Market watchers on the look out for the next Asian tiger economy are not the only ones with Vietnam in their sites. This summer, Vietnam’s first Chabad house will open in Ho Chi Minh City.
“We are looking to set down the infrastructure of Jewish life in Vietnam according to Torah and Jewish law instead of waiting to see a Jewish community form there,” said Chabad representative of Hong Kong Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, who is directing the new venture.
The time is right for Chabad to establish its presence in Vietnam, because it is emerging as a major player on the world scene. “Renovation” reforms ushered in by the communist party in 1986, have taken root and Marxist ideals in the marketplace have waned in favor of economic growth. Vietnam is edging closer to World Trade Organization membership. As international trade expands and labor costs remain low – even lower than China, multinational corporations are arranging beachheads on the coast hugging country. With them come the professionals, business people, venture capitalists, and among them – Jews. This year, for instance, a French hospital established a presence in Vietnam, several Jewish health care workers added bulk to Vietnam’s wisp of Jewish life.
Norman Michaelson travels to Vietnam and China four times a year on behalf of his Los Angeles based firm, N. R. Michaelson Enterprises. He’s come across Jewish furniture makers from the east coast, and has heard rumors of Jewish actors living in Vietnam, but “is there a need for Chabad in Vietnam? I don’t know,” said Michaelson.
Doubts do not plague Rabbi Avtzon. He’s seen the “if you build it, they will come” strategy work in China. When Chabad representatives, Rabbi Sholem and Henny Chazan arrived in Shenzhen, a former fishing village turned economic showpiece, they had a list of ten Jews. Now their programs have taken off with more than 100 families in touch with Chabad of Shenzhen.
When the Hartmans—Rabbi Menachem, 25, and Racheli, 23, arrive in August with baby, Levi Yitzchok, they will bring with them addresses of 30 Jews. A Passover in Ho Chi Minh City, where they filled several tables for the seder, convinced the Jerusalem-based couple the move was right for them. “We saw the Jews there want more Yiddishkeit,” said Rabbi Hartman.
Post-Passover, Rabbi Avtzon polled several Jewish families in Vietnam, via the Jewish-Vietnam egroup, and received positive feedback about the Hartmans. Jews in Vietnam offered to help the Hartmans find a good apartment in the city and navigate the visa maze. The Hartmans are right for Vietnam because, Rabbi Avtzon said, “They are highly inspired and motivated,” and yet “polished for an international destination.” Rabbi Hartman received his rabbinical ordination in Berlin, worked alongside a Chabad representative in Germany for a year, and now studies in the Tzemach Tzedek Kollel in Jerusalem. Before marriage, Racheli Hartman worked with children living in a Chabad-run orphanage in Russia.
In order to converse with the English-speaking Jewish population in Vietnam and the business travelers, the Hartmans are refining their English language skills. But their native Hebrew will serve them well. Four million tourists brave Vietnam’s legendary humidity each year, among them are a growing number of Israeli backpackers.
There for the Vietnam War era tunnels and snowy white beach sands, the intrepid Israelis may be startled by number of swastikas, backwards and otherwise, found in Vietnam. The swastika is an ancient symbol for luck, not an anti-Semitic gesture. “In Asia, except for the Muslim countries, there is no anti-Semitism at all,” said Rabbi Avtzon.
However, Judaism is not a religion recognized by the Vietnamese government. Public displays of Jewish life require discretion. Because Judaism is not in the business of proselytizing, Rabbi Hartman expects that the communist officials will accept Chabad’s presence there. “We will be in Vietnam to serve Jewish needs,” said Rabbi Hartman. “The government in Vietnam is not about restricting religion. They are concerned with promoting the economy.”
For business reasons, Chabad opted to place its first outpost in Ho Chi Minh, and not Hanoi. “Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are like Washington and New York,” said Chabad of Shenzhen representative Rabbi Chazan. Bureaucrats are less likely to have Jewish connections than businesspeople, which is why Chabad is off to Ho Chi Minh. Soon, when Jewish business travelers and backpackers explore possibilities in Vietnam, Chabad’s renowned welcome to all Jews will be part of the bargain.