While a highly commercialised and religious version of Christmas is slowly achieving a higher profile, in Buddhist-majority Cambodia Hanukkah remains an understandably low-key affair.
But that makes the holiday, which ends on Sunday, no less precious for Rabbi Bentzion Butman, who tends not only to his small congregation, but is slowly bringing the holiday to a wider audience.
This year, that means delivering menorahs to cities across Cambodia.
“We’re sending them to Poipet, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, Siem Reap, Kampot, Mondulkiri,” Butman begins, rattling off place names. “And we’ll have a party here for eight nights.”
Down a narrow residential alley off of Sisowath Quay lays Phnom Penh’s Chabad House, the only permanent Jewish facility in Cambodia. In the small restaurant at the building’s entrance, a shelf is stacked with kosher food: jars of sesame paste, palm hearts in brine, black olives.
Rabbi Butman sits at the front desk engrossed in a phone call. A Khmer staff member stands nearby, screwing light bulbs into 1.5-metre-tall menorahs. In this country of about 200 Jewish residents, Butman is creating a community.
“Every Chabad house has its own story,” he says with a smile.
The tale of Phnom Penh’s Chabad centre began in 2009, when the Israeli rabbi relocated his family from Brooklyn, New York, to take up permanent residence in Cambodia.
Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish movement known for its outreach among Jews, generally decides where to send rabbis, Butman explains. In this case, the Chabad house in Bangkok began sending “roving rabbis” to Cambodia in the mid-2000s to take stock of how many Jews were in the country.
Cambodia has no history of Judaism. But the constant stream of expats and travellers from the United States, Israel and Eastern Europe made the Chabad movement believe their presence was warranted. Butman had inquired about being sent to Bali, another spot in Southeast Asia that lacked a Jewish centre. But it was eventually determined that the security risk was too great.
Cambodia, on the contrary, is safe, the rabbi says. The Royal Palace, anxious to avoid an attack like the one on a Chabad centre in Mumbai in 2007, provides regular security for the centre.
“We reached out and they immediately understood,” Butman notes.
Seven years after his arrival, the rabbi is busy.
Every week about 25 to 100 people gather in the centre for Shabbat dinner.
Meanwhile, he’s in charge of running a Jewish preschool, setting up a cemetery (and sometimes personally preparing bodies for burial), organising Cambodia’s first Jewish wedding and preparing services for religious holidays.
And then there’s the “humanitarian work”, he says. In the past seven years, people have called the rabbi when they’ve taken too many recreational drugs, got locked out of their homes, collapsed in the streets on holiday, or overstayed their visa and run into immigration problems.
“My life isn’t boring,” the rabbi admits. “There is nothing else Jewish here, so rather than being a first aid service and referring people to Torah class for bar mitzvah or counselling services … here, I wear all kinds of hats.”
And then there’s the task of importing kosher food to Cambodia. The rabbi says he gets chicken and beef shipped from South Africa, which has a sizeable Jewish population.
Jewish families in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville order kosher dinners delivered for the holidays, and the centre prepares the meals and ensures they arrive on time.
Butman says his Khmer staff have learned to identify which foods in the supermarket are kosher, and even recommend meals to patrons in the centre’s restaurant. But he stops short of keeping dairy in the kitchen, fearing they might accidentally mix the dairy with meat, which is prohibited by the Torah.
The Jews seeking Butman’s services come from different cultures and countries, and with different levels of knowledge about Judaism, he says.
“We try to keep the services beginners’ style, with services in English . . . demonstrating what to do,” he explains.
David Benaim, a modern orthodox Jew from Gibraltar who relocated to Cambodia three years ago, says he appreciates that the centre doesn’t judge anyone for their beliefs or practices.
“I don’t feel like it forces anything on anyone, but rather it’s there when and if you want it,” Benaim says. “I do know several people not connected with their Jewish faith back home who ended up being regulars.”
For Butman, the centre’s motto, “no Jew left behind”, is what makes the place unique.
“I’ll be here as long as there are Jews,” he says.