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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. If you are planning on visiting a number of sights while in Bangkok, of course all the travelling will be worth it. You also want to make sure all your essentials are safe and secure. Backpacks.Asia provide backpacks to do just that. You won’t need to worry about whether your items are safe, as you wonder around the Bangkok streets.

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

Hong Kong skyline

The Jewish Traveler: Hong Kong

By | Hong Kong, Jewish Travel | No Comments

World-renowned for its dense maze of skyscrapers, Jews have added a unique twist to the island’s architecture, making for themselves a ‘vertical shtetl.’

Hadassah Magazine – October/November, 2011

Despite concerns when the British handed its colony back to the Chinese in 1997, Hong Kong remains very much open for business. The world’s “freest economy” for the last 16 years — according to the Heritage Foundation — also continues to be a hospitable home to one of the most prosperous and diverse Jewish communities in the diaspora.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

  View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Hong Kong’s economic vitality — its seemingly endless crop of skyscrapers, incessant construction and its busy port — is easily apparent from the top of Victoria Peak, a 15-minute tram ride from the city center. On a clear day, it offers stunning views.

The hub of Jewish life lies halfway down the peak in a part of Hong Kong known as the Mid-Levels, a popular residential area for the island’s general expatriate community. One of Asia’s grandest synagogues anchors a complex that includes two congregations, a Jewish Community Center, a kosher supermarket and a Jewish day school. So many Jews live in the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings that one local rabbi has dubbed the area a “vertical shtetl.”

Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong

Ohel Leah dwarfed by Hong Kong skyscrapers

 

History
Drawn by trading opportunities with ports in China, Jews began arriving in Hong Kong soon after it became a British colony in 1842. Many came from Iraq and India. In 1858, the small community was formally recognized by the colonial British government, which granted land for the establishment of the first Jewish cemetery, which is still in use today.

Hong Kong census figures indicated only 40 Jews lived on the island in 1872. But by the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population had more than quadrupled, boosted by an influx of refugees from Eastern Europe.

At the turn of the century, it became clear there was a need for a permanent synagogue to accommodate the growing and prospering community. The Sassoon family, prominent Iraqi Jewish merchants, donated land above the city center on Robinson Road and the money to build the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Opened in 1902, it was named after Leah Gubbay, the mother of the three Sassoon brothers.

Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery was established more than 150 years ago

Three years later, the Kadoories, another prominent Sefardic family from Iraq and later India, funded the construction of a Jewish Recreation Club next to the synagogue. The Kadoories and other families also established the Ohel Leah Trust, which owns the valuable land surrounding the synagogue, some of which has since been developed into high-rise residential buildings. To this day, the trust remains a vital source of funding for Jewish life in Hong Kong.

The Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II and many Jews were held in prisoner-of-war camps. A plaque inside Ohel Leah honors 13 members of the Jewish community who died in defense of Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945. The synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese but survived relatively intact. Immediately following the war, Hong Kong was a transit point for Jewish refugees leaving Shanghai, which had provided a safe haven for 20,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Ohel Leah war plaque

Plaque inside Ohel Leah Synagogue

In the last half of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s emergence as a global economic power and the opening of trade with China led to a dramatic jump in its Jewish population. Jewish businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, teachers, computer experts and other professionals arrived from America, Western Europe and Israel.

Community
It is believed that Hong Kong is now home to about 5,000 Jews, though estimates vary due to the transient nature of the community. Many are expatriates, living on the island while on short-term work assignments.

The community’s leading venue for cultural and social activities, the Jewish Community Center (70 Robinson Road; www.jcc.org.hk; 852-2801-5440), occupies several floors in a high-rise building next to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Opened in 1995, it contains a swimming pool, banquet and meeting rooms, meat and dairy kosher restaurants and a kosher supermarket. The JCC complex also hosts one of the campuses of Carmel (www.carmel.edu.hk), the only Jewish day school in East Asia.

Ohel Leah Rabbi Asher Oser

 Ohel Leah Rabbi Asher Oser

 

With a membership of 190 families, Ohel Leah (70 Robinson Road; www.ohelleah.org; 852-2589-2621) is Hong Kong’s largest congregation. Rabbi Asher Oser, who joined the Modern Orthodox synagogue in 2010, reflects the global diversity of his congregation. He was born in Australia; educated in Canada, Israel and the United States; and most recently was a congregational rabbi in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s a laboratory for how Jews from different places can get along,” he says of Ohel Leah, which has members from more than 20 countries.

The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong (www.ujc.org.hk; 852-2523-2985), with 170 families, is Reform. It was founded in 1988 and meets in an auditorium adjacent to the JCC. It is headed by Rabbi Stanton Zamek, who previously led a congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He describes UJC membership as about 60 percent American, relatively young, career-oriented and successful. “They are in the top 5 percent of whatever they do,” he says.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon and his wife, Goldie, Chabad-Lubavitch (7-9 Macdonnell Road, Hoover Court, 1st Floor; www.chabadhongkong.org; 852-2523-9770) has had a presence in Hong Kong since 1987. In recent years, Chabad also has opened branches in Kowloon — a peninsula across Victoria Harbor — and on Lantau Island, where the Hong Kong International airport is located.

Two Sefardic Orthodox congregations that cater primarily to Israeli expatriates were established in the 1990s. Shuva Israel (61 Connaught Road Central; www.shuva-israel.com; 852-2851-6300), and Kehilat Zion (62 Mody Road in Kowloon; www.kehilat-zion.org; 852-2368-0061) both have glatt kosher restaurants on their premises and are open to the public.

Since the handover in 1997, relations between Israel and Hong Kong have remained solid. In fact, Hong Kong is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and Israel is Hong Kong’s second-largest export market in the Middle East.

Israeli artists and musicians perform regularly in Hong Kong venues and the two governments collaborated to stage an Israeli film festival in January 2011.

Sights
Billing itself as “the crown jewel of Asian Jewry,” the Ohel Leah Synagogue is indeed a magnificent example of British colonial-Sefardic architecture. The building underwent a $6-million restoration in 1998 to upgrade it to modern standards, while still maintaining its original look. In 2000, the restoration was recognized by UNESCO, which presented the synagogue with an award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

Phel Leah's antique Torah scrolls

  Ohel Leah’s antique Torah scrolls

The two-story, multiturreted synagogue’s main entrance is framed by colonial-style archways and columns. Inside, a large bima and rabbi’s lectern sit below elegant chandeliers hanging from light-blue ceilings. At the front, the Ten Commandments are beautifully engraved in Hebrew on a yellow wall above the Ark.

Visitors to Ohel Leah can see several antique Torah scrolls with Sefardic-style encasings housed in the Ark. Some date back to the 18th century.

The synagogue and JCC, in a complex perched on the slope of Victoria Peak, are easily accessible from the hotels and attractions in central Hong Kong. The most conventional way to reach the complex is by taxi, which takes about 10 minutes and normally costs less than $5.

Hong Kong escalator

  The world’s longest outdoor escalator

But for those wanting to save some money and experience up-close the sights, sounds and smells of Hong Kong street life, the world’s longest outdoor escalator offers a fun alternative. Riders can get on and off the half-mile-long covered people mover to shop, eat or explore in 29 different places. To get to the synagogue, take the Mid-Levels Escalator to Robinson Road, turn right and walk about five minutes up the road.

The well-maintained Jewish Cemetery (13 Shan Kwong Road) has been in continuous use since it was established more than 150 years ago. It sits next to a Buddhist monastery on a part of Hong Kong Island called Happy Valley, a 15-minute taxi-ride east of the JCC. About 360 Jews are buried there, including members of the Kadoorie family. All the gravestones have been catalogued by the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong JCC Library

  The Jewish Community Center’s Judaic Library

The JCC houses the largest library in the Far East dedicated to Jewish topics. It has more than 4,000 volumes, including a special collection of Sino-Judaic books and 300 audiovisual materials.

Owned by the Kadoorie family, the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon (Salisbury Road; 852-2920-2888; www.peninsula.com) has been Hong Kong’s poshest and most famous hotel since it opened in 1928. The Peninsula is known for its fleet of Rolls-Royce limousines and afternoon high tea, one of the few remaining traditions from British colonial days.

The Peninsula also played an important role in Hong Kong’s Jewish history. In 1946, about 300 Jewish refugees from Shanghai were stranded in Hong Kong with no place to stay. The Peninsula’s management converted its ballroom into a makeshift dormitory until they were able to leave Hong Kong six months later.

Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel

Hong Kong’s posh Jewish-owned Peninsula Hotel

The subway may be quicker, but the most enjoyable way to get to Kowloon from Hong Kong Island is on one of the white-and-green Star Ferries, which have been transporting passengers across Victoria Harbor since 1898. The trip takes less than 10 minutes and costs about 50 cents roundtrip. The views of Hong’s Kong’s skyline are magnificent.

Other Sights
The life of the Chinese revolutionary who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty is nicely chronicled in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum (7 Castle Road; 852-2367-6373). Sun was educated in Hong Kong, and the museum offers an interesting glimpse into the island’s history in the late 19th century. It is located just a couple of escalator stops below the JCC.

With a population of seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. A pleasant respite from the crowds and concrete is the Zoological and Botanical Gardens (Upper Albert Road; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks; 852-2530-0154). From the JCC, it is a 15-minute walk down Robinson Road. Admission is free.

Side Trip
Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong across the Pearl River Estuary, the former Portuguese colony of Macao is a popular and easy day trip. Macao was returned to the Chinese two years after Hong Kong. Both are classified by China’s government as “Special Administrative Regions,” meaning that outside of defense and foreign affairs, they have a high level of autonomy. To go from one to the other, visitors must pass through immigration in both places.

Macao St. Paul's Church

  The ruins of St. Paul’s Church in Macao

Macao is best known for its growing number of huge and opulent casinos and has surpassed Las Vegas in gambling revenues. More than 90 percent of its visitors come from mainland China, where gambling is illegal. American casino and resort billionaire Sheldon Adelson recently expanded his Venetian-themed hotel and casino empire to Macao.

It is definitely worth straying from the casinos for at least a few hours to explore Macao’s unique blend of Portuguese-Sino culture. The historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features a mosaic pathway that leads past narrow, winding streets to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church at the top of a hill. Built in 1602, most of St. Paul’s was destroyed in a fire in 1835, leaving only its ornate façade.

Only a handful of Jews live in Macao, but Glenn Timmermans (gtimmer@umac.mo), an English professor at the University of Macao, is working to raise awareness of Jewish history and culture among the local population. Timmermans, who in 2010 took a group of 23 Chinese from Macao, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland to Yad Vashem, has created an organization called the Association of Jewish Culture in Macao. It has staged modest Jewish film festivals for the past two years, and Timmermans hopes to organize symposia on the Holocaust and other Jewish-related topics.

Personalities
Sir Matthew Nathan served as Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor, from 1904-07. During that time, he also was Ohel Leah’s honorary president. Nathan was governor when Kowloon’s main thoroughfare was completed. Today, the bustling Nathan Road — named after Sir Matthew — is known as the “golden mile of shopping.”

Hong Kong Nathan Road

Nathan Road, named after Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor

Sir Michael Kadoorie, whose family wealth reportedly exceeds $5 billion, comes from a long line of Kadoories who helped play a key role in the development of Hong Kong Jewry. He is the son of Sir Lawrence Kadoorie, a visionary industrialist, hotelier and philanthropist who died in 1993. Sir Michael, a philanthropist in his own right, presides over the family’s holdings, including a sizeable stake in Hong Kong’s leading electricity provider as well as ownership of the Peninsula Hotel.

Reading

Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire (Weatherhill) by Michael Pollak, while not specific to Hong Kong, provides a good overview of Jewish history in the region, including traders along the famed Silk Road and the ancient Jews of Kaifeng.

John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbor (Penguin) is a historical novel about Hong Kong set from the 1930s to the early 21st century. Lanchester was raised in Hong Kong and paints a vivid picture of the island’s history during the British colonial era, Japanese occupation and postwar boom.

Asian Jewish Life (www.asianjewishlife.org), a quarterly not-for-profit magazine based in Hong Kong, was launched in 2010 by Erica Lyons, an American lawyer who has been living on the island since 2002. Hong Kong also has a monthly Jewish newspaper, Jewish Times Asia (http://jewishtimesasia.org).

Recommendations
For an authentic Cantonese dining experience, try one of the ubiquitous dim sum restaurants. Normally eaten for breakfast or lunch, dim sum – meaning light snack — comes in numerous varieties of dumplings, spring rolls and other concoctions. Diners typically choose several dishes and share with their tablemates. A good dim sum choice for vegetarians is Pure Veggie House (51 Garden Road; 852-2525-0552), located on the third floor of the Coda Plaza shopping center around the corner from Chabad.

Hong Kong Victoria Harbor

Star Ferries in Victoria Harbor

The Bishop Lei International House (4 Robinson Road; www.bishopleihtl.com.hk; 852-2868 0828) is one of the few hotels located in the Mid-Levels and is within easy walking distance of Ohel Leah and the JCC. It has 227 rooms, some with terrific views of the harbor below.

Unlike mainland China, most Western visitors do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong. Those who do come may feel overwhelmed at times by the sheer magnitude of a place referred to by some as Hong Kongcrete.

But in reality, more than 70 percent of Hong Kong is countryside. It’s never hard to find pockets of relative solitude — a Chinese temple or quiet park. And there are few destinations that offer such a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western cultures as well as a chance to witness firsthand one of the world’s most potent economies continuing to steamroll ahead.

© 2011 Dan Fellner

quito ecuador jewish community center

Ecuador’s Small but Thriving Jewish Community

By | Ecuador, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Jews in Quito prosper near the “middle of the world”

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — April 5, 2013

QUITO, Ecuador – In a northern Quito suburb called Carcelén, just a 15-minute drive south of the equator, sits a Jewish Community Center that – in its own way – is every bit as impressive as the Andean peaks and volcanoes that overlook it.

Jewish Community Center of Ecuador

The architecture of the Jewish Community Center of Ecuador is evocative of Jerusalem

Ecuador’s capital city is home to only about 700 Jews.  Yet the 13-year-old Sede de la Comunidad Judia del Ecuador – the Jewish Community Center of Ecuador – is a multi-million dollar facility that is as expansive and lavish as you’ll find in many large American cities.

I recently visited what the Jews in Ecuador simply call the “Community” as part of a five-day trip to Quito, a city of more than 2 million people.

With an elevation of about 9,200 feet in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains, Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world.

Even though it’s located so close to the Equator, the city’s elevation gives it a springlike climate year-round.

Rolf Stern Ecuador Jewish Community

Rolf Stern, outgoing president of the Ecuador Jewish Community

After a one-hour taxi drive from my hotel in the city’s historic downtown district – a UNESCO World Heritage Site — I arrived at the hub of Ecuadorean-Jewish life.  As I approached the complex, I was immediately impressed with its architecture of thick stone walls, resplendent arches and rust-colored domes that were much more evocative of Jerusalem than Latin America.

Inside, I met with Rolf Stern, who runs Ecuador’s member firm of the BDO International accounting network and is just completing a six-year term as president of the Jewish Community.  Following our meeting, I was given a tour of the complex by Sebastian Medina, the Community’s on-staff director.

The heart of the complex is a beautiful two-story synagogue, complete with several exquisite stained-glass windows, and enough space to accommodate about 400 worshippers.  Services at the Conservative temple are conducted by Rabbi Alexander Mylinski, who originally is from Argentina.

In addition to the synagogue, the Community has a mikvah, squash and tennis courts, a large indoor swimming pool, a youth center and its own soccer field.  There is an on-site kosher kitchen and cafeteria.  It not only offers home delivery, but also provides kosher food for some of the cruise ships that sail to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.  The complex also boasts one of the largest ballrooms in Quito, which is used for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other social events.

Jewish Community Center of Ecuador Swimming Pool

The JCC’s indoor swimming pool

Stern said the complex was funded by the sale of the Community’s prior facilities as well as the financial contributions of Ecuadorean Jews.

“We’re very fortunate and blessed in having a strong community sense, which is reflected by the generosity of our members, including the large donors,” he said.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Community sits what Stern called “one of the three best schools in Quito” – the Albert Einstein School, which serves students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The school was founded 40 years ago by members of the Jewish community; Jews still lead the school today.  Even though 92 percent of its 660 students aren’t Jewish, all students are required to study Hebrew and learn about Jewish culture and history.

Mitad del Mundo Equator

  The Mitad Del Mundo monument near the equator

Stern is typical of most Ecuadorean Jews in that his parents – German Jews – immigrated to the country in the late 1930s to escape the Holocaust.  In 1950, the Jewish population in Ecuador peaked at about 4,000.  That number steadily dwindled over the years, although Stern notes that there has been a slight rebound in the past five years.

“What we’ve seen is that young members of the community who were working or studying abroad have now started to come back,” he said.

Under Stern’s leadership, the Community has launched an outreach effort – called the “Community Growth Program” — designed to attract foreign Jews to migrate to Ecuador.

“It’s a great place to live and bring up kids,” he said, adding that the relationships between Jews and the Ecuadorean government and the population at-large are excellent.

“Jews are generally admired for being hard-working and are considered to be successful people,” he said.  “There is no anti-Semitism in Ecuador, at least not in the last 30 years.”

The Community is in the process of building a new residence for seniors.  Expected to open in 2015, it will initially have 12 suites, with plans to eventually grow to 20 units.

View of Quito Ecuador

View of Quito, the world’s second-highest capital city

After my visit to the Community, I took a short taxi ride to perhaps Quito’s most famous tourist destination – La Mitad Del Mundo (the Middle of the World) – a monument at the site where a French scientist in 1736 calculated the equator to be.  Turned out, he was off by about 600 feet.  But it’s still a fun place to visit and pose for the obligatory photo with one foot in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Later in the day, I visited an upscale Jewish-owned shopping mall in downtown Quito.  There, I had lunch with Offir Adaki, an Israeli who has lived in Ecuador for 18 years.

Adaki, who serves on the Community’s board, went backpacking in Ecuador after serving in the Israeli military.  He so enjoyed the weather and the slower pace of life compared with Israel, he decided to make Quito his permanent home.

“Everything is calm,” he said.  “People are really nice here.  I think it’s the ultimate place to live.”

Adaki owns a travel company called Ecuador Nature (www.ecuadornature.com) that brings Jewish groups — 50 percent of which come from Israel — to see the sites of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  He said he makes a point of taking each group to visit the Jewish Community Center for lunch.

“When you bring them inside, everybody says, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful place,’” he said.  “They didn’t expect to see something so impressive.”

Stern said Jews planning to visit Ecuador are more than welcome to attend services and come for a kosher meal.  Due to security issues, it’s best to send an email in advance to Sebastian Medina (dir.comunitario@cje.ec).  Stern said Quito is also a great place to have a “destination celebration,” such as a wedding or bar mitzvah.

“People should know that we are a very welcoming community,” he said.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

jews in chiang mai

Chiang Mai’s Jewish Neighborhood

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | One Comment

Israeli visitors flock to this city in northern Thailand

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — January 11, 2013

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – As I walked past the Shangri-La Hotel on Chang Klan Road in downtown Chiang Mai, I started wondering if my sunglasses had fogged up, distorting my vision.

Israeli owned business in Chiang Mai

 Jewish-owned business in downtown Chiang Mai

There were at least a half-dozen stores along a couple of blocks – restaurants and travel agencies – with signs that appeared to be in Hebrew.  The Thai alphabet bears at least a little resemblance to Hebrew, and I took a closer look to see if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Yes, it really was Hebrew.

Turns out that Chiang Mai — a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand and the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom — has a Jewish neighborhood.  Who knew?

During my recent three-day visit to Chiang Mai as part of a 12-day trip to Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, I learned that Jewish life in the city is fueled by a huge influx of Israeli tourists as well as a surprisingly large community of several hundred Jewish expats.

I went inside one of the businesses with Hebrew signage, a travel agency called “Israel 669” (named after an elite Israeli military unit).  The owner, Israel Yehoshua, told me that there are at least seven Jewish-owned businesses on the street that primarily cater to vacationing Israelis.

Chiang Mai Chabad House

    Chiang Mai’s busy Chabad House

Thailand has become a magnet for Israeli travelers, who love the country’s warm weather, cheap prices, historic sites, jungle-trekking, nightlife and beaches.  Many of them arrive on daily nonstop flights from Tel Aviv to Bangkok, the country’s capital and largest city.

Yehoshua estimates that about 120,000 Israelis visit Thailand every year.  Of those, he said, about 30 percent find their way 470 miles north of Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  The city’s name, pronounced Chang My, means “new city” in Thai, so named because it became the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in 1296, the year Chiang Mai was founded.  It now has a population of about 170,000.

Chiang Mai is a bit cooler than Bangkok, more relaxed and offers visitors a myriad of adventures.  During my stay, I took an elephant ride through the jungle, cruised down a river on a bamboo raft, rode an ox cart, and explored several small villages inhabited by hill tribes.

I was especially fascinated with a subgroup of the Karen tribe called the Padaung.  These people, who moved to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar, are known as the “long-neck” tribe because their females wear brass rings around their necks.  This gives the illusion that they have unusually long necks, considered a sign of great beauty in their culture.

Rabbi Yosef Pikel

       Chabad Rabbi Yosef Pikel

Two doors down from Yehoshua’s travel agency, I entered the Chabad House, the hub of Jewish life in 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 that Friday night Shabbat services and dinner typically attract between 100-200 people.

Rosh Hashanah services last fall had so many visitors – 550 – that Chabad had to rent a ballroom in a local hotel to accommodate the crowd.

A kosher restaurant in the Chabad House serves about 150 meals a day. A small store on the premises sells kosher food products.  A few blocks away there is a mikvah, or ritual bath.

Pikel said 85 percent of Chabad’s more than 10,000 visitors each year are Israelis, with most of the rest coming from France, England, America and Australia.

Hebrew signs for sale in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

   Hebrew signs for sale in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

The rabbi said there are so many Israeli visitors in Chiang Mai that many Thai vendors have picked up a few words of Hebrew slang, like achi (“my brother”) to woo shoppers.  Indeed, at the city’s famous Night Bazaar, I saw one vendor selling wooden signs, a number of which were engraved in Hebrew.

What’s it like being the rabbi in a community in which most of the Jews are just passing through?  Pikel said there are pros and cons.

“You meet many interesting people,” he said.  “But you only meet them for a short time.  As a rabbi, if you want to give something back to people, you have a very short time to do it.”

During my visit, I also met Barry Wasserzug, a Canadian Jew who has lived in Chiang Mai since 2009.  Wasserzug estimates that 400-500 Jewish ex-pats live in the area, about half of whom are American.

“In my condo building alone, there are at least 15-20 Jews,” he said.

Wasserzug organizes informal events for Chiang Mai’s resident Jews, most of whom he says are not especially religious and rarely attend services at Chabad.  A potluck Hanukah party at his home the week before I arrived – featuring homemade potato latkes – was attended by 40 people.

A member of the Padaung long-neck hill tribe

A member of the Padaung “long-neck” hill tribe

The retired jeweler, who lived in Scottsdale for three years back in the 1970s, said he was vacationing in Chiang Mai a few years ago and became intrigued with the idea of living there.  He hasn’t regretted making the move from Toronto.

“It suits me,” said Wasserzug.  “It’s warm, there’s no snow, it’s safe, it’s clean.  There’s good medical; the cost of living is low.  Most people are living on $1,000-$1,500 a month, some less.”

Pikel said he is working to forge stronger ties between Chabad and the Jewish expat community.  Last year, he hosted a second-night seder at his home, which was attended by 40 Americans.

During my final morning in Chiang Mai, I was eating breakfast at my small hotel on the outskirts of town and noticed a bookcase with about a dozen travel guides.

One of the books was Lonely Planet’s Thailand.  It was the Hebrew version.

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

Subotica Serbia synagogue

The Jewish Traveler: Belgrade

By | Jewish Travel, Serbia | No Comments

Tourists to Serbia’s White City will encounter vibrant nightlife, a reemergent cultural scene and the unmistakable sense of walking through modern history.

Hadassah Magazine – April/May, 2010

Scattered throughout downtown Belgrade are the eerie, ghost-like shells of several former government buildings. These casualties of a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Kosovo are grim reminders of the conflict that has engulfed the Balkans since the breakup of Yugoslavia into seven different countries.

Belgrade bombed building

Remnants of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in downtown Belgrade

But tensions in the region have cooled considerably during the past 10 years, and Serbia is no longer viewed as a political pariah. There is even talk of joining the European Union. And Belgrade, its capital and largest city with about 1.5 million residents, is reemerging as a tourist destination, known for its vibrant nightlife and café culture.

The center of it all is Knez Mihailova Street, a pedestrian promenade that evokes comparisons to Barcelona’s La Rambla. Belgrade’s version is packed with outdoor cafés, street performers, souvenir stands and boutiques, and is adorned with a number of century-old neo-Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings.

Knez Mihailova leads into Belgrade’s most prominent landmark, the Kalemegdan Citadel, an often-rebuilt fortress dating to Roman times that overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers.

Belgrade Knez Mihailova

Serbian flags for sale on busy Knez Mihailova Street

Belgrade’s small but active Jewish community boasts both Sefardic and Ashkenazic influences. And beyond the city, in the northern part of Serbia, tourists can visit two of Eastern Europe’s most architecturally splendid synagogues.

History
From the time they first arrived in the 10th century until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire some 900 years later, Jews fared better in Belgrade — which means White City in English — than in many other East European capitals.

The city became a refuge for Ladino-speaking Sefardic Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. They settled in the Dorcol region, close to the Danube. Ashkenazic Jews arrived from Austria-Hungary and Central Europe and lived further south, near the Sava River.

Jews were involved in trade between the Ottoman Empire’s northern and southern provinces, becoming especially important in the salt trade. In the mid-17th century, Belgrade’s yeshiva became widely known and the community flourished.

In the years following independence from the Turks in 1830, Jewish fortunes in Belgrade waxed and waned under different rulers, some of whom implemented laws favoring non-Jewish merchants and barring Jews from certain professions. In the 20th century, Jews fought alongside Serbs in the 1912 to 1913 Balkan Wars and in World War I.

Belgrade Kalemegdan Citadel

Entrance to Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Citadel

When the Germans occupied Belgrade in April 1941, about 12,000 Jews lived in the city – most of them Sefardim. Only 13 months later, Belgrade suffered the infamy of being the first city in Europe declared Judenfrei. At least 2,000 Jews were killed by firing squads at the Topovske Supe transit camp in central Belgrade; most of the rest were gassed at Sajmiste, a camp near the Sava River that had formerly been a fairground. Only about 2,000 of the city’s Jews survived the Holocaust.

After the war, Jews experienced less anti-Semitism in Yugoslavia than in many other Communist states. Still, many left the country for Israel or the United States.

Community
There are now about 3,000 Jews remaining in Serbia, two-thirds of whom live in Belgrade and its suburbs. Social service programs, funded largely by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, are administered through an umbrella organization called SAVEZ, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia (www.savezscg.org).

SAVEZ and the Jewish Community of Belgrade (Kralja Petra 71a; www.jobeograd.org; 011-381-11-2624-289) are housed in a building that was designed in 1928 for the Sephardic community. It sits on a hilly street in the old section of Belgrade, two blocks northeast of Knez Mihailova. The building is also home to the Jewish Historical Museum and a children’s theater.

Belgrade synagogue

  The only functioning synagogue in Belgrade

About a 10-minute walk from the community center is Belgrade’s only functioning synagogue, at Marsala Birjuzova 19. Known as the Kosmajska Temple because the street was called Kosmajska before World War II, the synagogue was opened in 1926 by Ashkenazim, although today most of its congregants are Sefardim. Rather than destroy it, the Nazis used it as a brothel.

The synagogue is under the supervision of Serbia’s only rabbi, Yitzhak Asiel. It is set in a large, gated courtyard in a gray, neo-Classical-style building topped with a round window bearing the Star of David. Housed in the same complex are a youth center, social hall, Jewish kindergarten, a small medical clinic and a kosher kitchen. Meals can be prepared for visitors; contact Vesna Kovacevic (olga.gabaj@gmail.com; 011-381-11-3036-156).

Belgrade’s Jewish community is perhaps best known to outsiders for its Baruh Brothers Choir. Founded in 1879 as the Serbian-Jewish Singing Society, the coed choir regularly performs in Serbian music festivals, has appeared on television and radio, recorded albums of traditional Jewish music and even performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Serbia is lagging behind other East European countries in making restitution for Jewish property nationalized by the Communists. To get permission to leave the country in 1948, about 3,000 Jews were forced to give up their land. Jewish leaders have launched a letter-writing campaign pressing government officials to pass a law appropriating compensation. Community President Aleksandar Necak calls it his organization’s “absolute, number-one priority.”

Sights
A good starting point is the Jewish Historical Museum (www.jimbeograd.org; 381-11-2622-634), located on the first floor of the community center. Established in 1948, the museum chronicles the history of Jews throughout former Yugoslavia and features an impressive collection of Judaica, including a 17th century Megilat Esther from Portugal.

For genealogists, the museum also has a database of birth, marriage and death records of Belgrade’s Jews from the middle of the 19th century until 1941.

Belgrade holocaust memorial

The Burning Menora holocaust memorial

From the community center, a short walk downhill toward the Danube River leads right into what once was the Jewish quarter in Dorcol. Its nucleus, Jevresjka (Jewish) Street, still exists as does the building that once housed the Jewish societies Oneg Shabat and Gemilut Hasadim. The façade of the yellow-and-pink building (16 Jevresjka), now the Cinema Rex theater, is inscribed with Psalm 71 in both Hebrew and Serbian above two large Stars of David.

Also in Dorcol, overlooking the Danube, is the powerful Holocaust memorial Burning Menora, dedicated in 1990. It was designed by sculptor Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Yugoslavia. Glid also created monuments for Yad Vashem and the Dachau concentration camp.

Across the Sava River from the bus and train stations in a part of town now called New Belgrade are the remnants of the Sajmiste Concentration Camp, where about 8,000 Jews – mostly women and children — were murdered in mobile gas chambers. The camp’s guard tower and a portion of the barracks are still standing. In the mid 1990s, a large memorial was erected on the Sava riverbank in memory of Sajmiste’s 40,000 victims, which also included Serbs and Roma.

Zemun Serbia

The suburb of Zemun, across the Danube from Belgrade

The Jewish cemetery (1 Mije Kovacevica), about a 10-minute drive east of the town center, contains another Holocaust memorial. The monument, a menora in front of two large stone tablets, was erected in 1952 by the Yugoslavian government with support from the Jewish community. The cemetery is also home to an impressive monument dedicated to Jewish soldiers killed in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars and World War I.

Zemun, a Belgrade suburb across the Danube, was the southern outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at a time when the Turks ruled Belgrade. Today, it is a charming town of about 150,000 residents with a number of historic buildings, cobblestone streets and spectacular views of Belgrade across the river.

In 1850, an Ashkenazic synagogue (Rabin Alcalaj Street 5) was built in Zemun that still stands, although it is now owned by the city and currently houses a restaurant serving traditional Serbian dishes. The Jewish Community of Zemun (Dubrovacka 21; http://joz.rs/index2_en.html), located around the corner from the synagogue, is trying to raise funds to buy it back.

Tito's tomb

Tito’s tomb

Other Sights
For those fascinated by Josip Broz Tito — the man who held multiethnic Yugoslavia together for 35 years — the place to go is the Yugoslav History Museum (Boticeva 6). The museum, which consists of three buildings in a park-like setting, has a collection of more than 200,000 items relating to the country’s history in the 20th century, with a main emphasis on the life and work of Tito. Between his two marriages, Tito had a relationship in the 1940s with Hertha Haas, a woman of Jewish descent who bore him a son, Aleksandar Miso Broz, today a Croatian diplomat.

Tito’s tomb is on display in the House of Flowers, along with collections of his office furniture, uniforms and ceremonial batons. The museum is a 15-minute drive southeast of the town center and is easily accessible by trolley.

Side Trips
The gorgeous old synagogues in Subotica and Novi Sad in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina are must-sees for Jewish travelers who can get away from Belgrade for a full day. Vojvodina, which was part of Hungary before World War I, had active Jewish communities in several dozen towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

From Belgrade, it is a two-hour drive to Subotica, only six miles from the Hungarian border. Near the town center is its magnificent synagogue, built in 1902 and considered one of the finest surviving examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe.

Subotica synagogue

Subotica’s magnificent synagogue

The main entrance is on Jakab and Komor Street, named after the Hungarian-Jewish architects who designed both the synagogue and Subotica’s Town Hall. The house of worship has five green-and-yellow-tiled domes, each topped with a Star of David, and the inside is resplendent with wall murals, inspired by folk art, and numerous stained-glass windows.

In its heyday, the synagogue held 1,500 worshippers. But it fell into disrepair after World War II and was last used for religious services in the late 1940s. Renovations began in 1980; however, much work remains. The Subotica Jewish Community (jewcom@nadlanu.com) is raising funds for the restoration along with the municipal government, which currently owns the building.

Next door, at Ulica Dimitrija Tucovica 13, are the headquarters for the Jewish community and a small working synagogue for the city’s 250 Jews. There is no rabbi but weekly Shabbat services are led by a hazzan.

Novi Sad synagogue

 Stained-glass window in the Novi Sad synagogue

Novi Sad, about halfway between Subotica and Belgrade, is the capital of Vojvodina and Serbia’s second-largest city. Its synagogue, at Jevresjska 9, was designed by Lipot Baumhorn, another Hungarian-Jewish architect. It opened in 1909 a few blocks from Novi Sad’s main town square, the fifth synagogue to be built on that spot.

The synagogue was constructed in a neo-Classical style with dark yellow bricks. The façade, flanked by two towers, is inscribed in large Hebrew letters: “This is the house of worship for all nations.” Inside, the sanctuary has several stunning stained-glass windows. Most of the Jews in Novi Sad who survived the Holocaust immigrated to Israel; in 1991, the synagogue was turned over to the city. It is now used as a concert hall.

Personalities
Moshe Pijade, a confidant of Tito’s who rose to the highest echelon of the Yugoslavian government in the 1950s, was born in Belgrade in 1890 to a prominent Sefardic family. In 1925, he was imprisoned for 14 years due to his pro-Communist sympathies. He later fought with the partisans against the Nazis and, in 1954, was elected president of the Yugoslavian Parliament.

Danilo Kis, whose father was a Hungarian Jew, is considered one of the most important Yugoslavian writers of the 20th century. Born in Subotica in 1935, Kis wrote novels, short stories and poetry in Serbo-Croatian. His most famous works, including The Encyclopedia of the Dead (Northwestern University Press) and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Dalkey Archive Press), have been translated into English.

Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest, but his family originally came from Zemun, and his grandparents are buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

 

Reading
Jennie Lebel, a Serbian-Israeli historian, provides a comprehensive overview of Jewish life in Belgrade in Until ‘The Final Solution’: The Jews in Belgrade 1521-1942 (Avotaynu). The book, which took Lebel 20 years to research, has been published in English, Serbian and Hebrew.

As a Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad covered NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999. She returned a year later to write a book that explores the lives of 13 Serbs, including a politician, rock star, black marketeer and farmer. With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia (Basic Books) offers interesting insight into the Serbian perspective at a time when the country had few friends.

Perhaps because hostilities have since ebbed and tourists are rediscovering the city, Belgrade in Your Pocket was added to the In Your Pocket lineup of city guides in 2008. The guide provides maps and information on restaurants, events and nightlife. It can be downloaded for free at www.inyourpocket.com/serbia/belgrade and is also available at many Belgrade hotels.

Recommendations
Tour guide Branka Adamovic (brankaguide@yahoo.com; 381-63-712-6692) is knowledgeable about Jewish sights and speaks excellent English. She will drive visitors to the synagogues in Novi Sad and Subotica.

Other than the kitchen in the synagogue, there are no kosher restaurants in Belgrade. But Peking (Vuka Karadzica 2; 381-11-2181-931), Belgrade’s first Chinese restaurant, is a good choice for vegetarian dishes. Peking is on a side street just a block from Knez Mihailova, not far from the Jewish Community building.

Belgrade Danube fishing

  Fishing on the Danube

The Majestic Hotel (Oblicevvenac 28; www.majestic.rs; 381-11-3285-777) has a great location right off Knez Mihailova, less than a five-minute walk from the synagogue.

Visitors will likely want to spend an hour or two each day experiencing Belgrade’s café culture around Knez Mihailova. There, in the seemingly endless row of bars and restaurants, tourists join the locals drinking espresso or Jelen Pivo, a popular domestic beer. In the evening, Belgraders dress up and promenade en masse – a Balkan pastime called the korso.

Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and few historic buildings survive. But the past decade has brought relative calm and, with it, a growing number of tourists who find a culturally dynamic and revitalized city that is leaving the past behind.

 © 2010 Dan Fellner

lvov rabbi bald

The Jewish Traveler: Lvov

By | Jewish Travel, Ukraine | No Comments

The soul of erstwhile Jewish Galicia can yet be conjured up with a trip to one of the region’s principal—and still resplendent—capitals of culture.

Hadassah magazine – April, 2008

It’s early evening and a small minyan is chanting Minha inside Bais Aron V’Yisroel, Lvov’s only active synagogue.  Led by Chief Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald, the men say the same prayers Jews have been reciting for centuries in this western Ukrainian city that was once the hub of Jewish culture in Galicia.

Although the number of practicing Jews is now a tiny fraction of what it was before the Holocaust, Bald and other Jewish leaders in Lvov are determined to reinvigorate the community and preserve its rich Jewish past.

Lvov's Rynok Square

   Rynok Square

For visitors, a number of sights evoke memories of the area’s vibrant—and tragic—Jewish heritage.

This city of 800,000, known as Lviv in Ukrainian, suffered relatively little damage in World War II.  The result is an Old Town, anchored by cobblestoned Rynok Square, featuring more than 40 buildings in a variety of architectural styles—Renaissance, Baroque, classic and Art Nouveau.

With ornate fountains, red-roofed buildings and green-domed churches, Lvov bears some resemblance to Florence.  Indeed, UNESCO, which has made Old Town a World Heritage Site, described Lvov as “an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of Eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany.”

History
Jews settled in Lvov soon after it was founded in the mid-13th century by Prince Danylo Halytsky of Galicia. The city took its name from the prince’s son, Lev. It is believed the principality’s early Jews arrived from Byzantium and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and neighboring lands.

Lvov Jewish ghetto memorial

  Jewish ghetto memorial

One hundred years later, Lvov was renamed Lwow when it was taken over by Casimir the Great of Poland, who gave Jews equal rights. Jews from Germany fleeing the plague and persecution began arriving, soon becoming prominent in trade and handicrafts.

By the end of the 14th century, Lvov, a walled city, had two Jewish settlements, one inside the walls, one outside. The two areas maintained separate synagogues and mikves but shared a cemetery. By 1550, about 1,000 Jews lived in Lvov.

In the early 17th century, a violent conflict arose between the Jews and Jesuits over the Golden Rose Synagogue, which had been constructed in 1582 inside the city walls by the Nachmanovich family. The Jesuits claimed for themselves the land on which the synagogue was built; however, the Jews were able to refute the charge, and the synagogue remained standing until the Holocaust.

Galicia became part of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1772, when Lvov again changed names, this time to Lemberg. Jewish rights were curtailed and, by 1800, only wealthy and educated Jews who adopted the German way of life were allowed to live outside the city’s Jewish quarter (by this time, the distinction between the communities inside and outside the walls had ceased to exist, and the main quarter was outside the walls). Most Jews earned a living as shopkeepers or craftsmen.

At the end of the 18th century, Lvov became a center of the Hasidic movement and, in 1844, a Reform temple opened. By 1910, the Jewish population was 57,000.

At the end of World War I, Jews were caught in the middle as Poles and Ukrainians fought for control of eastern Galicia. Pogroms broke out in 1918, leaving 70 Jews dead. Lvov eventually returned to Polish control between world wars. During this time, there were Jewish schools, newspapers and about 50 functioning synagogues. The Jewish population reached a high of 110,000 in 1939, one-third of Lvov’s total population.

When World War II began, Lvov came under Soviet control and the Jewish population swelled to more than 200,000, as refugees poured in from German-occupied Poland. The Germans captured the city in June 1941 and more than 6,000 Jews were killed almost immediately in pogroms carried out by the local population, fueled by rumors that Jews had participated in the execution of Ukrainian political prisoners.

In November 1941, the Germans set up a Jewish ghetto, which eventually had more than 100,000 occupants. Soon after, the Germans began transporting Jews from the ghetto to the Belzec death camp, 60 miles to the north in Poland. Thousands were also sent to the Janowska labor camp in the northern outskirts of Lvov where most were shot by firing squads. The Germans completely liquidated the ghetto in June 1943. By the time the Soviets recaptured Lvov in July 1944, only a few hundred Jews remained.

After the war, Jews slowly returned to Lvov from other parts of the Soviet Union, but religious expression was not allowed under Communism and anti-Semitism persisted. The postwar Jewish population reached a high of 30,000 in 1978, but has since dwindled due to emigration, primarily to Israel, Germany and America.

Community
About 5,000 Jews now live in Lvov, many elderly and impoverished. The Jewish community center, operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, tries to assist with a variety of social services and educational programs. The center is housed in the four-story Hesed Arieh (Lvov Jewish House; 30 Kotlarevski Street; 011-380-322-389-860; which opened in 2004. Also on the premises is a one-room museum with photographs and Judaica, including a mid-19th-century Torah scroll. Ada Dianova, formerly a popular Ukrainian stage actress, is the facility’s director.

Lvov Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald

  Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald

Bald has led Bais Aron V’Yisroel Synagogue since 1993, when he was sent to Ukraine by the Karlin-Stolin rebbe. His wife, Sara, helped establish the Acheinu Lauder school, which now has an enrollment of about 60 children. The synagogue offers restaurant services by order for groups, families or individuals.   It also organizes bus or car transportation, translators, guides, archive investigations and kosher food.

Community activist Meylakh Sheykhet, who heads the local bureau of the Union of Councils for Jewsof the Former Soviet Union, leads an Orthodox prayer group that meets in a building adjacent to the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue (54 Starojevrejskaja Street).  There is also a small kosher canteen in the building.  In addition to feeding the poor, the kitchen can provide kosher meals to visitors.

Meylakh Sheykhet at the ruins of Golden Rose Synagogue

Meylakh Sheykhet at the ruins of Golden Rose Synagogue

While Jewish leaders say that relations with most of the community at large are positive, there remains an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Lvov.  Jewish monuments and buildings are regularly vandalized and anti-Semitic slogans appear on fences and walls throughout the city.

Sights
Bais Aron V’Yisroel, a modest yellow building not far from the train station (4 Brothers Miknovski Street; 380-322-383-804), was built in 1924. Architect Aba Kornbluth designed it in the tradition of Renaissance synagogues of the 17th century. The Nazis used the building as a stable and the Communists later converted it into a warehouse. It was returned to the Jewish community in 1989.

Inside the synagogue, there are a number of hand-painted frescoes depicting animals, birds, a Torah and other Jewish symbols. The frescoes suffered significant damage due to many years of neglect during Soviet times but were recently brought back to splendor as part of a major interior restoration project under the supervision of architect Aron Ostreicher, who is known for reconstructing synagogues around the world. Funding was provided by American George Rohr and other philanthropists. Bais Aron V’Yisroel was rededicated in late 2007.

Lvov's only active synagogue

 Bais Aron V’Yisroel, Lvov’s only active synagogue

The Golden Rose Synagogue, which for centuries was the center of Jewish culture in Lvov, was burned down by the Nazis in 1942. Part of the structure’s northern wall has survived and it bears a plaque written in English, Hebrew and Ukrainian. Sheykhet is raising money to clean up debris at the site and conduct an archaeological excavation in hopes of recovering Jewish artifacts dating back more than 400 years.

Little remains of the old Jewish quarter of Lvov. A pink building at 3 Ugolna Street is the site of a mid-19th-century synagogue, yeshiva and mikve. It survived the Holocaust and was the city’s only functioning synagogue between 1945 and 1962, when it was closed by the Soviets.

Two other prominent synagogues that did not survive the Holocaust are recalled today with markers.

In the Old Market Square, near where the city was founded in the 13th century, a plaque marks the location of what was the largest Reform synagogue in Galicia. A few blocks away, near an outdoor market at the corner of Sanska and Vesela Streets, is the site of the former Hasidic Grand Synagogue, originally built in the 17th century. Both structures were destroyed in 1941.

One of the more exotic looking buildings in the city, the former Jewish Hospital (8 Rappaport Street), was built in 1904. It features a Moorish-style multicolored dome decorated with Stars of David. The building still functions as a gynecological hospital.

A memorial to the victims of the Lvov ghetto stands at Chornovola Street, near the railroad bridge. Built in 1992 with government funding, at one end of the monument there is a large statue of a Jew staring up at the heavens with one hand open in hope, the other clenched in protest. A menora at the front of the memorial is inscribed in Ukrainian with the words “remember and keep in your heart.”

The Museum of the History of Religions (1 Muzeina Street) displays about 50 items of Judaica, including an early-20th-century matza-making device. Thousands of other artifacts confiscated from the Jewish community during the Communist era, many never seen by the public, remain stored in Lvov museums. Jewish leaders are petitioning the government for their return.

About 15 minutes by car from Old Town is the site of the Janowska labor camp. A large memorial stone inscribed with “200,000” recalls the number of people who were murdered there, most of them Jews.

Other Sights
For a stunning view of Old Town and the green-domed churches below, climb the wooden staircase in the clock tower in the 19th-century Town Hall, in Rynok Square.

The ornate Ivan Franko Opera and Ballet Theater, built at the turn of the 20th century, is located at the north end of the city’s main street, Prospect Svobody (Freedom Avenue). There are several performances a week.

Lvov Town Hall Clock Tower

Town Hall Clock Tower

Side Trip
About 20 miles north of Lvov is Zhovkva, a former artists’ colony. Jews settled there at the end of the 16th century and, in 1700, built the Grand Synagogue, one of the largest in Galicia. Its interior was mostly destroyed in the Holocaust, but its pink Renaissance-style exterior and some inner frescoes of Torah passages as well as the Ark have survived. The building was partially restored after the war and converted into a furniture store. It now sits empty.

Drive 85 miles south of Lvov to reach Ivano-Frankivsk, a metropolis of about 200,000 residents named after the famous Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko. The town is the major gateway into the Carpathian Mountains, where hiking and skiing are popular activities. The mountain area also offers the opportunity to see rural Ukrainian villages that time seems to have forgotten.

Personalities
Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose short stories were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lived in Lvov for several months in 1906 and was involved with the Yiddish theater there. The site of his residence, an apartment building at 1 Kotljarska Street, bears a large plaque honoring its former tenant.

Lvov Sholem Aleichem former home

Plaque at the former home of Sholem Aleichem

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and social activist, was born in Vienna in 1878 but spent much of his childhood in Lvov with his grandfather Solomon Buber, a renowned scholar in his own right. Martin Buber wrote about Zionism, Hasidism and is perhaps best known for his essay on existence, “I and Thou.”

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was living in Lvov when the Nazis invaded in 1941. He and his wife were imprisoned in Janowska , from which Wiesenthal escaped in 1943. He fought with the partisans before being recaptured in 1944. Two years after being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, he helped establish the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria. Wiesenthal, author of The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Schocken), later moved to the United States and dedicated his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

Books, Films
Eliah Yones provides an in-depth account of the Holocaust in Lvov in Smoke in the Sand: Jews of Lvov in the War Years, 1939-1944 (Gefen). After escaping the Lvov ghetto to the nearby forests, Yones joined the partisans in fighting the Germans. His book details the role of the Judenrat (Jewish council), which provided work for as many as 5,000 people in the ghetto at one time.

Robert Marshall’s In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival From the Holocaust (Scribner) chronicles the plight of 20 Jews who survived by hiding for more than a year in the city’s sewer system.

The Jews of Poland—Five Cities: Bialystok, Lvov, Krakow, Vilna and Warsaw (Ergo) is a documentary account of the vibrancy of Jewish life in the region before the Holocaust. It was filmed in 1938-1939 and is available in both Yiddish and English.

More recently, portions of Schindler’s List were shot in Lvov’s Old Town, as production costs there were lower than in Krakow, where the story is set.

Recommendations
Tour guide Alexander Denisenko, owner of Travel Ukraine Agency (380-506-710-725), has studied at Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel and is an expert on the Holocaust and Jewish sights in the region. He can also help with genealogy research at the local branch of the Ukrainian Central Historical Archive (3 Soborna Street), the largest repository of genealogical information about Jews in Galicia.

Lvov meat market

  Lvov meat market

There are no kosher restaurants in Lvov, although Seven Piglets (9 Bandera Street; 380-322-975-507) is a good choice for authentic Ukrainian cuisine and offers several vegetarian options.

The Opera Hotel (45 Prospect Svobody; 380-322-259-000), located across the street from the Ivan Franko theater, is a newer establishment with clean and comfortable rooms and within walking distance of most Jewish attractions.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Lvov, but there are connections from Vienna, Frankfurt and Warsaw. as well as train and bus connections from Kiev, Odessa, Krakow and other East European cities.

However one arrives, it is worth spending several days in Lvov. Strolling down the cobblestoned streets in the Old Town and admiring the eclectic architecture is perhaps the city’s greatest pleasure.

Visiting Lvov also presents an opportunity to see a Jewish community that, despite serious challenges, courageously continues to observe centuries-old traditions.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
riga jewish memorial

The Jewish Traveler: Riga

By | Jewish Travel, Latvia | No Comments

A tumultuous past maybe, but the Jews are now on solid ground and Latvia’s repentant capital is one of Europe’s cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations.

Hadassah magazine – October, 2003

After a half century of Soviet occupation that dulled its luster and broke its spirit, Riga is on the mend. The city has undergone a stirring revitalization since Latvia regained its independence a dozen years ago. Now, with large, flower-filled parks, an eclectic mix of fascinating architecture and a medieval Old Town that is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets, Riga is once again becoming worthy of its pre-World War II sobriquet—Paris of the Baltics.

Riga's Art Nouveau architecture

Riga’s famous Art Nouveau architecture

The city also features several sites that chronicle the tumultuous and tragic history of its Jews. Recent years have brought long-awaited government recognition of Latvian culpability in the Holocaust, the construction of Jewish memorials and a modest revival of Riga’s once strong Jewish community.

Perched on the Daugava River about 10 miles inland from the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe, Riga is Latvia’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 850,000. The city underwent major renovations in 2001 to celebrate its 800-year anniversary and is one of the cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations in Europe.

About half of Riga’s residents and a majority of the city’s Jews speak Russian as their first language, a legacy of Soviet times when they came to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union. Since breaking free in 1991, Latvia has embraced democracy and a free-market economy. As a result, it has been invited to join both the European Union and NATO in 2004. But westernization has not brought the crowds that flock to other East European cities like Prague and Budapest. Visitors will find plenty of elbowroom to enjoy all that Riga has to offer.

The heart of the city is known as Vecriga, or Old Town, a maze of crooked streets flanked by historic buildings, towering church steeples, cafés and art galleries. Strolling through Old Town is perhaps Riga’s greatest pleasure. Street musicians perform Latvian folksongs, a nice backdrop for the interesting mishmash of Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Art Nouveau architecture.

Indeed, Riga boasts one of the largest and best-preserved collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. This distinctive German architectural style, also called Jugendstil, dates back about 100 years and features ornately crafted sculptures of flowers, animals, angels, monsters and other odd creatures. Some of Riga’s most stunning Art Nouveau buildings, clustered on Alberta Street in an area just northeast of Old Town, were designed by Jewish architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Art Nouveau architecture comprises about 40 percent of the buildings in central Riga.

History
Jews came relatively late to what is now Latvia; in the early fourteenth century they had been banned from settling in the region by an official decree of the ruling Master of the German Order. Some began to settle in the eastern part of the country in 1561 when that area fell under Polish rule, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only the most successful were given permission to reside in Riga. Even so, they were forced to live in special inns called Judenherberge and were not allowed to be buried in the city.

Memorial at Riga's Big Choral Synagogue

Memorial at Riga’s Big Choral Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941

Consequently, Jews had to shuttle their dead to graveyards in Poland until 1725, when they were finally given permission to build a cemetery. Still, by the mideighteenth century, Riga had just a few hundred Jewish residents. (In contrast, neighboring Lithuania was much more hospitable at the time and its largest city, Vilnius, became one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe.)

Despite a number of restrictions on buying land, choice of profession and education, by the eighteenth century Jews began to have an economic and cultural impact. They became expert craftsmen and prominent in such fields as timber, finance and medicine. Most of the city’s Jews lived in a ghetto in an area called Maskavas, less than a mile southeast of Old Town (due to Nazi destruction, there are few remnants today of the ghetto). In the nineteenth century, restrictions on Jews were eased and many began to move out of Maskavas into other parts of the city. By 1897, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Riga, about 8 percent of the city’s population.

Jews played a prominent role in the formation of an independent Latvian state between the two world wars. During this period, Jewish schools, theaters and newspapers thrived. From 1920 to 1935, the number of Jews in Riga grew from 24,000 to an all-time high of 44,000, more than 11 percent of the city’s inhabitants. At one time, there were as many as 14 synagogues. Riga even briefly became a focal point of the global Lubavitch movement in the late 1920’s when the Latvian government gave shelter and citizenship to its leader, Joseph I. Schneersohn, who had been exiled from the Soviet Union. From Latvia, the rebbe went to Poland before emigrating to the United States.

In 1940, the Red Army entered Riga and leading Jewish political and religious leaders were arrested. About 5,000 Jews were among the thousands of Latvians deported to Siberia. Riga fell to the Germans on July 1, 1941, and Nazi atrocities against the Jews began that day when hundreds were executed as “retribution” for the Germans who were killed during the taking of Old Town. One of the most horrific crimes during the Nazi occupation of Latvia took place just three days later. On July 4, 1941, more than 300 Jews—many of whom were refugees from Lithuania—were herded into the basement of the Big Choral Synagogue. German soldiers threw grenades into the windows and the building was burned down. There were no survivors.

Some 77,000 Jews from Latvia, and 30,000 to 40,000 more who were transported from other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, were killed on Latvian soil. Many were marched from the Riga ghetto in the winter of 1941-1942 to the Rumbula and Bikernieku forests, a few miles from the city center. There they were shot at a rate of up to 1,000 per hour, falling on top of those who had died before. Many of the killers were members of the local Latvian police force. Jews also perished at the Kaiserwald prison camp in the suburb of Mezaparks and at the Salaspils concentration camp 12 miles southeast of Riga. Only about 150 of Riga’s Jews survived the war. Some were saved by local residents; others managed to survive until the Red Army recaptured the city in the summer of 1944.

The end of the war brought the return of thousands of Latvian Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. Other Jews from throughout the Soviet Union also settled in Riga. In the 1970’s, Riga became a major center of Jewish dissident activity. By 1989, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Riga’s Jewish population had climbed to about 23,000, a number that has steadily dwindled in recent years, as many Jews have emigrated to Israel, Great Britain and the United States. Of those who remain, more than a third do not hold Latvian citizenship due to restrictive naturalization laws enacted after independence that were aimed at the country’s large Russian minority. Such laws have been eased in the past few years, although applicants for citizenship still must pass a Latvian language test.

Community
Riga’s Jewish community is well organized in a model resembling Jewish federations in American cities. Religious life is headed by Rabbi Nathan Barkan, chief rabbi of Riga and Latvia. There are a number of Jewish schools in Riga that educate several hundred students at all age levels, a Jewish hospital and numerous organizations representing Jewish interests.

Under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, Chabad has had an active presence in Riga for more than 10 years. The organization runs Jewish schools and summer camps, helps feed the poor, holds a community Seder each Passover, erects a sukka in one of Riga’s main parks and otherwise attempts to rekindle Jewish traditions that were largely dormant during Soviet times.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

  Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

One of the more visible components of Riga’s Jewish community is the Center for Judaic Studies, created in 1998 and housed in the University of Latvia’s main building at Rainis Boulevard 19 (e-mail: ad@lanet.lv). Headed by Professor Ruvin Ferber, the center offers courses in Jewish history, tradition and philosophy. It has a small library and every two years organizes an international conference called “Jews in a Changing World.” Notably, the opening ceremony to the 2001 conference drew the Latvian government’s president, past president, prime minister and several cabinet ministers.

Relations between the Latvian government and the Jewish community have been on solid footing in recent years. Latvia’s popular president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the few women heads of state in the world, has been vocal in her support of the Jewish community and has initiated a Holocaust education program in the schools. Sadly, though, the government has not successfully prosecuted any Latvian war criminals, and until recently failed to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Latvian collaborators during the Holocaust.

Sights
Riga’s sole surviving synagogue, the Peitav Shul, celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2005.

Riga's Peitav Shul

The Peitav Shul, Riga’s sole surviving synagogue

Located at Peitavas 6/8 (telephone: 011-371-722-4549), this tall, narrow Orthodox prayer house is tightly wedged between other buildings in Old Town, a fact that likely saved it from Nazi destruction. It is believed that the Nazis would have burned it down as they did the other synagogues, but its proximity to neighboring buildings made them afraid to set it afire. Instead, they converted it into a warehouse and horse stall. The synagogue features a traditional two-story interior—women pray upstairs—and there is a small display in the lobby with items about Latvia’s Jewish community.

About a 15-minute walk from the Peitav Shul, at the busy intersection of Gogola and Dzirnavu Streets, stands the remains of the Big Choral Synagogue. In 1988, a large gray memorial stone was placed a few feet from the synagogue’s surviving brick foundation. It is not uncommon to see flowers and candles at the base of the memorial.

The Jewish Community Center, known locally as Aleph, is located in the central part of the city at Skolas 6 (371-728-9580). The building dates back to before World War I and once housed a Jewish theater. It assumed its current function in 2000 with financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The building’s third floor houses a small but informative museum called The Jews in Latvia (371-728-3484; open Sunday through Thursday 12 to 5), which chronicles the history of Jewish life in Latvia going back to the eighteenth century. Exhibits show the many contributions of Jews in Latvian society, as well as the suffering experienced at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. An uplifting section called “The Jewish People Survived” showcases the rebirth of Jewish life in Latvia since independence. At the entrance to the museum, visitors can purchase maps that identify the locations of former Jewish sites in Riga, including the Old Jewish Cemetery on Liksnas Street, which was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted by the Soviets into the Park of the Communist Brigades.

Jewish memorial in Latvia's Bikernieku Forest

Jewish memorial in Bikernieku Forest outside of Riga

Two memorials, recently erected in forests just outside Riga, have brought renewed attention to the Holocaust in Latvia. In 2001, one was dedicated in the Bikernieku forest, where about 30,000 Jews perished in 1942. Funded in part by a German charitable fund, the memorial consists of a white altar surrounded by jagged rocks. Each section of rocks represents a liquidated Jewish community from where the victims originated.

In November 2002, another memorial was unveiled at the Rumbula forest, where about 25,000 Jews were murdered in 1941. Significantly, the Rumbula monument acknowledges the involvement of the local population in the massacre. President Vike-Freiberga, who attended the dedication ceremony, called it “a day of mourning for all of Latvia because this crime happened on our soil and our people took part in it.” The memorial, funded by donations from Germany, Israel, Latvia and the United States, includes a large menora surrounded by miniature obelisks bearing victims’ names.

Riga’s most impressive museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Streinieku laukums 1; 371-721-2715; closed Mondays), thoroughly documents the destruction of Latvian sovereignty by the Soviets and Nazis. Located near the Daugava River in Old Town in a building that looks like a big black box, the museum includes historical documents, artifacts, pictures and a replica of a barracks in a Siberian Soviet prison camp where thousands of Latvians were deported. There is also a small section devoted to the Holocaust, including a display of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.

Other Sights
Given the country’s history, it’s not hard to understand why Riga’s Freedom Monument is such an important symbol to Latvians. Erected in 1935 and located at the intersection of Brivibas and Raina Streets just east of Old Town, the monument is topped by a bronze female statue affectionately called Milda by the locals and bears the Latvian inscription Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom). Two soldiers guard the monument and there’s an hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Latvians regularly lay flowers at the base of the monument to honor the victims of totalitarianism. It is said that those who dared to do so during Soviet times ended up with an extended, all-expenses paid vacation to Siberia.

For a magnificent view of Old Town from above, visit the thirteenth-century St. Peter’s Church (Skarnu 19). There’s an elevator that goes to the top of the spire, which at one time was the highest tower in Europe. Another impressive church in Old Town is the red-brick Dome Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics. It also dates back to the thirteenth century and now houses a 6,768-pipe organ, the fourth largest in the world.

The best place for shoppers to spend a lat (as the local money is called) or two is the centraltirgus, or central market, one of Europe’s largest and most colorful markets. It is housed in and around five huge buildings that were used as zeppelin hangars during World War I. There are more than 1,000 vendors, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to bootleg CD’s and fake Rolex watches. Amber jewelry is the most pervasive item sold in Riga’s souvenir shops.

Latvia's Salaspils concentration camp

  Salaspils concentration camp

Side Trips
In the Salaspils concentration camp where tens of thousands of people were murdered, visitors aregreeted by a huge concrete wall bearing the words: “Beyond these gates the earth groans.”

On the grounds inside stand several large sculptures that evoke the suffering and defiance of the camp’s victims. A metronome inside a long block of polished stone ticks endlessly, a haunting echo of the hearts that once beat at the camp. Salaspils is a half-hour drive from Riga, or you can take a train to the Darzini station and then walk on a path through the woods for about 20 minutes to the memorial.

Known as the “Switzerland of Latvia,” Sigulda, a small town 90 minutes east by train, is one of the most popular day-trip destinations from Riga. With hills instead of mountains, Sigulda may not entirely deserve such a nickname. But it is a great place for hikers to explore, with sandstone caves, lakes and a picturesque wooded valley dissected by the Gauja River. Sigulda also features the impressive red-brick Turaida Castle, which dates back to 1214.

Reading
The Latvians: A Short History (Hoover Institution Press) by Andrejs Plakans gives a good overview of Latvian history from medieval times to the mid-1990’s, with an emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Max Michelson’s City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga (University Press of Colorado) chronicles his experiences and ultimate survival in Riga’s Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide is one of the few guidebooks devoted specifically to Latvia. Riga in Your Pocket, a small booklet sold in Riga hotels and souvenir shops (it can also be viewed on the Internet: www.inyourpocket. com/latvia/riga/en), provides up-to-date information about sightseeing, hotels and restaurants.

Recommendations
One of Old Riga’s most comfortable and reasonably priced hotels is the Radi un Draugi (Friends and Relatives). Owned and run by British Latvians, the hotel is just a block away from the Pietav Shul and offers clean and quiet rooms (371-722-0372; fax: 371-724-2239; e-mail: radi@drau gi.lv). More upscale and located in the city center not far from the Jewish Community Center is the Reval Hotel Latvija, one of Riga’s largest and poshest hotels (371-777-2222; fax: 371-777-2221; e-mail: latvija.sales@revalhotels.com). The bar on the twenty-sixth floor offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city.

For kosher food, Café Lechaim (371-728-0235; entrance on Dzirnavu Street) is a small restaurant located in a corner basement of the Jewish Community Center. The food is simple and cheap. Shalom (371-736-4911), a five-minute taxi ride away at A. Briana 10, offers nonkosher Jewish dishes. Look for blue neon Stars of David in the front window.

Riga isn’t the easiest place to get to. There are no direct flights from the United States and its fairly remote location in northeastern Europe makes it a long bus or train ride from other major European cities. But it’s well worth taking a side trip from places like London, Moscow, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Warsaw or Prague, all of which offer nonstop flights into Riga. It’s a rare chance to see an alluring, vibrant and historic city that is yet untarnished by hordes of tourists.

© 2008 Dan Fellner

Tokyo synagogue kippahs for sale

Judaism with a Japanese twist

By | Japan, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Jewish response to tragedy in Japan demonstrates tikkun olam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – June 8, 2012

TOKYO- It was the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011, and Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu was busy getting ready for Shabbat services at the Jewish Community of Japan’s building in an upscale section of central Tokyo called Shibuya.

At 2:46 p.m., the building started to shake, an alarm sounded, and Di Gesu and the rest of his small staff rushed outside. Standing in a parking lot, he could see buildings in the neighborhood actually swaying back and forth and the ground beneath him made him feel like he was on an airport people-mover.

Tokyo Rabbi Di Gesu

Rabbi Antonio Di Gesu in the sanctuary of the Jewish Community of Japan

“The asphalt was moving – going back and forth,” he recalls. “It was like being in a dream.”

Di Gesu had been living in Japan for two years and had felt tremors there several times before, but nothing close to the 9.0 earthquake – the biggest in Japanese recorded history – that rocked the island that Friday afternoon and triggered a massive tsunami in the northeastern part of the country.

Once it became clear that Tokyo had escaped relatively unscathed, Di Gesu decided to go forward with Shabbat services that evening, even though only four people turned up.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said, noting the Shabbat prayers “had a different meaning this time, as the roaring waters mentioned in the psalms were not a poetical image, but in reality a few hundred kilometers from us.”

Wanting to learn more about Jewish life in the world’s largest metropolitan area, I met Di Gesu on a rainy afternoon at the Jewish Community of Japan in late April during a weeklong visit to Tokyo. I also asked him about the much-heralded Jewish response to what proved to be the most expensive natural disaster in human history.

Centered off the northeastern coast of Japan near the city of Sendai, about 190 miles north of Tokyo, the quake and tsunami led to a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in the region. Nearly 20,000 people lost their lives and more than 300,000 Japanese were rendered homeless. Property damage has been estimated at $235 billion.

As soon as Shabbat ended, Di Gesu was contacted by the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo about getting involved in relief efforts. Even though none of the estimated 2,000 Jews living in Japan had been killed, hurt or even displaced by the tragedy, Di Gesu didn’t hesitate. After all, he thought, what better way to demonstrate one of Judaism’s guiding principles – tikkun olam (repairing the world)?

Jewish Community of Japan building

Entrance to the Jewish Community of Japan building

Di Gesu sent out an email to his congregants appealing for help. One bought more than two tons of flour and had it delivered to the displaced. Another congregant, an 11-year-old girl named Lucie Kapner whose father teaches at the JCC’s Sunday school, single-handedly organized a bicycle collection program. Nearly 100 bicycles were sent to disaster victims in a destitute town.

“I was extremely proud of her,” said Di Gesu. “It meant that her parents had taught her the right things, had instilled in her good Jewish values.”

Other congregants organized food drives and took time off work to help with the cleanup. An account at a Japanese bank was set up for Jews in Japan and around the world to donate money. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations got involved. All told, Jews around the world contributed nearly $3 million in disaster relief, according to Di Gesu.

“The most amazing thing to us is that we had so much support from abroad – from all over Europe and all over the U.S.,” he said.

Israel was one of the first countries to come to Japan’s aid, establishing a 50-member field hospital in a coastal fishing village that was devastated by the tsunami. When the Israelis finished their work, they left behind most of the medical equipment they had brought with them.

The Chabad House of Tokyo also played a vital role in disaster relief. Rabbi Binyomin Edery, who has lived in Tokyo since 1999, made more than 50 trips to northern Japan, personally delivering aid supplies.

Di Gesu said the Jewish assistance has helped build important “bridges of understanding” with the Japanese public, many of whom had known little about Jews before the disaster, good or bad. “They come with no baggage,” he said of the Japanese attitude toward Jews, adding that in his three years in Japan, the only anti-Semitism he has witnessed came from foreigners.

There are only two synagogues in Japan – one in Kobe and the Jewish Community of Japan, a Conservative congregation in Tokyo that was established in 1953. That original synagogue was torn down in 2008 and replaced on the same site a year later with a sleek, gray-block building designed by an award-winning Japanese architect.

Yarmulkes made from kimono fabric in Japan

A challah cover and yarmulkes made from kimono fabric

Di Gesu said at one time the site was home to a samurai mansion. When going inside, visitors are politely asked to remove their shoes and replace them with slippers, a Japanese custom. The most popular items for sale in the gift shop are colorful challah covers and yarmulkes handmade from Japanese-kimono fabric.

It’s Judaism with a Japanese twist.

The building also contains more traditional Jewish elements, such as a sanctuary, kosher kitchen (meat is imported from the U.S.), a Hebrew school, library and mikvah. About 100 families belong to the congregation, 80 percent of whom are American. Di Gesu said many of the congregants have Japanese spouses.

Visitors to Japan are welcome to attend Shabbat services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings or enjoy a kosher meal in a congenial atmosphere (reservations are suggested, rsvp@jccjapan.or.jp).

Like most of his congregants, Di Gesu is an expatriate. He was born in Sicily, went to college in Rome, and later graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Before coming to Japan, he led a Conservative congregation in Long Island, N.Y. He speaks seven languages and has translated half a dozen books from Hebrew to Italian.

Tokyo pagoda

A five-story pagoda in the Asakusa section of Tokyo

What’s it like being a rabbi in Japan? “It’s absolutely unique,” he said. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re at the end of the world. We are really far away.”

Di Gesu said there’s a common misconception that Japanese people are not religious. “Being in the religion business, it’s interesting to me how religion pervades everything, even though when you ask them, they tell you, ‘No, I’m not religious.'”

For example, Di Gesu said that at the groundbreaking of the new synagogue, a Shinto priest was brought in to offer a blessing at the request of the Japanese construction crew. “Otherwise, they refused to work,” he said.

Di Gesu misses the multiculturalism of New York City. People say Japanese culture is so homogenous that even the cab drivers are Japanese. But Di Gesu is making the most of the experience, taking Japanese-language classes three times a week and immersing himself in Japanese culture.

“Yes, I miss the multiculturalism,” he said. “But here you can learn about a really rich culture that’s totally fascinating.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Barbados synagogue

A secret in the Caribbean

By | Barbados, Cruising, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Barbados home to historically significant Jewish sites

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 6, 2012

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – It may be one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean.

Barbados, known best for its spectacular white-sand beaches, posh resorts and a rich British colonial heritage, also happens to be home to one of the most historically significant Jewish sites in the Americas.

Barbados synagogue

The historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados

I recently visited Bridgetown, the picturesque capital city of Barbados, during an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise on the Holland America Maasdam.  Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean, with a population of about 286,000.  It achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.

After a leisurely 30-minute walk from the Maasdam to downtown Bridgetown, I reached a street called Synagogue Lane, turned right and soon found myself in a small courtyard, marveling at several centuries of Jewish history.

In this quiet complex five blocks north of the Barbados Parliament building, visitors can see a reconstructed Sephardic synagogue called Nidhe Israel (“the scattered of Israel”).  The original building dates back to 1654, making it the earliest constructed synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use today.  There is also a Jewish cemetery with more than 300 graves, an interactive museum chronicling the important role Jews played in the island’s history, and a recently discovered 17th-century mikvah, or ritual bath.

Barbados Jewish museum

Museum Manager Celso Brewster discusses the history of the Barbados Jewish community

I had previously visited historic synagogues on the Caribbean islands of Curacao and St. Thomas, both of which are famous for their sand-covered floors.  Those two shuls may be better-known and attract more visitors than their Barbados counterpart, yet Nidhe Israel is the only one of the three dating back to the 17th century.  (The Curacao synagogue, consecrated in 1732, has the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.)

Celso Brewster, who has been the manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum since it first opened in 2008, showed us around the facility. Our port-stop in Barbados happened to fall on a Sunday, and with the museum normally closed on weekends, I was afraid I would not be able to see its exhibits.

But I had contacted Brewster in advance of our visit, and he was kind enough to open up the museum and synagogue for me and several other passengers on the Maasdam, including a rabbi whom Holland America brought onboard to lead Shabbat and Hanukkah services during the cruise.  (Contact Brewster by email at nidhe@caribsurf.com and he will gladly arrange weekend viewings.)

Inside Barbados synagogue

The sanctuary inside the Nidhe Israel Synagogue

Inside the museum, we learned that Jews first arrived on Barbados in 1628, driven from Brazil by the Inquisition.  They brought with them expertise in growing sugar cane and in windmill technology.  As noted on the exhibit greeting visitors at the museum’s entrance:  “For these Jews and their descendants, coconut milk and sugar cane were the milk and honey of the land promised to the people of Abraham.”

With Nidhe Israel as its anchor, the Jewish community in Barbados prospered under British rule.  The synagogue was destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and later rebuilt.  But the number of Jews living on the island slowly dwindled over the years due to emigration and assimilation. It is believed that the last of the Sephardic descendants of the Brazilian Jews left the island in 1929.  The synagogue fell into disrepair and was sold.

The community was slowly re-established in the 1930s by Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe who built another synagogue, Shaare Tzedek, in a residential neighborhood. However, Nidhe Israel remained neglected and unused as a house of worship.  The Barbadian government announced plans to demolish it in 1980 to make way for a new Supreme Court building.

But Paul Altman, a prominent Jewish businessman whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Nidhe Israel, pleaded with the prime minister of Barbados to save the historic building.

Barbados Jewish cemetery

The restored Jewish cemetery has a gravestone dating back to 1658

“He went to the prime minister armed with photographs taken in the 1800s of the inside of the synagogue,” said Brewster.  “And the prime minister then relented and told him that if you can raise the funds to save the synagogue, the government will return the synagogue to Jewish hands.”

Altman launched an international fundraising campaign and was able to raise more than $1 million to restore the synagogue.  After being dormant for nearly 60 years, Nidhe Israel was rededicated in 1987.  The two-story pink building, with beautiful Gothic arches, features stunning chandeliers, and an ark and bimah crafted with Barbadian mahogany.  The building is now owned by the Barbados National Trust.

From December through March, the synagogue hosts Friday night services for the island’s nearly 100 year-round Jewish residents, not to mention the scores of Jewish tourists who flock to Barbados during the winter months.  Members of the congregation conduct the services, as there is no rabbi.  Shaare Tzedek, which is air-conditioned and has a kitchen, is used for services during the rest of the year.

Barbados mikvah

The recently discovered 17th century full-immersion mikvah

The Jewish cemetery, which has a gravestone dating all the way back to 1658, was also restored.  And in 2008, a 260-year-old building in the same complex – originally a Jewish school – reopened as the Nidhe Israel Museum.  Its main hall includes several interactive exhibits as well as a floor with glass panels covering sand embedded with artifacts from the cemetery.

The final attraction was discovered in 2008 when archaeologists were digging in the site’s parking lot looking for what had been the rabbi’s house.  Instead, they unearthed an ancient full-immersion mikvah, believed to have been built even before the synagogue.  But at first, they weren’t sure what it was.

“We thought maybe it was a flooded storeroom filled with ancient rainwater,” said Brewster.  “Then one day, two Israeli tourists came, looked over the top, and said, ‘Oh, you have a mikvah.’  That is how we knew for sure.”

Bridgetown Barbados

Bridgetown, the colorful capital city of Barbados

Brewster said the museum averages only about seven visitors per day, a number he believes will steadily grow as word spreads of the historical treasures awaiting Jewish tourists to Barbados.  He especially hopes to attract a larger share of the nearly 500,000 passengers who arrive each year at Bridgetown’s cruise terminal.

“This has been called the greatest secret in Bridgetown,” he said. “Even Barbadians don’t know we exist.

“It is a very, very historical site, not only for Barbados, but for the Jews who fled the Inquisition, both in Europe and South America. It represents a new beginning, and so therefore, everyone should know about it.  Everyone should see it.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

 

Vietnam Jewish Chabad

Homemade challah in Ho Chi Minh City

By | Jewish Travel, Vietnam | No Comments

Chabad meeting the needs of Jews in Vietnam

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – January 14, 2011

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Carefully following the directions I printed off the Chabad-Lubavitch website, I set off on foot in Ho Chi Minh City in search of the sole outpost of Jewish communal life in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City

 Chabad’s new facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I passed the InterContinental Hotel on Hai Ba Troung Street and made a right turn at the heavily guarded French consulate.

Each street crossing was perilous with throngs of Vietnamese motorbike drivers seemingly paying no attention to pedestrians.  Even the sidewalks offered little respite from the chaos as food stalls, newspaper hawkers and parked scooters left scant room for walking.

Continuing on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street past a soccer stadium, I turned left at alley #12 and walked another 200 yards. There, on the left side of the alley, across from a row of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit to stir-fried meals of rice and meat, was a three-story villa marked “5A” with a large blue sign in Hebrew and English welcoming me to “Chabad Jewish Center Vietnam.”

It might have been a rather unusual setting for a Jewish house of worship. But as I learned when I stepped inside and met with Rabbi Menachem Hartman, Judaism in this Southeast Asian city of 9 million people is surprisingly robust.

As we sipped papaya shakes prepared in Chabad’s kosher kitchen, Hartman, a 29-year-old Israeli, told me about Jewish life in Ho Chi Minh City. He and his wife arrived here in 2006 to establish the first permanent Chabad center in the country.

Hartman said 150-200 Jews – “it’s up and down” – live in Ho Chi Minh City year-round.  They are drawn to the country for its growing economic opportunities, warm climate and relatively inexpensive cost of living.

Rabbi Menachem Hartman

 Rabbi Menachem Hartman in the Chabad sanctuary

There is also a group of businesspeople whose work brings them to the country on a regular basis, as well as Jewish travelers coming for a one-time visit.  I fit into the latter category, as I was on a 10-day vacation in Vietnam and Cambodia with my friend Henry Stein of Tempe.

Wherever they come from and whatever brings them to Vietnam, many feel compelled to connect with fellow Jews and visit Chabad House.

“Each has their own reason for coming here,” said Hartman. “Some come for the kosher food. Some want to hear Hebrew. Some are just missing home.”

He said 40-50 visitors attend Shabbat services every Friday evening. Afterward, they sit down to a meal of homemade challah, Israeli salad, soup and kosher meat imported from nearby Thailand.

To keep up with the growing number of visitors, Chabad moved to a new facility in October, twice the size of its previous location. The kosher kitchen and a spacious restaurant occupy the first floor. The second floor houses a sanctuary and library.

Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

 Motorbikes are popular transport in Ho Chi Minh City

The top floor hosts Sunday school classes and an everyday kindergarten with six children enrolled. During my December visit, the school was closed because Rachel Hartman, the rabbi’s wife and one of the school’s teachers, had temporarily returned to Israel to give birth to the couple’s third child.

There also are plans soon to build a mikvah, or ritual bath.

It’s beautiful,” Hartman said of the new facility. “People who are coming feel more comfortable. We feel very happy being here.”

During his tenure in Vietnam, the rabbi has presided over seders, High Holiday services, one bris and three bar mitzvahs, one of which was for a family that stopped in Vietnam while on a cruise.

“You need an open mind for different things, different ideas,” he said of being a rabbi in Southeast Asia. “For me, everything looks normal. For some people, this looks unbelievable.”

When Chabad first opened in the country, Hartman said there was some reticence on the part of the Vietnamese government, which was concerned that there would be an attempt to convert the local population to Judaism.

“They know that’s not what we do,” he said, adding that relations now with the government are positive. “They are OK with us.”

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 following the withdrawal of American troops. Saigon, which had been the capital of South Vietnam and the headquarters for America’s military during the war, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the former leader of North Vietnam. Most locals, though, still refer to the city as “Saigon.”

Vietnam fruit vendors

 Vietnam fruit vendors

Hartman said he has met several dozen Jewish war veterans who have come back to visit the country in which they fought 40 years ago. One veteran – a doctor and regular Chabad visitor – returns each year to volunteer at a medical clinic.

“He told me he comes every year because he wants to give back to Vietnam what America took during the war,” he said.

Hartman said there is hope that it won’t be long before there is a formal Jewish presence in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Another Chabad facility recently opened in Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia.

“If there are Jews, there is Chabad House,” he said.

Before I left, Hartman showed me Chabad’s guestbook, which was full of glowing comments from recent visitors. One note was written by an American woman who had visited in December. She was traveling with her husband, who adheres to a kosher diet and would only eat fish at local restaurants.

“My husband was starting to look like a fish after three weeks in Vietnam,” she wrote. “Thank goodness Chabad was here and we could meet extended family and eat meat.”

© 2011 Dan Fellner