Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A Wandering Jew in Luang Prubang

As I was searching for a place to stay in Luang Prubang, Laos, I passed by the Beit Chabad. As it was Friday night, I quickly stopped in to find out when Shabbat services started. After I dropped my stuff off at my $3 palace, I returned for Shabbat. When I arrived, I was the 8th person, not enough for a minyan. I thought I might be the last to arrive, but a steady stream of Israeli backpackers trickled in and we had more than enough.

After services, we gathered together for a lovely Shabbat meal. There were more than 30 people at the Beit Chabad, all of whom were scruffy Israeli backpackers, either coming over from Thailand or up from southern Laos as I had. Together, we enjoyed a lovely kosher meal of Israeli salads (including humous and matbouha), soup, challah and schnitzel. Songs of the Sabbath filled the air, as we sung "hennai mah tov" among numerous other melodies.

I didn't mean for my series to turn into a public relations piece for Chabad, but they are really the only ones out here maintaining any sort of Jewish communal institutions. The Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang serves as an outpost of Judaism, a place to find the familiar in a far-flung land. It is a beacon for Jewish travelers and Israeli backpackers, all of whom are quite thankful to find community and a kosher meal in the middle of Southeast Asia.

In Luang Prubang, there are 4 permanent Jewish residents, not including those connected with Beit Chabad. Because of the multitude of Jewish travelers as well as Israeli backpackers that pass through Luang Prubang Chabad Thailand opened a satellite branch in Laos. Luang Prubang was chosen over Vientiane, as travelers tend to spend more time in Luang Prubang while just pass through the sleepy Lao capital.

The Beit Chabad opened in Laos some nine months ago, just before Passover. For the first Passover Seder, there were 120 people in attendance. Nearly 70 people came for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, Shabbat services have a weekly attendance between 30 to 60 people.

The Beit Chabad provides Jewish communal services for the Jewish travelers that pass through. It offers a place of study, provides kosher food and assists travelers in numerous other ways such as contacting relatives abroad if need be. There is no mikvah for women, but there is a bamboo mikvah that men can use. The kosher meat is brought from Bangkok, where there is a shochat. A container of kosher milk products and other sundries is sent to Bangkok every year, and distributed to Beit Chabad in Laos. Meanwhile, some western kosher products can be obtained in the stores.

I spoke with Avraham Leiter, an amiable 22 year old from Tzfat. He has been in Luang Prubang for three and a half months, doing shaliach work at the Beit Chabad. Avraham explained the work that Chabad does, helping people without knowing them, as a basic precept and tenet of Judaism. He mentioned that the Beit Chabad would like to open a kosher restaurant in the future, and also possibly a tourist center. For now, the Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang ably carries out its mission as being a place of assistance for Jewish travelers, one that this wandering Jew happily appreciates.

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