“Are these going to be high enough, Mayer?” Saadya Notik asked of the potted palms that had just been wheeled in on a trolley to the Phnom Penh room at the Hotel InterContinental.
Rabbi Mayer Zarchi, 25, from Brooklyn in New York City, leaned back to assess the situation. He squinted and finally nodded his approval.
The potted palms would suffice to divide female worshippers from males Friday evening and Saturday during Cambodia’s first-ever organized service for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the holiest of all Jewish holidays.
“It’s for concentration,” explained Notik of the palms.
Notik, a 24-year-old rabbi who also lives in Brooklyn, was wearing the black felt hat that resembles a wide-brim fedora and is commonly worn by those, like Notik, who adhere to the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an offshoot of Orthodox Judaism.
Some additional alterations needed to be made to the luxuriant, carpeted, Phnom Penh room before it could house services accommodating devout Lubavitchers.
The sandstone apsara dancer near the doorway, for instance, had to be covered, as did the wall of mirrors on the eastern side of the room.
“We don’t pray to shapes and forms,” Notik said, adding that Lubavitchers believe the focus should be on the soul and not on the body.
Chabad Lubavitchers observe many Orthodox Jewish tenets, such as not shaving your beard if you’re a man, abstaining from premarital sex and keeping kosher—which means following a set of dietary restrictions perhaps most well-known for its stipulation that dairy can’t be eaten alongside meat, Notik said.
The movement, influenced by Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, takes an intellectual approach to their holy book the Bible and the idea of God, and followers believe that all people are bound up in unity with God, according to Zarchi. Judaism is among the oldest of the world’s monotheistic religions, or those that invest faith in one God.
“It’s a very cerebral approach with an emphasis on action,” he said, referring to the mitzvot, or good deeds, that Jews are obliged to perform.
The hundreds of thousands of Lubavitchers around the world are mainly concentrated in the US and Israel, but Thursday evening—at the behest of The Cambodia Daily publisher Bernard Krisher and at their own expenses—three Lubavitchers landed in Phnom Penh.
“We believe the quintessence of God finds deep expression in Cambodia as well,” Zarchi said.
Beginning at sundown Friday, Notik, Zarchi, and Moshe Goldstein, a 22-year-old Israeli rabbi-in-training, led more than 25 people, the majority being expatriates, in the Yom Kippur service.
The service was conducted in Hebrew, the language spoken by most people in Israel, with occasional English explanations.
Services continued all day Saturday, a traditional day of fasting for Jews, starting at about 10 am and ending at sundown.
There aren’t too many Jews in Buddhist-dominated Phnom Penh, let alone Orthodox Jews who dress in dark suits and hats—both extensions of the town in Russia where the Lubavitch movement originated in the late 18th century.
On Friday afternoon, Notik said a quick visit to the riverside drew a crowd of curious Cambodians.
Notik said he’s heard stories of a Cambodian man living on the outskirts of Phnom Penh who considers himself Jewish and keeps mostly to himself; but other than that, it is an expatriate minority—though not one to be overlooked.
“Jews here are doing the real tikkun olam,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase meaning “repairing the world.”
“Just because you are geographically isolated, doesn’t mean you are isolated from the larger community.”
As a general rule, Jews do not proselytize, said Notik, though Lubavitchers engage in a lot of outreach worldwide, with Chabad centers serving as gathering places for local Jews of all denominations in places as far-flung as Bolivia, Nepal and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are now centers in Thailand and Vietnam as well.
Lubavitchers have been seen hitting the streets on holidays in communities where there are large populations of Jews, offering fellow Jews the opportunity to say blessings and take part in traditions. They are also known, somewhat infamously, for their “mitzvah tanks” or vehicles equipped with megaphones which broadcast music or announcements.
“We have a responsibility to educate our brothers. How are we supposed to rectify the world if we stay within the confines of a synagogue?” Notik asked.
Despite their outreach and their worldly bent, Notik said that they, like most Jewish denominations, are skeptical at first of those who wish to convert.
“We are suspicious from the very beginning. It’s very difficult to live a Jewish life. We even discourage it,” he said, adding that if and when would-be converts display the necessary devotion, they then undergo extensive Jewish educational training prior to conversion.
“You don’t have to be a Jew to serve God. Be who you are. Everyone has a divine mission,” Zarchi said.
One curious Cambodian sat in the back row for Friday’s service, with a makeshift yarmulke, or head covering, fashioned from a handkerchief.
Sok Sidon, 23, works as a peace trainer for the Khmer Youth Association and said he came, simply, for the exposure to new culture.
He said he thought it would be a learning experience that could help him figure out “how to keep ourselves at peace.”
Sok Sidon said he is looking forward to traveling to Svay Rieng province come October to celebrate Pchum Ben, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead.
Ariella Cwikel, 23, a former Phnom Penh resident, was passing through town on her way home to Israel after a stint in India, and said she was surprised and overjoyed to hear about the Yom Kippur service.
“I thought I’d be the only Jew in town,” she said.
Zarchi said he can envision a Jewish community coming together in Cambodia in the future and a synagogue being established one day, mainly to serve the transient expatriates who work with various aid organizations.
Other parts of the world are being prioritized based on the fact that more Jews live there, but as far as a Chabad center in Cambodia, he said: “we’re working on it.”