Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and the second largest city in the country. It is located 700 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok in a mountainous region called the Thai highlands. Last year, the Friedmans,* a couple with whom my husband and I are acquainted, spent a memorable Rosh HaShanah at the Chabad House in Chiang Mai on their way back to Israel from a visit to Australia. Their experience in Chiang Mai far exceeded their expectations.
Chiang Mai is a 2-3-hour drive from Tham Luang Nang Non, a cave system in Chiang Rai province that made the headlines in the summer of 2018 when 12 members of a soccer team, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach, were dramatically rescued after being trapped in a cave due to monsoon flooding.
The Chabad House in Chiang Mai is also famous and draws a large crowd, but for other reasons. Similar to other Chabad Houses, they provide a place to daven, Shabbos meals, a kosher restaurant, a mikvah, and most importantly, a heavy dose of inspiration and a connection to Yiddishkeit.
Over 100,000 Israelis travel to Thailand yearly as a post-army rite of passage. Six Chabad Houses spread across the country provide those Israelis with a taste of home in a foreign country. On a given Shabbos, the Chabad House in Chiang Mai, under the leadership of Rabbi Yosef and Chani Pickel, hosts approximately 300 visitors. However, for Rosh HaShanah, the Chabad moved their services to a nearby five-star hotel to accommodate the large number of guests (approximately 700). Ninety percent of their guests were Israeli.
S’lichos took place at the Chabad House on Rosh HaShanah and on the days leading up to it. Even though the staff was immersed in Yom Tov preparations, the Chabad kept their regular kitchen open on Erev Yom Tov so that the tourists would have kosher food to eat. The Rabbi and his wife encouraged guests to help prepare for Yom Tov in the kitchen. The Friedmans and another family they had met volunteered to help with dessert. They prepared a large quantity of chocolate mousses.
The davening on Yom Tov was beautiful and inspiring. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pickel did all they could to make their guests feel welcome. A group of Sefardim were disappointed that a certain piyut was left out of davening. That particular piyut is considered as important to the Sefardim as U’N’saneh Tokef is to Ashkenazim. The Friedmans could feel the simchah of the Sefardim when Rabbi Pickel added the piyut to the t’filah.
The t’filah at night was followed by an elaborate meal that included homemade challah, hummus, fish, soup, chicken, meat, rice, cake, fruit, soft drinks, and whiskey. A nominal fee was suggested for all who registered for the meals, but guests were welcome to pay whatever they saw fit.
Rabbi Pickel kept things moving along quickly during the meal. He went through the simanim of Rosh HaShanah, led songs, and gave a d’var Torah that was relevant to his guests. The whole meal took less than two hours. A group of about 80 went to Tashlich on Rosh HaShanah afternoon.
Israelis traveling to Thailand are often open to exploring their Jewish roots during their travels. The Chabad Houses offer guidance, a listening ear, and a memorable Jewish experience. Chabad Houses in Thailand are particularly well-known for their huge Pesach Sedarim attended by thousands of participants.
While the political climate in Israel is at an all-time low, the tension has not made its way to Thailand. Jews of all types and varied opinions sit together in unity.
When I spoke with Rabbi Pickel, he said that one never knows what will touch another person. Last Rosh HaShanah he spoke, as he does every year, about the significance of the holiday. Several months later, he received a touching message from someone who had participated in his Rosh Hashanah program. At the time, the attendee had been at a crossroads in his life regarding his Yiddishkeit as well as his marriage. After listening to Rabbi Pickel’s speech, he turned his life around. Rabbi Pickel also hears from husbands who attend the program out of deference to their wives. These men only plan to stay at the program for a short while, but they unexpectedly get caught up in the atmosphere and remain until the end.
Rabbi Pickel states that people should not judge others by their external appearances. Even among those who do not look religious, many feel and seek a connection. Rabbi Pickel has met tourists who spend Yom Kippur in Chiang Mai. They stay in their hotel rooms and do not attend services. Yet, they fast.
Rabbi Glitzenshtayn, the new Chabad shaliach in Phuket, related the following story that took place last Rosh HaShanah: He and his wife went out into the streets of Phuket to blow shofar for those who were not in shul. They met two girls who agreed to hear the shofar. One had been mitzvah-observant in the past and, as would be expected, was moved when she heard the shofar. The other girl considered herself “secular” and had no understanding of the meaning of the shofar. All she had was a vague memory of hearing the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Glitzenshtayn made the brachah and blew the shofar. By the time he finished, the “secular” girl was sobbing. Shocked by her own reaction, she asked why she was crying. Rabbi Glitzenshtayn explained that her neshamah had been aroused from its slumber by the sound of the shofar. The Rabbi’s wife hugged the girl and invited her to the Chabad House.
Those who attend the programs of the Chabad Houses of Thailand are treated to a most meaningful and memorable experience. I wish everyone a meaningful Yom Tov and a happy and healthy year.