Behind a Buddhist pagoda about 45 minutes outside of Cambodia’s capital, a gray tombstone sits alone in what might be mistaken for a green rice field during the rainy season. There is no name or date carved into the stone. Skinny cows walk by in groups, and vendors sell drinks. This is the country’s first Jewish cemetery, which, as Bentzion Butman, the representative of the Chabad Hassidic movement and de facto rabbi of Cambodia, wrote in one of his recent weekly emails to the local community, “Let’s hope we never need to use.”
Never need to use again, that is.
At Cambodia’s first Jewish funeral, last year, which was attended by local Jews, rabbis and rabbinical students from New York (one of them passed out from heat exhaustion) – as well as by a crowd of curious
Cambodians – no one knew the deceased man’s name except the rabbi. The 56-year-old Israeli, Shekalim Mukerjee, died after a hunger strike at a Cambodian prison, where he ended up after overstaying
His unexpected passing prompted Butman to urgently send out an email with several exclamation marks since the
unfortunate man had no family. “It is a great mitzva to attend his funeral,” the Israeli-born rabbi appealed to the Cambodian Jewish community. “We need you!!!”
When he came to Cambodia almost six years ago, Butman tells The Jerusalem Report, he didn’t think the community would need a cemetery.
At the time, he estimated that there were about 100 Jews living in this small Buddhist kingdom. It has now grown to some 250 people. But, unfortunately, during his first five and a half years in Cambodia, eight Jewish people died – some under bizarre circumstances. One man fell to his death from the top floor of a local shopping mall. Some said it was a suicide, others, knowing him, refused to accept the possibility. A young Jewish UN worker from the Netherlands and her baby daughter were murdered in their home by a bicycle thief. And there was a Jewish traveler from Eastern Europe who died in the hospital after an accident, Butman says.
Of the seven deaths, at least two people were cremated, the rabbi says, partly because the cost of sending a body home can be as high as $15,000. Despite the cost, the others were flown home.
Most Christians who die in Cambodia are also cremated at Buddhist pagodas – unless their families pay to have their bodies sent home. There used to be two Christian cemeteries in Cambodia’s capital, probably dating back to when the country was a French colony, but both have since been built over, according to local Catholic priest François Ponchaud.
The idea for the cemetery came even before Mukerjee died in prison. The rabbi says he realized the community needed a cemetery after a conversation with a resident who told him that he wouldn’t mind having a Jewish burial – as long as he was buried in Cambodia. “I do not want my body returned to Israel,” said the man,
whose name Butman would not reveal. “Here is where I chose to live and here I want to die and be buried,” Butman relates. And, so, the cemetery came to be.
Is Cambodia a place where people are more likely to die than in other countries? In neighboring Vietnam, where there are about 300 Jewish residents, for example, no one had died in the last 10 years, according
to Rabbi Menachem Hartman of the Chabad House, in Ho Chi Minh City. In Singapore, which is home to some
3,000 Jews, there have been approximately 20 deaths in the past 10 years, mostly from natural causes, says local Rabbi Netanel Rivni. This is a death rate much lower than Cambodia’s.
Yet, Cambodia’s Jewish residents reject the idea that it is a dangerous country.
“There is no anti-Semitism here. I don’t find this place dangerous at all,” Elli Bobrovizki, 57, an Israeli-Australian businessman, who has lived in the country for three years and owns a ballet-shoe factory, relates to The Report. “I think New York is much more dangerous, but, like any other place, you need to know where
to go and what time.”
It’s not that Cambodia is dangerous, some locals say, but it might be that the country, with relaxed visa regulations, is appealing for people who are more likely to die. “It definitely attracts some people
with drug problems,” says David Benaim, 30, an accountant from Gibraltar, who runs a consulting business in the kingdom. “They get a visa indefinitely and do not look after themselves.”
During Friday night dinners at Chabad, Israeli backpackers often bewilderedly ask local Jews, “You live here? What do you do here?”
The answers come in so many different forms that Butman once said he stopped asking himself what people do here because the answers are much the same as in London or Tel Aviv. Jewish people in Cambodia speak Hebrew,
English, French and Russian. They come from Israel, Australia and America, France and Belgium, and even places like the Congo (where there used to be a Jewish community) and Kazakhstan. At Friday night dinner here, you might be introduced to the Jewish granddaughter of a Cambodian princess who established Cambodia’s first school of classical ballet. She is the daughter of a Swiss Jewish mother and a Cambodian father.
Or you might meet the American judge who works at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal ‒ a UN tribunal where the leaders of the genocidal regime are currently being brought to justice. Across from him at the table, you
might exchange smiles with an Israeli fortune-teller, who was featured in a local newspaper because there aren’t many foreigners in Cambodia working in that profession. Then there are the businessmen trading land, exporting clothes and diamonds, and even buying human hair for making wigs in Israel. A few years ago, a Jewish woman from Kazakhstan, who owns a company that provides IT services, developed Cambodia’s first electronic menu for a restaurant.
“People come because there’s a huge opportunity here and because labor is very cheap, and everything you produce here [can be exported] custom-free to Europe,” explains Bobrovizki, who sells his ballet and jazz dance shoes to buyers in Europe. The minimum wage for factory workers in Cambodia is $128 per month. Bobrovizki pays his employees around $300 monthly – which is still three times less than he’d pay in China, he says.
The Chabad Jewish Center of Cambodia opened in November 2009. Dror Marcus, a 47-year-old Israeli archaeologist turned businessman, who has lived in Cambodia for almost 20 years (he once tried to open the country’s first Israeli restaurant), says a rabbi was finally sent here after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. After the murders of Mumbai’s rabbi and his wife, Marcus says the Hasidic movement was driven to
open more Chabad houses” – in reaction to what happened.
Nowadays, the center feeds about 25 people every Friday night, and runs a kosher restaurant and grocery store with Middle Eastern products like pickles, tahini and humus.
Since there is no Israeli Embassy in Cambodia, the rabbi is also very busy taking care of things that have nothing to do with religion; such as finding lost travelers and helping Israelis with lost passports or visa problems. Almost every week, he says, he gets phone calls from worried parents, who have lost touch with their traveling children. Recently, one Israeli-American traveler went missing for two weeks before he was located by a private investigator safe and sound, relaxing on an island.
There have also been Hebrew and challa baking classes for women, organized by US-born Rebbitzin Mashie Butman; an initiative to provide a copy of the Tanya, a work by the founder of Chabad, in every Cambodian village or town with at least one Jewish resident; and most recently, a photo exhibit of the local Jewish
community in Phnom Penh’s German cultural center. A new Jewish center, which will increase the capacity of the synagogue, is currently under construction. Last year, the Jewish community celebrated its first bar mitzva and first circumcision ceremony (the latter, of the rabbi’s youngest son).
“We were all standing and passing the baby arm to arm,” Benaim remembers. “I think it gave everyone a feeling of being part of the community.”
In the past five years, Butman says, the community has been growing continuously. He now estimates that there are 250 Jews living in Cambodia, up from just about 100 when he arrived in 2009.
The rabbi has no intention of leaving any time soon. Butman writes on his website: “We are ready to leave any minute with the arrival of Moshiach! We will collect all the Jews living in Cambodia and go proudly to greet Moshiach. Until his arrival, we are here. As long as Jews are here we are here…”
Some of the newcomers are people who never connected with Judaism until they found themselves in a foreign country far from home. One of them is Russian traveler Anna-Maria Katzenelson, 23, who always knew she was Jewish but had never been inside a synagogue until she came to Cambodia. “It wasn’t what I expected,” Katzenelson said about her first meeting with Butman. “He asked me where I was staying, and he gave me
the phone numbers of people who rent apartments. I thought he’d start teaching me, telling me I’m living the wrong way, or eating the wrong way.”
He didn’t and she began taking Hebrew classes with his wife and is now planning a trip to Israel.