Jewish Travel

Preserving Jewish Life in Taiwan

By | Jewish Travel, Taiwan | No Comments

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

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 5, 2017

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

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib in the sanctuary of the Taipei Jewish Center

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

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

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

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

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

Taipei Jewish Center

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

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

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

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

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

View of Taipei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Boise’s Surprising — and Splendid — Historic Synagogue

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

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

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

Boise synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Spiro

Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director

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

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

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

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

Ahavath Beth Israel stained-glass windows

An original stained-glass window inside Ahavath Beth Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Frank Memorial

The Anne Frank Memorial near downtown Boise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki’s Rich Jewish History

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

Oregon Jewish Life Magazine — September, 2015

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

But Greece?

Erika Perahia Zemour

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

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

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

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

Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki

The museum has 3,000 objects on display

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

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

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

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

Ancient headstones

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of Thessaloniki

        View of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city

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

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

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

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

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

Synagogue of the Monasteriotes

   The Synagogue of the Monasteriotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Dan Fellner

Fairbanks synagogue Or HaTzafon

Fairbanks: Alaska’s Frozen Chosen

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

Arizona Jewish Life Magazine — December, 2014

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

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

Malta Chabad

Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world

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

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

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

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

Ernest Gruening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cantor Kenneth Feibush

Cantorial student Kenneth Feibush in the sanctuary of Or HaTzafon

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

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

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

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

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

Frozen Chosen shirts

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

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

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

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

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

To inquire about purchasing a shirt, visiting the temple or making a donation, contact the temple at

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

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

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Bangkok's Grand Palace

The Jewish Traveler: Bangkok

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

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

Hadassah Magazine – February/March, 2014

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

Bangkok’s dazzling Grand Palace

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

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

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


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.


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; 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; 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.


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

Gold statue at Bangkok's Grand Palace

Ornate gold statue at the Grand Palace

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Thompson House

Silk-weaving at the Jim Thompson House

There may be more popular museums in Bangkok, but few are as interesting and well laid-out as the Jim Thompson House and Museum (; 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;, 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.


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.


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.


The Rembrandt Hotel Bangkok (; 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


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.

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;; 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 (, 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;; 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 (; 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;; 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;; 852-2851-6300), and Kehilat Zion (62 Mody Road in Kowloon;; 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.

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; 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;; 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 (, 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.

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.


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 (, 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 (

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;; 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 ( 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 (  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.

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.

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 (

SAVEZ and the Jewish Community of Belgrade (Kralja Petra 71a;; 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 (; 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.”

A good starting point is the Jewish Historical Museum (; 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;, 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 ( 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.

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.


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 and is also available at many Belgrade hotels.

Tour guide Branka Adamovic (; 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;; 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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