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Festival of light shines in Phnom Penh

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Rabbi Butman lights the menorah to mark the fifth day of Hannukah, in the Chabad Jewish Community Center, Phnom Penh. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days

Hanukkah in Cambodia was not something travellers Ayelet Cohen and Avi Steiner were expecting to mark in such unlikely surrounds.

In a warmly lit room upstairs of the Chabad Jewish Community Center - one more than a thousand worldwide –  10 men and four women, most dressed in backpackers’ garb of hiking sandals and t-shirts, attend a mini synagogue, led by 29-year-old, Israeli-born Rabbi Bentzion Butman.

The candles on the Center’s unadorned metal menorah burn high and still by the window, as the Rabbi walks between the men, praying with them in a fine singing voice. One older man keeps chanting a few beats after the group has stopped and everyone smiles at him.

The Rabbi needed 10 men to lead tonight’s service - the fourth night of Hannukah - but was looking short, until he called synagogue regular Sam Goldenberg, a Phnom Penh local who lives near the Center and is only too happy to oblige when numbers are down.

With a transient congregation of expats, NGO workers, travellers and tourists, the Center (whose motto is ‘no Jew left behind’) has built itself around the ever-changing face of the Kingdom’s 100-plus Jewish community.

Catering for the unusual mix is not hard, Rabbi Butman stresses, favouring instead the word ‘challenge’.

“We refrain from using the word ‘hard’ in any of our activities. It was a challenge. People come here with different ages, from different backgrounds, with different purposes... there are no two Jews similar here.

“We had 80 people here on Sunday evening (the start of Hanukkah). We had to scratch our heads to think about what kind of program would get everyone involved,” he says.

After the service finishes, the group, who are all Israeli, heads downstairs to the expansive entrance room of the Chabad house, which is infused with the warm sugary aroma of recent baking, to talk. Hot jam doughnuts, latkes and apple sauce materialise from the kitchen where Khmer staff are cooking and everyone takes seats.

The house also operates a restaurant menu serving homestyle Israeli cooking, an oasis for those missing food from home or on a strict kosher diet, and stocks a large shelf of kosher products, for sale.

Apart from it being the major holiday of Hanukkah, the festival of light, food appears to be a drawcard for more than one visitor.

Ariel Toperoff, 32, who has been on the road for four months and has the suntan to prove it, has been making his own meals but ran out of kosher supplies when he hit Cambodia.

Pleased to find a Chabad house in Phnom Penh, he organised for his family to send a parcel of food directly here and has come to see if it arrived (it hasn’t).

“Mostly I just cook for myself or I only eat kosher. I made my own bread twice this week but it was no fun. It took me a whole morning each day,” he says good-naturedly.

In a cabinet facing our group of chairs is a portrait of the 18th century  founder of the Chabad network, Rabbi Shneur Zalman.

With Chabad houses all around the Southeast Asia and the world – including more than five in Thailand – the network is the largest Jewish outreach organisation and pops up anywhere there is a community, as a place of worship, support and religious resources.

“I like the thirst of Jews to Judaism so far away from home - I think it’s very unique,” Rabbi Butman says. He first came as an emissary in 2009 with his wife Mashie and the first of his four children.

Since then, the Center has contributed more than just a sense of community for Cambodia’s Jewish expatriats, he says.

“Being here for three years does have an effect. The mixing of Jews today to a few years ago... There are a lot of partnerships that began at the centre – marriage-wise, business-wise, friendship wise. People who meet here for the first time are keeping in touch 2-3 years after that.”

Sam Goldenberg, who works in telecommunications, had been in the Kingdom for 16 years before discovering a Jewish social network.

“I was walking one Saturday afternoon four months ago in the Golden Sorya mall and I heard two guys speaking Hebrew.

They were choosing music in the Swiss cafe and I started speaking to them in Hebrew. They said, ‘come over to the synagogue’... I had no idea there was a Jewish community.”

Since then he has been coming to the Center twice a week.

He translates for the young Israeli women opposite him, all on a visa run from Thailand, where they are doing their National Service at Bangkok’s Chabad house. 

They just wanted to be somewhere for Hannukah.

“Beyond it all, the main purpose of the centre is to provide not just a home for Jews but for Judaism,” Rabbi Butman says, taking time out from the visitors to speak with me.

“The lights of Hanukkah are shining in many windows now – not just in Phnom Penh but in Siem Reap and Battambang as well.” 

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

Follow Rosa on twitter at: @rosaellen

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