Newlywed Australian, Rebbecca Saidman, and her husband looked up the nearest Chabad House during their stay in the city of Chiang Mei. “It was really quite incredible and weird to be in Thailand in a place where a Seder was taking place. I have never had a Seder with 350 people,” said Saidman. “The non-judgmental atmosphere, which made everyone feel so welcome, is a huge part of what made this holiday so special for us,” she said.
This year, the Chabad emissaries in Chiang Mei, Rabbi Moshe Haddad and his family, hosted 350 guests for the first Seder and more than 60 for the second. I was offered the opportunity to come and help.
Getting to Chiang Mei was an adventure in itself, with stopovers in Germany and Singapore, and finally arriving in Bangkok and the last leg of our journey, a short flight north to the mountain resort.
I left from New York at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, and arrived at our destination at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Though I came only a day before the festival, there was still plenty of work left to do. One of the major tasks was preparing lettuce for the Seder. Jewish dietary laws forbid eating bugs, and Jewish tradition dictates using lettuce, which can be infested with little white bugs. Lettuce is one of the symbolic foods for the Passover Seder so we had to check more than 2,000 leaves of lettuce to make sure they were bug-free.
Finally, after a long day of feverish preparations and a Sederthat lasted almost to midnight, we thought we could go to sleep. Then another 20 people showed up who needed a Seder, so we did it all over again. Sleep didn’t become an option until the early hours of the morning.
There were other adventures and unusual circumstances – some unique to Jewish tradition, some unique to Thailand, and many due to the intersection of cultures.
This year, Passover and the Thai New Year overlapped, which meant that Jews coming to and from the Chabad House had to navigate their way through Mardi Gras style festivities in the streets. Many of us were doused as revelers happily sprayed each other with water guns during the celebration.
While we were in Chiang Mei, the King of Thailand’s son decided to take a stroll in the area around the Chabad House. All cars, trucks and tuk tuks – a type of bicycle – were towed away to clear the streets. This happened during Mincha, afternoon prayer service.
When Chabad guests went outside, they had to search for their bikes. No one understood what had happened. Then it became clear that officials had simply moved everything to the side to clear the area for the prince and his entourage.
Unfortunately, not everything happening in Thailand these days is so festive. As I left during the intermediate days of Passover, there was rioting in the capital city, Bangkok. Many governments issued warnings to their citizens traveling in Southeast Asia. The Chabad Houses urged visitors to call home and let their families know that they were safe. It is one of the many services Chabad in Thailand has grown accustomed to providing for Jewish travelers.
Chana Kroll contributed to this article.