Hanukkah in Myanmar - Bringing light to the world

Yehudit and her husband Rabbi Shneur Raitport are the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Myanmar, who have recently made the country the umpteenth nation in the world where representatives of the Hasidic group are supporting and fostering Jewish life.

Rabbi Shneur Raitport and Yehudit light candles for the first night of Hanukkah, Yangon, Myanmar, December 2019 (photo credit: RABBI SHNEUR RAITPORT)
Rabbi Shneur Raitport and Yehudit light candles for the first night of Hanukkah, Yangon, Myanmar, December 2019
(photo credit: RABBI SHNEUR RAITPORT)
On Sunday, the first night of Hanukkah, a few dozen people gathered in a garden to light a menorah together. It could have been a quite ordinary scene if it wasn’t for the fact that both the location and the menorah itself were unique: a custom-made Burmese-teak menorah lit in Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
“We gave the event a theme, the five continents, and we had different people representing the continents lighting five menorahs. The main one, the wooden one, was lit by the Israeli ambassador,” Yehudit Raitport told The Jerusalem Post.
Yehudit and her husband Rabbi Shneur Raitport are the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Myanmar, who have recently made the country the umpteenth nation in the world where representatives of the Hassidic group are supporting and fostering Jewish life.

EVERYTHING STARTED about two and a half years ago. Rabbi Raitport was in Kiryat Malachi learning in his Kollel – a program of advanced Jewish studies traditionally attended by married men – when a friend approached him with an idea. The friend knew that the couple aspired to become shluchim – the Hebrew world for emissaries. Raitport was told that Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the senior Chabad emissary in Thailand, was looking for someone to start a Chabad presence in Myanmar.
Since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last rebbe of the group, started to send Chabad couples in communities in need in the 1950s, the outreach program has expanded dramatically. According to Chabad.org, today over 4,500 full-time emissary families operate all over the world, including some of its remotest corners, as well as on hundreds of university campuses.
“Before my friend talked to me, I had never even heard of the name of the country, nor had my wife. The first thing we did was some research on Wikipedia,” the rabbi said, speaking to the Post in a video call from his house in Yangon, together with his wife Yehudit.
After the initial contact, it took about a year for the couple to move. On Purim 2018, Raitport traveled to Myanmar to assess the situation.
“We needed to see if this was a place where we could live,” the rebbetzin explained while rocking their two young children, ages 9 and 21 months. The trip was successful. A few months later, at the end of the summer, the couple landed in Yangon.
The Jewish presence in the city is made up of expats, some of whom have been in the country for more than 10 years, mainly business people, NGO workers and the personnel of the Israeli embassy. Raitport already knew Ambassador Ronen Gilor, because he used to work in Venezuela, where the rabbi was born and raised, a son of Chabad emissaries himself. Moreover, about half of the people who attend Jewish programs in the city are tourists.
“The Israelis are the easiest to spot, but slowly we have started to get to know also people from other nationalities,” explained Yehudit. “I have sometimes been approached at the supermarket by people who identified me as Jewish.”
Since the very beginning, the response to the Raitports’ presence has been very positive. “On our first Rosh Hashanah here, just a couple of weeks after we arrived, over 25 people showed up for dinner,” she recalled. A year later, they were more than 50, she added.
Among the community needs that the couple works to fulfill is the demand for kosher food. They admit that they had to change their diet quite a bit to adapt to the new situation.
“Before moving here, we did not eat a lot of vegetables, but we started to do it,” the rabbi explained, adding that also fish is readily available. As for the meat, Raitport is a trained shochet – someone who knows how to perform Jewish ritual slaughter – and can buy live chickens and prepare them himself.
Going out to the market to find a chicken was one of the first adventures after landing in Myanmar. The rabbi recalled seeing a halal stand – a stand selling meat permissible to be eaten for Muslims – and telling the vendor with hand motions that he wanted to slaughter the birds himself. “I went back to the stand a few months later. He still remembered me,” he said.
Among other things, the Raitports organize at least a Torah class every week, and services every Shabbat. “We manage to have a minyan about once a month,” the rabbi explained. “We hope that we will get to have it every week,” Yehudit added. The rabbi pointed out that lately, more and more members of the community have asked for his help for putting up the mezuzahs on their doors.
For Hanukkah, besides the lighting in their garden, whose special wooden menorah was crafted by a furniture factory owned by a member of the community, the family installed a huge electric candelabra on the roof of their car. The menorah can be spotted when they drive around the streets of Yangon, fulfilling the tradition of publicizing the miracle.
After decades of a brutal military dictatorship, in the past few years, Myanmar is considered in a phase of transition to become a democracy, even though many unresolved issues and social tensions remained. Asked about it, the Raitports said that so far they have not had any relationship with representatives of the authorities and that they have not encountered any tension, nor any form of antisemitism. “We always explain to people who are worried that the problems that they might hear of are not in Yangon,” they said.
For the future, the couple’s goal is continuing fostering Jewish life, increasing the work with the growing number of tourists and moving the Chabad House – as community centers run by the Hassidic group are usually called – outside their living room. “Even though for many, especially the tourists, coming here is very special. It makes them feel at home,” the rebbetzin concluded.