Milling around the 400- capacity ballroom as freshly suntanned guests shouted in
Hebrew to friends across the floor, I could have been at a wedding hall in Tel
But I wasn’t. Somehow, I had found myself some 7,500 kilometers
southeast and steps away from a different beach – at a massive Rosh Hashana eve
celebration hosted by Chabad of Phuket, Thailand.
And while the guests
spoke to one another as if they were lifelong friends, most had only met within
the past week, on forest treks through northern Chiang Mai greenery; on the
streets of Bangkok; or at various other Thai destinations popular among Israeli
Of the 400-some-odd, almost exclusively Israeli, attendees,
most had just finished army service, but many young couples and families were
also among the guests, as well as a select few members of the 50+
As the sun set over the glitzy Patong Beach on Sunday evening,
hundreds of Israelis donned their best and gathered at the downtown Novotel
hotel for a short prayer session followed by a traditional holiday meal of
chicken, salads, mashed potatoes, halla rolls and – reminding guests they were
still in fact in Thailand – bountiful plates of rice.
While enjoying the
meals – prepared for all four of Thailand’s Chabad houses at a central Bangkok
kitchen – guests joined together in occasional song, as two Chabad rabbis
spontaneously burst out in Ashkenazi melodies.
The next morning, about 50
people wound their way by massage parlors and tourist traps to arrive at the
Chabad House for morning prayers and a shofar service, followed by an afternoon
meal. Another cue that we were not, in fact, in Israel, was the intermittent
clamor of a power drill next door throughout the prayer hours, as well as the
aggressive honking of tuk-tuk
(motorized rickshaw) drivers eager to lure
tourists into their passenger seats.
The couple behind the festivities
were Rabbi Mendi Mendelson, 26, and his wife, Esti, 24, who together made every
detail run smoothly, while passing their giggling 15- month-old daughter Chani –
perhaps the star of the show – back and forth between each other. Having moved
to Phuket just after Chani’s birth, this was the young family’s second Rosh
Hashana at the center, which was established about five years ago.
adjustment to Phuket from her native Jerusalem and Mendi’s native Kfar Chabad
was seamless, according to Esti, as the couple had already experienced a “really
hard” transition period of two months in China after their
“After I got here, it was already good,” she said
Unlike last year, when Esti said she and her husband felt a
great amount of pressure in anticipation of the 500-person Rosh Hashana event,
this time she felt much more at ease with the preparations.
two months before. Everything was new,” Esti said.
By Passover, when
another group of 400 guests filled their tables, Esti said that she and her
husband had already adjusted well to the city and its booming tourist
For the time being, the couple is receiving help in running
the center from a second young rabbi, named Menachem, who has been rotating
every six months to Chabad Houses around the world.
They also receive the
voluntary help of a few local Israelis, such as Effi Shein, 62, who said he
“started getting involved with Chabad here and I got stuck with him, without
pay,” gesturing at Rabbi Mendelson and laughing.
When Chani is old enough
to begin school, Esti said she will primarily home-school her at the beginning,
and bring her to Bangkok on occasion to attend some classes with the other
Jewish children there.
When she is older, Chani will be able to study
online at a Chabad school that the children of Chabad emissaries around the
world use. Chani does not yet have many friends in the area to play with, but in
July and August there are always children stopping by with their families, Esti
Esti’s and Mendi’s brothers and sisters are also spread throughout
the world, with Esti’s siblings running Chabad Houses in Tbilisi, Georgia, and
Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Mendi’s siblings in Miami and Odessa.
only occasional visits to see her family in Israel, Esti said she was truly
happy in Phuket, and was especially pleased to see that the Shabbat dinner
tables were always full in her house.
Though she may be in Phuket, where
vendors perpetually hound tourists on the beach and “lady-boy” prostitutes troll
the neon-lit pandemonium of Bang La Road at nightfall, Esti said she ultimately
felt like she was still in Israel.
“I live less in Thailand. I live more
here, in the Chabad House – I live in Israel,” she said, acknowledging, however,
that the Thai appreciation of relaxation did tend to seep into the walls of the
Chabad House a bit.
Exact numbers were not available for this year by the
time of publication, as Rosh Hashana was still going on in Chabad-Lubavitch’s
worldwide New York headquarters, but in 2010, Chabad’s news website reported a
total of “9,200 matza balls, 3,200 honey cakes and 7,400 halla rolls” consumed
by celebrants in Phuket, Bangkok, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai.
The only data
available for this year, before the onset of the holiday, referred to 600
pomegranates, 13,000 halla rolls and 3,000 apples being prepared for 10,800
guests in backpacking-tourist hubs across the globe.
At the Phuket Chabad House, while the Mendelsons
do receive some funds from Chabad of Thailand in Bangkok and from the global
Chabad organization in New York, they must predominantly survive on their own,
from direct contributions, according to Esti. All Shabbat meals are free of
charge, and the only tourist income the couple receives are charges for the
first nights of Rosh Hashana and Passover – a nominal 300 baht (NIS 38) – and
the profit from low-priced meals at their kosher restaurant.
wants to cover his expenses because he’s looking for everyone to eat kosher,”
Shein said about Mendelson.
When not in peak tourism season, Mendi and
Esti host about 100 people each Friday evening, according to
During the height of travel times, however, the couple needs to
coordinate two shifts of meals, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
and from 9 to 10
p.m., to accommodate the approximately 400 people in total that tend to show up.
At Bangkok and Koh Samui, the crowds are typically even bigger, as Phuket for
many is only a transit territory, Shein explained.
“This Chabad does a
lot of good things – not only for Israelis but for any Jew,” Shein said, noting
that Shabbat guests come not only from Israel, but also from the United States,
Canada, Mexico, Britain and China.
Back at the Rosh Hashana eve event on
Sunday, chatter and laughter floated through the ballroom, as Thai hotel staff
looked on with curiosity at the age-old traditions and prayers from another
corner of the world.
Midway through the meal, Rabbi Mendelson stood up to
deliver a touching sermon – reminding all the guests that just as they were so
eager to help and befriend one another while abroad in Thailand, the same
goodwill should extend to their behaviors back home in Israel.