More than 100 members of Cambodia’s Jewish community and visitors from around the world gathered in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to inaugurate the city’s new Chabad Jewish Center in a ceremony that culminated with the placing of mezuzah—pieces of parchment with verses from the Torah—in the doorways of the building, which is still under construction.
The center, located in Daun Penh district’s Chaktomuk commune, is one of 4,500 Chabad houses worldwide—part of a global and centuries-old Hasidic movement now centered on Jewish outreach.
“What makes Chabad so unique is you find it in places where you wouldn’t think a Jewish center would exist,” said Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, the director of the Chabad house in Taipei, who traveled to Cambodia for the first time on Tuesday to take part in the celebration.
Phnom Penh’s current Chabad Center was opened by Rabbi Bentzion Butman and his wife Mashie in 2009, and has since served as a gathering place for Cambodia’s small expatriate Jewish community and the large numbers of Israeli backpackers making their way through Southeast Asia.
“Obviously, there is not a strong Jewish presence here, but nevertheless, Rabbi Butman and his family decided to move here and serve as a powerhouse to all the Jewish travelers and residents—you name it, they have it,” Rabbi Tabib said.
David Benaim, a business consultant from Gibraltar who lives in Phnom Penh, put Phnom Penh’s Jewish population at around 200 but said that Israeli travelers bolstered the numbers coming through the Chabad center’s doors.
“Travelers make up a fairly big number,” Mr. Benaim said. “On a Friday night, for example, in high tourist season, there’s a lot of Israeli backpackers passing through and they come to the events.”
“[The Butmans] do a lot of services. They do Friday night dinners every week and Saturday morning brunches as well and [hold] religious services and social gatherings,” he said. “They also support Jewish capacities…like there is a cemetery, for example.”
With the backing of a number of supporters—including American philanthropist George Rohr, who has donated to more than a 100 Chabad houses globally—the new Chabad house will offer a range of amenities, and the Butmans plan to host services there by the end of the year.
“There’s going to be a restaurant, a synagogue, offices, preschool and ritual areas. They’re going to live here in the building as well,” said Ms. Butman’s father, Rabbi Mendel Moscowitz, who was visiting from Chicago.
At the end of the day, Rabbi Moscowitz said, his daughter and son-in-law were in Phnom Penh to serve the city’s Jews.
“Basically, they provide a place to Jewish tourists and locals to celebrate the shabbat and obtain kosher food,” he said.
“It’s very hard to obtain kosher food in Cambodia. You know you could eat the raw fruits and vegetables, but where can you get a chicken dinner?”