London rabbi goes worldwide during pandemic to interview Jews in unlikely locations

Yoni Golker's subjects for online show have ranged from a rice farmer in Thailand to a diplomat in Nigeria


For those unwilling or unable to travel this summer, a North-West London rabbi has brought the world to them with a series of international interviews which have now been added to the United Synagogue’s online streaming service.

Rabbi Yoni Golker of St John’s Wood Synagogue said the title — Around the World in 613 Seconds — was a play on the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.

“In the same way that mitzvot give us a greater understanding of Judaism, this series was supposed to give people a greater understanding of the Jewish world.”

Tracking down interesting subjects had been “part of the fun”. Some were found through friends, some through contacts and others through online research.

One interviewee was Zevulan, a rice farmer who had moved to the rural Sakon Nakhon area in Thailand after being raised in Kansas City and spending time in the US Navy.

Zevulan explained that he had not been a practising Jew when he came to Thailand but had sought out Chabad Bangkok’s Rabbi Yosef Kantor after feeling “a kind of dissatisfaction” with life, despite being happily married with four children. “It required me to get to a place where I was so foreign that I had to cry out for something that was familiar to me, even though I didn’t know it,” he told Rabbi Golker.

The minister also interviewed Daniel Renna, an Orthodox American diplomat in Abuja, Nigeria. Living 17 kilometres away from a Chabad, he could not attend on Shabbat but went on Sundays for “Shacharit and shakshuka”.

He and his family had previously been in Gambia, where Mr Renna said they were “the only frum Jews in a 3,000 mile radius. In Botswana, we were one of two frum families in the whole country.”

Mr Renna had attended yeshivah with Rabbi Barry Lerer of Central Synagogue, a good friend of Rabbi Golker.

“The Jewish world is small; people know people,” Rabbi Golker told the JC. “There’s many places in the world where I would just show up on a Friday afternoon [and] I’d have somewhere to go for Shabbat.”

In another session, Rabbi Golker interviewed Sheli Portman, the president of the Jewish Youth Congress in Mexico, who maintained that “you have to have something spicy” on the Shabbat table. “You even have matzah ball with hot sauce.”

Rabbi Golker also spoke to David and Margie, a father and daughter living in Panama City. With 32 kosher restaurants to choose from, Margie said half-jokingly that “there’s more availability of kosher products in Panama than in Israel”.

Such was the interest in the series, “by the end I was getting requests. Can I do this country? Can I speak to this person? It kind of just spiralled.”

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