By the Grace of G‑d

Dear Friend,

My wife Nechama would prepare a few big challahs, a pot of yellow rice, some cans of tuna and salads and the yeshiva boys headed off to Kaosarn Rd. The rented suite at Nana hotel was spacious enough to host the inaugural Friday night dinners for backpacking Israelis. 

That was thirty years ago. When we broadened our mission of providing spiritual leadership to the local Jewish community to include Jews traveling through Thailand as well. I don’t think we could have guessed how wide or vast that inclusion would be. 

Today, guest lists at the Chabad Houses sometimes reach thousands. With two shifts to accommodate everyone. Additional offsite locations for holidays. Chabad of Thailand has certainly outgrown Nechama’s kitchen. Even the Chabad's commercial kitchen can't always produce the food on their own for these numbers. Bangkok's kitchen sometimes backs them up with some foods by air cargo. 

And it’s no longer just backpackers. Our visitors include Jews from all backgrounds not just Israelis. It’s not just Bangkok. We have tremendous crowds at Koh Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai and just this year opened branches in Koh Phangan, Pai, and Laos.

(It is no longer even just Thailand. The Kaosarn Rd ‘backpacker Chabad House’ has become the prototype for tens of similar locations in exotic tourist locations around the globe). 

I think you will agree with me. The growth is inspiring. If it were a stock market listed company, the shares would be dizzyingly profitable. What started as a fledgling program to ‘add light’ fueled by the intensity of emotion upon the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, has grown to something of attention-grabbing proportion

But it is not a business. It is a Chabad Jewish Center. Our aims are spiritual. Thus our foundational beliefs and policies have remained the same. 

Our goal is to provide Jewish experiences to those traveling through Thailand.

Our motto is: ‘Be our guest! for Shabbat, holidays or just to relax at the ‘traveler corner’. 

Reservations are encouraged so that we can prepare appropriately. Donations are accepted with appreciation. We cannot survive without them. But payment? Since when does a host accept payment from a guest? Giving back so that others can have the same inspiring experience is what we encourage our guests to do. 

The numbers are spectacular in terms of attendees. The figures are commensurately daunting in terms of running costs. 

The question many ask me (or using today's colloquialisms ‘the elephant in the room)’:

IS IT WORTH IT? 

The classic business question. Do the profits justify the expenses?

To answer that I would first have to ask 

How do you classify ‘profit’ in this case?

Do incomes cover expenses? Nowhere near. 

Since we are a spiritual religious organization, the gains we refer to will be gauged by spiritual and altruistic values. Not by cash, currency or popularity.

Our overarching goals can be summed up in one sentence.

Utilizing the travel-inspired openness to absorbing and learning, Chabad of Thailand provides experiences that FOSTER JEWISH UNITY as the basis for JEWISH CONTINUITY using a PREVENTATIVE approach. 

Now let me explain a bit. The fastest growing Jewish community in the world is in Israel. It is also quite diverse. And not without the challenges that diversity brings. It is not in my interest to point out fragmentations within our people but they are quite steep and at times vocal. 

But truthfully, this fragmentation is only because of externalities. Deep down we love each other. In times of war G‑d forbid this surfaces. During times of danger we realize that our enemies hate us all the same. And ultimately we need to be ‘all for one and one for all’. 

We need to bring this unity to the fore, so that we can be more at peace during times of peace. 

‘What unites us is greater than what divides us’, is a true statement. However, the stereotyping that is the norm in Israel creates a barrier that limits the interactions between the various groups and backgrounds. It fosters the intolerant behavior that we sometimes see.

Solution? Giving Israelis a Jewish experience outside of Israel.

(Conversely ‘Israel Birthright Program’ works on having diaspora Jewish youth visit Israel to form a bond with the holy land and the Jewish people. Same concept, in reverse).

We have found that bringing all kinds of Jews together under one roof, around Shabbat holiness-infused tables, has an instantaneous ‘melting’ effect. Several hundred Jews of varied backgrounds, singing ‘oseh shalom bimromov’ together, is electric and unifying. Without the familiarity of being at home, deeper acceptance between people of varying backgrounds can take place.

The benefits of these unifying experiences are vast and far reaching. 

Our unity fuels our continuity. 

When we stick together we are truly invincible.

The thirty years of Friday night dinners have created a change for the good in Israeli society. Their rapid growth is a sign that it is touching a responsive chord within all segments of society who partake of them. 

A consultant I met to help me present this concept to potential donors, told me a personal story about the effect of Thailand Chabad House. ‘My friend from California was an avid Zionist and moved to live in Israel albit staunchly non observant.  His oldest son came back from a tour in Thailand and after experiencing Shabbat at Bet Chabad he started giving ‘maaser’ (tithe) to a humanitarian Tzedaka from his earnings. As time went on he became more observant in other ways as well’. The consultant continued ‘you had no idea about this effect you had, undoubtedly there are myriads more’. Indeed, I can regale you with hours of storytelling about the long term effects of our work. 

Actually, don’t take my word for it. You can try it for yourself. Inject ‘Bet Chabad Thailand’ into your conversations when visiting Israel. See what reaction you get. I know what happens when I tell the people I interact with during my travels in Israel. When I say I am from ‘Bet Chabad Thailand’ in Israel, it invariably gets me a smile. There is almost no one who has not heard of our work. Either they have joined with us personally for a Shabbat, Pessach or Rosh Hashanah. Certainly they know someone who has visited. Their child, their neighbor, their cousin or sometimes they themselves have plans to come in the future. 

Or they have come to us for help. This is another less known but even more crucial aspect of our work. The Chabad Houses are the ‘first-responders’ the ‘go-to’ people when a mishap occurs. Perhaps it is a lost passport, a medical ailment or even G‑d forbid a Tsunami. Our team of rabbis are on call twenty-four seven literally. 




 

Here’s where you need to put on visionary glasses. 

Supporting hospitals is critically important as we have to be practical and reactive to deal with the often dire situation on hand. Yet, one ought also to be visionary and see things from a generational perspective. Ultimately the preventative approach has financial benefits as well. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ but it takes time to benefit from the effect. It’s not as easy to invest time, energy and resources in something that is a bit ethereal and intangible. Neither would it be correct to invest all resources into preventative efforts. Responsible leadership dictates a balanced approach targeting both reactive and preventative.

Our work has the blessed blend of providing both a physical and spiritual ‘home away from home’ for our Jewish traveling family. It incorporates aspects of reactive and preventative Jewish experience. Ultimately it brings Jews closer to their inner selves, closer to their brethren and thus closer to G‑d.

This is a noble, valuable and meaningful achievement. More valuable than jewels. Nechama and I feel genuinely and humbly privileged to be empowered by the Rebbe to take part in this mission. It is an awesomely inspirational life-altering mission of unity and peace. May we be blessed to see the ultimate conclusion of this mission. The ingathering of exiles and the coming of Mashiach. NOW!

Rabbi Yosef Kantor
Founder and Director of Chabad of Thailand