Spirituality at a Bangkok Synagogue
This essay was published in To Thailand With Love by ThingsAsian Press. 2013
As I descend towards Suvarnabhumi Airport, Wat Sothon Wararam Worawihan appears below. Since the population of Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, a temple complex near the airport is not unexpected. What is unexpected is the large Aeyatul Muslimin mosque that towers beside the airport expressway en route to downtown Bangkok.
Most Thai Muslims live in Southern Thailand, near Malaysia, but there is a sufficient population in the capital to support more than 100 local mosques. Citizens of the Hindu faith maintain several mandirs.
Christians of every denomination attend large churches or smaller neighborhood assemblies.
As an American Jew who retired to Bangkok, I expected to find a semblance of Jewish life in this city. But what took me by surprise was the vibrancy of the small yet devoted community. I met Jews from the Americas, Israel, Australia, France, England, Romania, Hungary, South Africa, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.
Temple Bet Elisheva is the center of Jewish spirituality in Thailand. Synagogue services are conducted every weekday morning. The traditional Friday evening and Saturday morning Sabbath services are always well-attended by single men and women, young families with energetic children, and faithful Jewish travelers. Our prayers are comforting and our songs are spirited.
After services, the temple meals overflow with strictly kosher Thai specialties, Middle Eastern salads, and platters of roast chicken and brisket just like our mothers used to make.
The heart of Jewish ritual and education in Thailand is Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the leader of our congregation. I always enjoy his sermons. The Rabbi weaves current events, modern cultural trends, personal anecdotes, professional experiences, the teachings of The Bible, and the wisdom of The Talmudinto his cheerful, warm, and thoughtful messages. The Rabbi speaks for five minutes or ten minutes or longer without any notes.
Rabbi Kantor is a Hasidic Jew from Australia. He follows all the commandments of our tradition. I don't believe, for example, that he has ever shaved his beard, which is long and reddish brown. He lives a strictly Orthodox Jewish life, yet he never recommends that we follow him. He never insists that we come to synagogue regularly or that we even join as a member. The Rabbi’s message is always positive as he simply encourages us to do the right thing in this world and to live our life in partnership with G-d's hopes and expectations.
My own expectations for a Jewish life here in Thailand are fulfilled during my favorite holiday, the springtime festival of Passover. Thousands of Jewish citizens, residents, retirees, international students and travelers attend the community Passover Seder and ceremonial meal. Seders are conducted in Bangkok, Koh Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai and other popular retirement and tourist areas. Prayers and songs, stories and discussion, wine and food --- oh, so much food! --- are the ingredients of this joyful retelling of our exodus from bondage in Egypt 3,000 years ago.
Who knew? Who knew that here in Thailand I would find such a welcoming and vigorous Jewish community? Who knew that I would befriend our distinguished and inspiring Rabbi? Who knew that as a member of a tiny religious minority, I could live a satisfying spiritual life halfway around the world from home? Who knew? Baruch HaShem.
Beth Elisheva Synagogue
121 Soi Sai Nam Thip 2, Sukhumvit Soi 22
Phone: (02) 663 0244
Visit www.jewishthailand.com for more information
Certain words and phrases in this essay were unfamiliar to me at the time of editing. But before I could ask Jan to clarify them, he sent me explanations that I am noting down in the hope that they will answer your questions as well, if you are not conversant Jewish customs.
G-d: Jews always hyphenate this word, so that His name can never be erased.
Who knew?: This is a New York/Jewish phrase that is repeated several times for emphasis.
Baruch HaShem: “We use this phrase instead of “Thank G-d”, so as to not speak G-d’s name too often or in vain,” writes Jan. If I ask a Jewish man, “How is your family?” or “How is your business?” he will respond, “Baruch HaShem”