Reporter's Notebook: New Year with Phuket Chabad

Milling around the ballroom as suntanned guests shouted in Hebrew, I could've been at a wedding in TA.

Chabad Rosh Hashana dinner in Thailand 370 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Chabad Rosh Hashana dinner in Thailand 370
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
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 Aviv.
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 travelers.
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+ crowd.
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.
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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.
The 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 marriage.
“After I got here, it was already good,” she said smiling.
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.
“We arrived 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 population.
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 said.
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.
Despite 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.
“He just 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 Shein.
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.