The Chabad Jewish Center in Phnom Penh on Friday held a ceremony in Kandal province to inaugurate Cambodia’s first Jewish cemetery there.
It was followed by a burial service for a 56-year-old Israeli man, who became the first person to be interred at the new site.
More than a dozen members of the local Jewish community turned out in Ponhea Leu district for the inauguration and the burial service of 56-year-old Shekalim Mukerjee, which was led by the chief rabbi of Thailand, Joseph Kantor.
The Chabad Jewish Center on Street 228, which is run by 30-year-old Rabbi Bentzion Butman, sponsored the funeral, and the young rabbi from Brooklyn assisted in the ceremony.
Having lived in Cambodia for the past five years, Rabbi Butman had never performed a funeral service, so he invited Thailand’s chief rabbi to come to Phnom Penh to lead the service, as he did not want to take instruction over the phone.
“I felt it was beautiful that Jews in the community came out on a busy Friday to be part of the funeral,” said the rabbi, adding that it was a deeply sad occasion for him personally as the deceased man had visited the center often before he passed away last week.
After the death, the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok informed Rabbi Butman that Shekalim Mukerjee had no living family members, making it a matter of urgency to inaugurate the new cemetery, which has not yet been fully completed since the center acquired the land title three months ago.
“Mr. Shekalim doesn’t have any family, but he was a pilgrim going around Southeast Asia and was known to rabbis in the region,” Rabbi Butman said. “We weren’t expecting to use the cemetery so soon, but he did not choose when to pass.”
Jewish law forbids cremation, but the enormous cost and impracticality of shipping a body outside of Cambodia means Rabbi Butman has had to oversee two cremations during his time in Cambodia.
When a Jewish man died a couple of years ago in a tragic accident, Rabbi Butman’s sense of helplessness in assisting the family finally persuaded him to establish a cemetery.
“It is against the Jewish religion to be cremated, but it costs $15,000 to send a body home to the U.S.,” he said.
The Jewish community in Phnom Penh numbers about 250 and, generally speaking, they wish to be buried in Israel or in their hometowns—not in Phnom Penh, Rabbi Butman said. But some Jews living locally have already expressed an interest in being buried here.
“What is the capacity [of the cemetery]? More than enough for the next 200 years,” he said.
“Despite the sad feeling of saying goodbye to a fellow Jew, I have a very strong feeling of deepening the Jewish community in Cambodia and more than any other milestone, this new cemetery proclaims that we are here and we are here to stay,” the rabbi said.
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