It is 5:00 a.m. and dawn has not yet broken in Bangkok. The typically teeming streets are bathed in the stillness of morning and there is nary a soul astir… except for Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor, the Chabad representative to Thailand.
His sleep had already been disturbed by a reporter from the U.S. who had the 11-hour time difference wrong and he had very graciously pointed out to her that it was 3:00 a.m. “Call back in two hours,” he said, “I have to be up at 5:00 for a two-hour drive to a chicken farm in Suphanburi, we’ll talk then.”
Rabbi Kantor was going to ritually slaughter chickens for the upcoming Passover seder. How many chickens? “About 4000.”
Welcome to life in pre-Passover, post- Tsunami Thailand, the country once known as Siam.
Rabbi Kantor and his colleague, Rabbi Gavriel Holzberg from Chabad in Mombai, India, were taking the pre-dawn drive to obtain the chickens needed for the five Passover Seders being offered by Chabad in Thailand.
The two rabbis will slaughter, kosher and supervise the packing of the chickens which will be shipped to the Seder locations in Bangkok, Ko Samui, Chaing Mai and for the first time this year, in Phuket.
Approximately 1500 people will be attending the five Seders, the majority of whom are young Israeli backpackers. There are also tourists from around the world and there is a small local Jewish population.
Chabad Lubavitch has six full-time rabbis working in Thailand as well as 18 rabbinical students who volunteer their services.
The recent catastrophic Tsunami made a direct hit on the beaches of Phuket and Chabad used every available resource as they worked around the clock to find survivors, feed families who had lost everything, serve as liaisons with the Israeli government and when hope faded, to arrange for funerals.
As a result of their involvement in the relief effort, a permanent Chabad center was opened in Phuket in the aftermath of the Tsunami and more than 100 people are expected to attend the Chabad Seder in that city.
Today the beaches of Phuket are sun-drenched and crowded once again and life has returned almost to normal. Although time is a healer, there is a lingering sadness.
“We have the feeling that the number of backpackers and tourists to Thailand may be down this year,” says Rabbi Kantor. “We never know the actual count until the Seders begin, but our sense is that they will be a little less crowded than in previous years.”
“Less crowded” however, is relative. Kantor has still purchased vast quantities of Pesach foods including 600 cases of kosher wine, 5000 slices of gefilte fish and 1200 pounds of Matzah.
No matter how many Jews spend Pesach in this Southeast Asian country, there will be more than enough food for both body and soul. The dedicated rabbis and staff of Chabad of Thailand are seeing to it.