Zaki Cooper in Colombo

By Zaki Cooper, November 6, 2008
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The Rabbi shows off a photo from his collection. It's of a man - dressed as a Tibetan monk - wearing a kippah and lighting a menorah.

"This man was born a Jew but now practises as a Buddhist monk. He is not the only one. I have met a few."

For Rabbi Mendi Crombie and his wife, Talia, reaching out to "Jew-Bu's" is only part of their assignment in Sri Lanka. They came to the country two years ago to set up the Chabad centre in Colombo - a difficult job because - unlike India - Sri Lanka has no indigenous Jewish community.

"There was once a synagogue on Galle Road in the centre of Colombo for visiting Jews, but this closed down long ago," says Mrs Crombie. She goes on to explain that while there are a steady number of Jews who visit Sri Lanka on holiday and business, it is nowhere near the number passing through other countries in Asia like Thailand and India. There may be around 40 Jews in Colombo at any one time, but most are transitory. Last year there was no minyan on Yom Kippur, and kosher food provision is not straightforward. The rabbi explains: "I visit a local farm regularly to supervise the milk we drink, and I get the meat we eat by flying to Bangkok, where there is a shochet."

There isn't even an Israeli embassy to supplement the numbers. Indeed, relations between Sri Lanka and Israel are fairly cold. One of the recent visitors to Colombo was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and welcoming posters to the Iranian leader still line the route to the airport.

Israel's offer of medical supplies and personnel to Sri Lanka following the tsunami was only accepted after some hesitation by the Sri Lankan government. The state of relations is surprising given the parallels between the countries. Both 60 years old this year, they face internal difficulties and the ugly challenge of terrorism. The attachment of British Sri Lankans to their homeland probably has some parallels in diaspora Jewry's sentiments towards Israel.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, home to 20 million people. Its economic growth is an impressive 7 per cent, though inflation of around 30 per cent means that times are tough. The tsunami killed more than 30,000 people and devastated parts of the country. One taxi driver rolls up his sleeve to unveil a scar, inflicted during his lucky escape from the violent storms by climbing a tree.

And there is little prospect of the Jewish community growing, but despite the practical difficulties and feelings of isolation, says Rabbi Mendi: "We may not have huge numbers but our work is important."

    Last updated: 2:42pm, November 15 2010