the relatively small Jewish community far outweigh its size.

Hadassah Magazine – February/March, 2014

There are few cities in the world that are as exhilarating and exhausting as Bangkok.  Asia’s most popular tourist destination, with more than 12 million international visitors in 2012, can be daunting at first with its stifling year-round heat and humidity, incessant street noise, wild and rowdy nightlife, and traffic jams that stretch for miles.
Bangkok's Grand Palace

Bangkok’s dazzling Grand Palace

But these become simply minor annoyances when put into the greater context of all the wonders offered by this chaotic city on the Chao Phraya River.

Bangkok’s splendor and history are most apparent in the central Grand Palace, a dazzling monument to the country’s royal family and Buddhist traditions.  There are resplendent temples and stunning, gold-plated statues visible with every turn of the head.

In this city of around nine million residents, the contributions of Bangkok’s relatively small permanent Jewish community far outweigh its size.  And the community has become more than adept at meeting the spiritual needs of Bangkok’s huge influx of Jewish visitors.  A few blocks from the Grand Palace, in a section of town popular with backpackers, there are so many Israeli tourists that it is not uncommon to see shop signs in Hebrew.

History

From the early 1600s, when they first settled in the Siamese kingdom of Ayuthaya, Jews have found a safe haven in this religiously tolerant country that is 95-percent Buddhist. In 1601, Spanish missionaries reported seeing Jewish merchants in Ayuthaya who maintained a synagogue.

Jews didn’t settle in Bangkok until the late 19th century, when a few Eastern European families immigrated to the city. One of those families – the Rosenbergs – established some of the first modern hotels in Bangkok.

Following World War I, the community grew with an influx of Russian Jews fleeing discrimination from the Soviets.

Downtown Bangkok

View of downtown Bangkok

In the 1930s, about 120 Jewish refugees arrived from Germany. With the help of local Jewish residents, they were admitted to Siam in spite of protests by the German government.

The country, which changed its name to Thailand in 1939, was invaded by the Japanese in 1941 and quickly surrendered. During World War II, some Jews in Bangkok were interned by the Japanese as enemy aliens.

About 150 Jewish Allied soldiers were imprisoned in the notorious Japanese POW camp in Kanchanaburi, about 80 miles northwest of Bangkok. The camp supplied the labor to build a railway line to Burma and the bridge on the River Kwai, later immortalized in the iconic movie. A rabbi was among the POWs at Kanchanaburi and conducted makeshift services at the camp.

The decades following the war brought slow but steady growth to Bangkok’s Jewish population, with Jews arriving from the United States, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries. The Vietnam War brought hundreds of American Jewish servicemen to the city, and the first resident rabbis – American military chaplains – were brought in to meet their needs. In the 1970s, Bangkok began attracting significant numbers of vacationing Israeli backpackers. Several Israelis relocated to the city, a number of them working in the jewelry and gemstone business.

Bangkok's Temple Beth Elisheva

   Thailand’s only free-standing synagogue, Beth Elisheva

 

In 1993 Rabbi Yosef Kantor from New York took up residence as the first permanent rabbi in Bangkok. Twenty years later, as the chief rabbi, he continues to preside over Temple Beth Elisheva, which is Thailand’s only free-standing synagogue.

Community

There are three Jewish houses of worship in Bangkok, all under the auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch-affiliated Jewish Association of Thailand (011-66-2-663-0244; www.jewishthailand.com).  The J.A.T., with almost 200 members, is administered by Kantor and a board of directors.

Temple Beth Elisheva (121 Soi Sai Nam Thip 2, Sukhumvit Soi 22; 66-2-663-0244) is named after Elizabeth Rosenberg Zerner, the Thai-born daughter of one of the first Jewish families in the country, who donated land for the building in the mid-1960s.  Portraits of Zerner and her husband, Winhalm Zerner, hang outside the sanctuary.

The three-story synagogue is located on a quiet side street off busy Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s business and commercial hub.  It is enclosed by a courtyard and surrounded by high-rise hotels and apartment buildings.  The second-floor sanctuary features a beautiful wood bima; the rabbi and his family live on the third floor.  A small structure in the courtyard houses Bangkok’s only mikve.

More Sefardic in prayer style, the Even Chen Synagogue (Soi Charoenkrung 42/1 New Road) is located on the fourth floor of an office tower attached to the Shangri-La Hotel.  The complex overlooks the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok’s jewelry district.  Many of Even Chen’s members are Israeli gemstone dealers.

By far, Bangkok’s busiest Jewish house of worship is Ohr Menachem Chabad House (96 Ram Buttri Road, Banglampoo; 66-2- 629-2770; bkk@chabadthailand.com).  The five-story building is located near Khao San Road, the center of Bangkok’s backpacker district.  The area is known for its budget accommodations, low-priced restaurants and tour companies.

Rabbi Nechamya Wilhelm has presided over Bangkok’s Chabad House since 1995.  He says that Friday night Shabbat services and meal typically attract between 200 to 400 visitors, at least 95 percent tourists from Israel.  Rosh Hashana holiday services have drawn as many as 1,500 worshippers.

Bangkok Chabad

  Bangkok’s busy Chabad house

The city’s only kosher restaurant, The Kosher Place (66-2-629-2754-5), is located on the first floor of the building. It serves several hundred meals a day and also offers delivery service.

Wilhelm estimates that close to 150,000 Israelis – many just having completed military duty — visit Thailand each year.  They are drawn to the country by its warm weather, relatively affordable prices, historic sites, jungle trekking, nightlife and beaches.  A lot of them arrive on daily nonstop flights from Tel Aviv and use Bangkok as a starting point from which to explore other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s popularity with Israeli tourists has made Bangkok’s Chabad House one of the most popular Lubavitch centers in the world. “I don’t think there are many Chabad houses anywhere that have 400 to 500 people passing through each day,” Wilhelm says.

Estimates of the number of year-round Jewish residents in Bangkok vary from 700 to 1,000. But Wilhelm thinks it may be even higher. “Every day we meet Jews who live here that we didn’t know about,” he says.

Wilhelm says the Thai people and government have been more than welcoming to Jews, whether visitors or full-time residents.  He cites a recent example in which the Jewish community requested permission from the Bangkok police to build a large sukka on the street.  “Not only did they agree, they even helped us build it,” he says.

In 1997, the Jewish community bought a parcel of land and consecrated a small cemetery adjacent to a Protestant cemetery.  About 20 Jews are now buried there.

Sights

About a 15-minute walk southwest of Chabad House, Bangkok’s must-see attraction is the spectacular Grand Palace.  The complex was established in 1782 and houses the former royal residence and the most revered religious site in Thailand — Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Gold statue at Bangkok's Grand Palace

  Ornate gold statue at the Grand Palace

It is well worth putting up with the thousands of tourists who visit the Grand Palace each day to explore its many monuments and admire its color and intricate statues.

The Emerald Buddha statue is actually made from a block of green jade and was first discovered in 1434. Enshrined on a golden throne, the Buddha is clad in seasonal costumes, which are changed three times a year in a ceremony presided over by the king of Thailand.

There are strict dress codes at the Grand Palace; visitors are not allowed inside the grounds with exposed shoulders or shorts or skirts above the knee.  As is Buddhist custom, visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering places of worship.

Bangkok’s much-hyped floating markets, in which peddlers on small riverboats sell everything from trinkets to made-to-order grilled and stir-fried foods cooked right on the boats, have become overly touristy.

A more authentic way to explore the city is to take a cruise on the Chao Phraya River and its many offshoot khlongs (canals) that offer glimpses into Bangkok’s history.  A major conduit for trade, the river used to be the focal point of city life.  There are many types of trips and boats from which to choose, including the ubiquitous long-tail boats and rice barges.

Jim Thompson House

   Silk-weaving at the Jim Thompson House

There may be more popular museums in Bangkok, but few are as interesting and well laid-out as the Jim Thompson House and Museum (www.jimthompsonhouse.com; 6 Soi Kasemsan 2; 02-216-7368).  Thompson was an architect and American military officer who moved to Thailand after World War II.  He devoted himself to reviving the craft of hand-weaving silk, a long-neglected Thai cottage industry. Thompson’s silks were used in the 1956 movie The King & I.

Entrance to the museum includes a guided tour of Thompson’s home, which is actually a cluster of six different historic Thai homes from central Thailand that were dismantled and rebuilt in Bangkok.  The beautifully decorated home contains a splendid collection of sculpture, carvings and paintings from the region.

In 1967, Thompson disappeared while on a trip to Malaysia and his body was never found.  However, his house remains as a tribute to his deep love of Thailand.  The museum is conveniently located near the National Stadium, a short walk from the BTS Skytrain, Bangkok’s elevated train system.

Side Trips

The magnificent ancient city of Ayutthaya, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is about a one-hour drive north of Bangkok.  Thailand’s most-visited historical site evokes comparisons to the more widely known Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia.  Although much smaller in scope than its Cambodian counterpart, the archaeological ruins in Ayutthaya are remarkable.

Ayutthaya Buddhist temple

   Ancient Buddhist temple at Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam, which existed from 1350 until 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army.  At its height in 1700, Ayutthaya had a population of close to one million people, making it one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities.

Day tours from Bangkok enable visitors to marvel at Ayutthaya’s expansive collection of palaces, temples and Buddhas.  The old part of the city is actually an island at the confluence of three rivers.  Architecture in the surrounding area offers an interesting mix of styles, with tall spires (prangs) from ancient Khmer (Cambodia), to pointed stupas from the Sukhothai Kingdom in northern Thailand. Some of Ayutthaya’s ruins remain in disrepair and restoration efforts suffered a setback in 2011 when there was heavy flooding.

Farther north, the popular tourist destination of Chiang Mai offers visitors a gateway for jungle trekking, whitewater rafting and an opportunity to explore elephant parks and small villages inhabited by hill tribes.  Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok by bus, train or plane; there are low-priced 70-minute flights that leave Bangkok virtually every hour of the day.

Chiang Mai is a bit cooler than Bangkok, less polluted and more relaxed.  The city’s name, pronounced Chang My, means “new city” in Thai because it became the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in 1296, the year Chiang Mai was founded.  The city still is surrounded by vestiges of a wall and moat that were originally constructed for its defense.  About a quarter-million people now live here.

About 30 percent of the Israelis who visit Bangkok end up going to Chiang Mai.  There is a Chabad House in the downtown area (189/15 Chang Klan Road; 66-53-279-015; cm@chabadthailand.com), located a block from the Shangri-La Hotel.

Chiang Mai

     A Buddhist monk admires the view of Chiang Mai

Rabbi Yosef Pikel, who moved to Chiang Mai four years ago from Israel and lives there with his wife and three children, said about 10,000 people visit the Chabad outpost each year.  Rosh Hashana services in 2012 had so many worshipers – 550 – Chabad had to rent a ballroom in a local hotel so it could accommodate the crowd.  There is an onsite kosher restaurant and several Israeli-owned cafes and travel agencies in the neighborhood.

A few hundred Jewish ex-pats, many of them American, also live in Chiang Mai.  Some get together informally for Jewish holidays.

Personalities

Fleeing persecution from the Communists in the Soviet Union, Henry Gerson immigrated to Siam in 1920. An architect by training, he was commissioned by the King to do some interior work at the Royal Palace. Gerson later formed a successful furniture and construction company in Bangkok that employed thousands of people and he became an important leader in the Jewish community.

Ronald Cristal, an American lawyer, arrived in Bangkok during the Vietnam War as a united States judge advocate.  He remained in Thailand after the war and developed a successful business law practice, ultimately becoming a Thai citizen in the 1980s.  Cristal has a passion for numismatics and co-authored the first book in English about Thailand’s money: Siamese Coins: From Funan to the Fifth Reign (River Books).

David Lyman is the chairman of the largest independent law firm in the country and the former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.  Lyman, who has served on several committees to advance environmental protection in Thailand, owns two elephants.

Reading

Jews in Thailand (River Books), published in 2011, is the only book that focuses specifically on Jewish life in Thailand, from its history to the present-day community.  It was co-authored by Ruth Gerson, Henry Gerson’s daughter-in-law, and Stephen Mallinger.

Bangkok Inside Out (Equinox Publishing) gives travelers a useful and entertaining heads-up on what to expect in Bangkok on everything from motorcycle taxis to stray dogs.

Bangkok traffic

  Traffic jam on Sukhumvit Road

There are few cities in the world that can match Bangkok’s sheer volume and quality of street food, with vendors on seemingly every block cooking up fresh fare for locals and tourists alike.  Written by Australian chef and restaurateur David Thompson, Thai Street Food (Ten Speed Press) is a definitive guide to Bangkok’s culinary street culture.

Recommendations

The Rembrandt Hotel Bangkok (www.rembrandtbkk.com; Sukhumvit Road, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 18; 66-0-2261- 7100) offers reasonably priced, good-quality accommodations in the city’s main commercial and shopping district.  On the hotel’s 26th floor is one of the city’s finest Indian restaurants, the Rang Mahal.  It features numerous vegetarian options as well as wonderful views of Bangkok’s skyline.  The Rembrandt is a 15-minute walk from Temple Beth Elisheva.

Bangkok is not an easy city to traverse.  A modern train and subway system, while clean and safe, covers only part of the city and traffic remains horrendous.  Walking the streets can also be challenging as sidewalks – if they exist at all — are often blocked by food vendors or used as parking lots by motorbikes.

But when inevitable frustrations occur, it’s best to do as the locals do and practice the Thai philosophy of jai yen, stay calm and cool-headed.  Do so, and Bangkok will more than make things right.

© 2014 Dan Fellner