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Chabad Center To Open in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By , Phnom Penh, Cambodia

( Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational division of Chabad-Lubavitch, has appointed Chabad representatives to Cambodia, a first for this South East Asian country.

Rabbi Bentzion and Mashie Butman, respectively 26 and 23, will be leaving for Phnom Penh in the near future, along with their 18-month old son and newborn baby.

“We’ve established a need for Chabad in Cambodia where the number of Jews continues to grow,” said Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, Chabad representative of Thailand who directs Chabad centers in the region.

According to Rabbi Butman, who together with his wife led the seders last Passover in Phnom Penh, there are 100-150 Jews living in Cambodia’s capital city. That’s a marked spike in numbers since two years ago when there were only 30.

Typically, it is business that brings Jews to Cambodia, though some are working with NGOs. But to date, there is no meeting place where Jews can find each other.

“That’s one of our objectives in opening a Chabad center there,” says Rabbi Butman. “We want the Chabad House to be the address where Jews can meet other Jews, where they can speak in the same language and feel at home.”

The Butmans, who live in New York now, appreciate the value of this service for westerners who live in this third-world country. Both Bentzion and Mashie say they expect that loneliness will be the biggest challenge for them.

“It’s far, everything about Cambodia is strange to us; the language, the climate—which is very humid and uncomfortable—the mentality and the way of life are very different from ours, ” says Rabbi Butman, whose nearest colleagues will be the Chabad representatives in Vietnam.

With very few Jewish women in Phnom Penh, and even fewer Jewish children there, Mashie admits that she will have to be patient as she learns to make a life there.  Despite the difficulties she anticipates, especially in raising children so far from family, she sees it as a chance to put all her training to work. “This is what I was trained for,” she says cheerfully.

It may well be one of the more daunting destinations that a young couple can choose for their lifelong mission, but, says Rabbi Butman, “It is our choice.”

The possibilities to reach Jewish people and make a meaningful difference in their lives there are tremendous, says Butman, precisely because no one else is there to do that.

“That’s why we are going there.  We were taught that it is our purpose to be lamplighters. There are Jews in Cambodia who need us, and it’s our responsibility to reach them.”

The Butmans say they expect about 15-20 people to join them for Shabbat dinners from the get-go, and have confirmed 4-6 individuals eager to join all of their educational and social activities. “They want to start studying with us immediately,” says Rabbi Butman.

That’s good enough reason, says Rabbi Kantor, for installing Chabad representatives to this post. “We go where there are Jews who need us.”

Making kosher food available will also top the Butmans’ priority list. The couple will have to forget dairy foods; kosher meat and poultry will be shipped from abroad,  as will many of the kosher staples, which they will also make available to the community. “We hope to get busy koshering people’s homes here as well.”

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos, says that he, together with Rabbi Kantor and regional Chabad emissaries will do their utmost to extend every form of support to the couple as they embark on their new appointment. The decision to establish a Chabad center in Phnom Penh, and in recruiting the Butmans to fill the position was, he says, carefully considered.

“We’ve had many meetings about this. I feel confident that the Butmans have the energy and stamina to succeed at this enormous mission,” he said.



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