Laos Becomes 92nd Country with a Chabad Center

The Southeast Asian country of Laos has officially become the 92nd country to have a permanent Chabad presence. Rabbi Sholom and Tamar Glitzenstein hit the ground running, and already have an operational kosher restaurant, weekly prayer services, Torah classes, Shabbat celebrations for tourists and a roster of other activities in Luang Prabang, 300 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Vientiane.

“Every day, we meet more Jewish people,” Rabbi Glitzenstein tells Chabad.org. Chabad has a long connection to the country. For decades, pairs of “Roving Rabbis” have been coming for summer stints and major holidays. Since the devastating tsunami in Thailand in 2004, the Far East Chabad Houses have become increasingly pivotal in providing safety for Israeli tourists in emergency situations.

from Chabad.org by Menachem Posner:

It’s been less than five months since the founding of Chabad of Laos—the 92nd country to have a permanent Chabad presence—and already, there is an operational kosher restaurant, weekly prayer services, Torah classes, Shabbat celebrations for tourists and a roster of other activities in Luang Prabang, 300 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Vientiane.

“Every day, we meet more Jewish people,” Rabbi Sholom Glitzenstein tells Chabad.org. He and his wife, Tamar, arrived in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic shortly before Chanukah. “Every day is something else. We were approached by an English expat who came to the Chabad House telling me that he needs to say Kaddish for his father. We were able to put together a prayer service for him.”

In addition to the rabbi and the Englishman, the balance of the minyan (a public prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men) was made up by Israeli backpackers, who come to the landlocked Asian nation as part of extended post-military tours that have become de rigueur in recent decades.

As a rabbinic intern, Glitzenstein spent a year assisting in the Chabad House in Bangkok, Thailand, which is seen as the nerve center of the expanding string of Far Eastern Chabad centers catering to young Israeli travelers after they finish military service.

“When Tami and I got married last year, we knew that we would be emissaries of the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] to somewhere. It was just a question of where,” says the rabbi, whose parents co-direct the Chabad House in Ma’ale Efraim in Israel’s Jordan Valley. “We spoke to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor of Chabad of Thailand and ended up moving to Laos.”

Chabad has a long connection to the country. For decades, pairs of “Roving Rabbis” have been coming for summer stints and major holidays, and a couple, Rabbi Shalom Ber and Tehila Marzel, had been stationed there between 2006 and 2008.

Since the devastating tsunami in 2004, which struck a major blow to the Thai coastline, the Far East Chabad Houses have become increasingly pivotal in providing safety for Israeli tourists in emergency situations. A case in point: the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, after which Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz, who directs the Chabad center in Katmandu with his wife, Chani, coordinated a massive search and rescue operation, working in close contact with the local government and with Israeli experts. The couple also took in hordes of stranded tourists, many of them Israeli, in the aftermath of the disaster, and offered food and assistance to local Nepalis.

‘Every Soul a Gold Mine’

In addition to financial backing, the Glitzensteins say they rely on their colleagues in Thailand for other forms of support as well. Rabbi Chaim EliezerAshkenazi assists them as they continue to overcome the many hurdles entailed in directing a remote Chabad House, including the procurement of kosher staples for their restaurant and making sure that all their paperwork is in order. They are also in regular contact with Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm (Tami’s uncle), who directs the tourist division of Chabad in Thailand, for advice and moral support.

Upon arrival, the Glitzensteins settled into a two-story villa that serves as their Chabad House, just minutes away from the Luang Prabang night market and the guesthouses frequented by all those Israelis.

Surrounded by a lush garden, the center is an ideal spot for tourists wishing to relax and unwind in a familiar atmosphere. In addition to the restaurant, the building’s ground floor offers couches, free Wi-Fi and even musical instruments for use.

In that informal setting, Torah classes take the form of freewheeling discussions, where participants are invited to share their impressions and observations, building on the collective understanding of the topics parlayed.

Using social media, the couple immediately made their offerings known to tourists, who began to trickle in with increasing frequency. They also visit tourist hot spots to reach out to Jewish travelers personally. In recent weeks, Friday-night meals were served for as many as 50 young Israelis, who relished the time to schmooze, sing traditional songs, savor the home-cooked kosher fare and feel at home in a laid-back Chabad House atmosphere.

They also held a Lag BaOmer gathering in mid-May where tourists enjoyed kosher hamburgers and Torah thoughts, with a blazing fire in the background.

Looking ahead, the Glitzensteins are optimistic. “Every Jewish soul is a gold mine,” says Tami Glitzenstein. “Sometimes, you need to search out that gold nugget or dig very deep to reach it. When people come here, they are open to new experiences—open to learning and growth. We’re here to help them reach the potential they have pent up in their souls, just waiting to be tapped.”

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