Ko Samui, an island of beautiful beaches and breathtaking scenery in the Gulf of Thailand, is a popular destination for tourists and backpackers. An hour by plane from Bangkok, the tropical island also beckons thousands of Israelis every year.
Rabbi Yosef Kantor, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Thailand has been bringing student rabbis to Ko Samui for the past few years to serve the Israeli visitors and to provide them with kosher food and Holiday services. A recent Passover Seder attracted more than 500 people, and on Rosh Hashana it was standing room only for more than 700.
The enthusiastic turnout for the holidays told Kantor that there was a need for a full time Chabad presence in Ko Samui. After locating space for the new Chabad House, Rabbi Kantor recruited Rabbi Gaon Maatuf with his wife, Shterna, from Israel, to serve as Chabad-Lubavitch representatives to the tiny Jewish community of Ko Samui and the multitudes of Jewish tourists.
With a lively offering of Torah study classes, lectures and services, Rabbi Maatuf hopes to reach out to those tourists, most of whom are in their twenties or thirties and have just completed Israeli army service. The newly remodeled Chabad House now offers a kosher restaurant, Friday night and Shabbat Services and meals, a Judaica library and internet café.
A playgroup opened by Shterna is a first for the few Jewish children who live in Ko Samui. The Maatuf’s two boys 1-1/2 and 3 years old have not only doubled the kiddie population but are even serving as tiny role models. When an Israeli child recently saw the yarmulke on their 3-year old, he said to his father “look at his kovah,” meaning hat. The father corrected his son and said, no this is a ‘kipah’ – a word the child had never encountered before.
Plans for a gala grand opening on the 7th of Adar, the 29th of February, include a traditional “hachnasat Sefer Torah” where a new Torah scroll, written just for Chabad of Ko Samui will be escorted into the new premises with great fanfare, music and dancing.
The Torah scroll was completed last month in Jerusalem at Chabad of Thailand’s annual backpacker reunion and Shabbaton which was attended by more than 600 people and was addressed by the chief rabbi of Israel as well as other dignitaries.
Rabbi Maatuf is enthusiastic about the prospects for a long term Chabad presence in Ko Samui and said that “before the building was even officially opened, we had 80 people for Friday night services and last week we had 150. We hope that’s the handwriting on the wall that we’re here to stay.”
Chabad Lubavitch of Thailand is headquartered in Bangkok and also has a branch in Chaing Mai.