Jonathan Kirshblum, Special to The CJN
The initial group picture taken before the chag started, with Betzael Gopin, far left, and Tzvi Freund, foruth from left
As the first seder night approached, “one little goat” seemed to keep appearing in my dreams, so I knew Passover had to happen in some way for me, despite the fact I would be almost 14,000 kilometres from home in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
After a Google search and an e-mail, 30 minutes later, Rabbi Yosef Kantor of Chabad Thailand connected me with Rabbi Butman of Chabad Phnom Penn, Cambodia. Rabbi Butman has hosted seders for years in his city and was pleased to tell me Chabad was flying two rabbinical students from New York to host a first-ever seder in Siem Reap.
I signed up online and made my way to the restaurant where the seder was to be held, not really knowing what to expect. The moment I entered, I was warmly received by Tzvi Freund and Betzalel Gopin, both rabbinical students from New York. Tzvi and Betzalel had left the comfort of their own families back in New York to travel almost 50 hours in total just to ensure that Jewish travellers finding themselves in Siem Reap on seder night would have a place to come together to celebrate the chag.
We started out as a small group of 12, but with wide country representation including: South Africa, Israel, Portugal, Canada, Singapore, France and Germany. I asked some of the other participants how they found out about the seder. Most had sought out Chabad online, but a couple had met Tzvi and Betzalel on the street earlier in the day.
Despite a tiring trip from New York, Tzvi and Betzalel walked the streets of Siem Reap for hours, hoping anyone Jewish might spot them and approach for a conversation, and that’s exactly what happened. Those who joined the seder as a result were very grateful for the effort these two rabbinical students had made.
As the seder got underway, there was a palpable awkwardness for the first little while, but the feeling quickly melted away as we began bonding over seder rituals and songs common to all of us. When we reached the point in the seder for the four questions, Tzvi explained that in addition to the four children, there is in fact a fifth child: the child who is not sitting at a seder. He went on to explain that the Lubavitcher Rebbe made it a mandate of Chabad to seek out the fifth child, wherever he or she might be, and to go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure this child has a seder to attend. We all looked at each other and were clearly moved, knowing each of us was that fifth child this year.
Later on during the seder, Betzalel returned from the ritual of washing one’s hands, netilat yadayim, with a group of new participants. Five young Israelis in the same restaurant had spotted Betzalel and inquired what he was doing there. Betzalel invited the group to join us, and our seder immediately grew in size and spirit.
We took turns reading from the Haggadah in Hebrew and English, we taught each other new melodies for seder songs from our home countries, and we bonded. Given that the wine had very low alcoholic content, the friendships being forged by the fourth cup were genuine. By the end of the night, I truly felt like I had celebrated seder with family – it may not have been my immediate family, but it was definitely family.
This year, Chabad paid to send 400 rabbinical students in pairs to 200 cities around the world to hosts seders. Many of these cities are in remote places around the globe and are difficult and expensive to get to, but Chabad gets there. They do this to ensure that each of us has a chance to connect with the Jewish experience, no matter how far away we might be – spiritually or geographically.
Everyone who attended the Siem Reap seder greatly appreciated the efforts made by Tzvi, Betzalel and Chabad. Had it not been for these efforts, we might have all just been wandering on seder night.