Ohr Menachem - Chabad House

Bangkok's Khao San Road, a miscellaneous cavalcade of Eastern and Western trends and fads, is a world-famous backpacker haunt. Originally a simple soi with low-priced guesthouses, cheap restaurants and curbside vendors' stalls, Khao San Rd. has spilled out into several neighboring streets, so the today it encompasses an ever-growing, largely self-contained neighborhood. The area has become decidedly upmarket in the process with several upscale hotels and eateries attracting a more discerning clientele beyond regular backpackers traveling on a shoestring.

Khao San Rd. is especially popular with young Israeli travelers, most of whom are just past their exacting army services and embarking on what many of them consider to be a must-do rite of passage: strenuous months-long tours around Southeast Asia and India. Tens of thousands of young Israelis pass through Thailand — and Khao San Rd. — each year on their way to and from travel destinations across the region.

With its several Israeli restaurants and Israeli-owned shops, Khao San Rd. boasts a thriving subculture of young Israelis, not least thanks to the local Chabad House, which serves as a social hub for many of them.

Chabad of Thailand opened its first center on Khao San Rd. in 1994. Six years later, in September 2001, Chabad House relocated to its current location on 96 Ram Buttri Rd. (just behind Khao San). The five-story Ohr Menachem building houses an 800 people-capacity community hall, a 150 people-capacity synagogue, as well as a kosher restaurant.

Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm, who has been supervising the center's operations for a decade, has become something of a legend with young Israeli travelers: backpackers often arrive in Thailand with his name and address ready in hand to seek the comforts of Chabad House's island of homey familiarity in a foreign ocean of oriental exotica.

Any day of the week hundreds of Israeli backpackers, in between their upcountry travels, visit Khao San's Chabad House to meet up with friends, exchange travel tips, take authentic Israeli meals, do their email, and call back home. Whereas many of them are on spiritual quests to immerse themselves in the mysteries of oriental philosophies and religious practices, they generally prove themselves more than receptive to Judaism. Ironically, many young Israelis, leading nonobservant lives at home, discover the depths of their ancestral faith in Bangkok.

Although in its effort to fulfill its spiritual mission, Chabad of Thailand actively reaches out to any Israeli or Jew harboring however tentative an urge to become more observant, the philosophy of Rabbi Wilhelm and his helpers is simple guidance, not coercion. A visit to Chabad House by any Jew, regardless of nationality or affiliation, should be a pleasant experience in the cultivated atmosphere of Judaism and Jewishness.

Above all, Chabad on Khao San Rd. strives to repay the trust young Israeli travelers repose in us. The vagaries of lengthy travel off the beaten tourist path sometimes leave wayfarers in need of financial and other help. Chabad House operates a message board and phone service for young Jewish backpackers to notify friends and loved ones of their doings as well as to transfer or receive funds. Free internet service is available at the premises, and if need be Rabbi Wilhelm and his helpers will come to the aid of any Jewish tourist in need (as happened after the tragic tsunami on 26 December 2004, when Chabad of Thailand was among the very first aid agencies to offer assistance and relief to victims.)

Daily morning and evening prayer services take place at Ohr Menachem Chabad House. Morning services start at 9:30 a.m. and evening services begin at around 6 p.m., depending on the seasonal time of sunset. Shabbat dinners are very popular with Israeli backpackers staying on Khao San Rd., with 150 and 200 of them turning up for candle lighting every week.