Letter from: Phnom Penh

How I went 'Jew-fishing' in Cambodia


Rabbi Bentzion Butman takes a seat behind his desk. In his office the air conditioning pumps out cool air. Temperatures in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, regularly hit 40 degrees.

It was in the cooler climate of New York City where Rabbi Butman and his wife, Mashie, made the decision to open Cambodia's first Chabad House.

"We sat down and talked and we decided that we wanted to dedicate our lives to Chabad," he explained.

"After looking around the United States nothing was happening, our family was growing, time was moving. Then a rabbi in Thailand called me and said Cambodia was available."

Originally from the Tel Aviv suburb of Lod, Rabbi Butman, the 31-year-old son of a yeshivah principal, moved between New York and Toronto before finding himself on a plane to one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Cambodia has seen decades of conflict, poverty and corruption following the brutally violent Pol Pot regime in the 1970s.

After arriving in Phnom Penh in 2009, Rabbi Butman's biggest challenge was opening the Chabad house and gaining recognition of Judaism as an official religion in Cambodia. Rabbi Butman began by translating the entire Torah for the authorities.

"Naturally you have your hands full before you even meet any Jews," he said. "Today I am proud to say we have a certificate of recognition from the Ministry of Culture and Religion. It was a long process - two years from when I first walked into the ministry."

There was a very small Jewish community in Phnom Penh when the Butmans arrived, but many more tourists who passed through - mostly businessmen and teachers, staying for months at a time.

"When we were first established here I loved 'Jew-fishing'," Rabbi Butman explained. "I see it as rescuing Jews actually. Jew-fishing is when I go looking for Jews and try to help bring them into the centre, at least for Friday night dinner. I just want to help Jews live a more Jewish life."

Rabbi Butman's Chabad House offers a huge array of services. There is a synagogue, a kosher food store, medical support, support for crime victims, burial preparation, and even prison visits when the need arises. Cambodia also now has its first Jewish cemetery.

"Around 30 per cent of my time is spent dealing with Jews who are travelling through Cambodia and need help because someone is lost, using drugs or missing," Rabbi Butman said.

The centre has attracted not only the attention of the Jewish community, but that of Cambodian locals too. King Norodom Sihamoni invited Rabbi Butman to a royal reception three years ago.

"There has actually been interest from several people here locally to convert," the rabbi said.

"Honestly, I said to them 'go home, be with your family, God does not expect Cambodians to become Jewish'. That is something I'm not here for or something I am trained to do.

"By coming here we felt we were sending a message to each and every Jew around the world.

"No quantity of Jews is too small to have a centre and no corner of the world is too far away to be reached."

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