Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images
Hundreds of of travelers attend Passover Seder in Kathmandu, 2014Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images
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Supersized Seders

Massive Passover gatherings in Thailand and Nepal cater to backpackers—by the thousands

by
Nomi Kaltmann
March 28, 2023
Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images
Hundreds of of travelers attend Passover Seder in Kathmandu, 2014Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

You think you’re making a lot of food for Passover? Here’s Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor’s food order this year: 3,000 bottles of kosher-for-Passover wine, 4,000 pounds of matzo, 10,000 pieces of salmon, and 30,000 whole chickens.

Kantor, Thailand’s chief rabbi and the country’s head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, knows how to supersize a Seder. Even though Thailand is home to just slightly more than 1,000 Jews, an estimated 150,000 Israeli tourists pass through the country each year—and those who are in Thailand during Passover often find a Chabad Seder to mark the holiday.

This year in Thailand, Seders will be hosted in Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, Ko Pha-ngan and, for the first time, Pai. Kantor is expecting at least 10,000 attendees across all of these Passover events. The country’s largest Seder, slated for 3,000 guests, will be in the tropical beachside town of Phuket, where the weather is usually tropical and balmy; the Seder there will take place in six outdoor tents, with space for 500 guests in each. In other Thai locations, the Seders are held in ballrooms at local hotels or in outdoor tents, depending on the numbers expected.

The logistics required to organize communal Seders on such a scale requires much coordination. Preparations begin six months in advance. “One day after Simchat Torah, we begin organizing the supplies,” said Kantor. “We begin shipping things in. And we need to organize staff, generators, warming ovens, and facilities like toilets.”

The cost of hosting Seders for so many people is steep, with Kantor estimating it to be just under $1 million USD. “People think that when things are to scale it becomes cheaper,” he said. “But for a public event, the moment you outgrow a hotel ballroom, you now have to re-create a space in a tent that has all kinds of overheads that escalate dramatically. It’s the infrastructure that costs. Freezers. Waiters. Cooking for such large amounts of people. Having a banquet manager for each 500 people. There are myriad details.”

Huge tents, arranged to echo the layout of the Seder plate, are erected to accommodate the giant Seder hosted by a Chabad house in Thailand
Huge tents, arranged to echo the layout of the Seder plate, are erected to accommodate the giant Seder hosted by a Chabad house in ThailandCourtesy Esther Felder

Chabad in New York usually helps facilitate the Seders in Thailand by sending bochurim—young men who are studying in yeshiva and are on break from their studies over Passover—to assist in running these communal events. This year at least 70 bochurim are slated to fly to Thailand, where they will undergo two days of training on how to engage the massive crowds that attend these Seders.

Haggadahs and instruction are provided in both Hebrew and English to all Seder guests, who are usually seated around tables of 10 or, depending on space, at long communal tables. The crowd is a mix of ages, nationalities, singles, and families. Due to Thailand’s popularity among Israeli travelers and backpackers, thousands of the guests are Israelis. The Seders in Thailand are lively affairs, with thousands of people singing Passover songs and Ma Nishtana in a variety of languages. Seders are hosted on both the first and second night of Passover, though the crowd is usually smaller on the second.

The Seders hosted by Chabad in Thailand are free for anyone to attend, but RSVPs are encouraged so that Chabad knows how many people to prepare food for. However, on the night, with or without an RSVP, anyone is welcome to join. Optional donations to help cover costs are appreciated.

“We spend a lot of thought on how to make a public Seder be a family Seder—although it sounds impossible,” said Kantor. “We want there to be the beauty and excitement of super communal, really large Seders, but at the same time, we try to drill down the details of each family having the experience of a family Seder. To appoint a head of the table for their group. To work out which elements will be done communally. It’s trying to harness the energy of the huge crowd.”

The attention to detail and crafting a communal experience is not lost on the guests who attend Seder in Thailand. Aviya Weiner, an Australian who has been to several communal Seders hosted in Koh Samui, said, “There were so many people from so many different places and walks of life. It was incredible to see everyone coming together and take part in the Seder. My family has even stayed in touch with other families we met there!”

Chabad of Thailand hosted its largest number of Seder guests in 2019 and originally expected 2020 to have an even bigger number. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, just weeks before Passover.

“In March 2020, we canceled all public events,” Kantor recalled. “For the locals, we packed full Seder dinners to go. The next year [2021] we did have some small public Seders because Pesach came at a period between lockdowns. But the tourists couldn’t get in because you needed two weeks of quarantine, so it was much smaller.”

In 2022 the numbers started to climb again; hundreds of people showed up. But 2023 is expected to be Chabad of Thailand’s largest-ever Passover.

The concept of large, communal public Seders that are free of charge and open to any Jewish person began in 1986 when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, met with the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel and encouraged them to establish free public Seders across Israel.

A few years after that, Chabad began to host large communal Seders in Asia, with Nepal being the first country to host free Seders for Jewish backpackers and travelers.

Australian Joe Slater remembers helping to organize and coordinate some of these Seders in the 1990s in both Pokhara and Kathmandu, Nepal. “It was mostly Israeli guests. We had a very interesting crowd,” he said, recalling one specific guest, a Buddhist Monk who was born Jewish; he attended the Seders while wearing his red monk robe. “At the time we held these Seders, there was no established Chabad house in Nepal. One year we held it at the Israeli Embassy, but the year after that the crowd had grown too large, and it was held at a hotel. People knew about these Seders largely by word of mouth.” Slater estimates that about 1,000 people came to the ones he helped to organize.

Tables set for a Seder hosted by Chabad in Thailand
Tables set for a Seder hosted by Chabad in ThailandCourtesy Esther Felder

In 2000, Chabad of Nepal opened under the leadership of Rabbi Chefzi Lifshitz and his wife, Chani, and today Nepal hosts one of the world’s largest communal Passover Seders, with some estimates that, on average, 2,000 people attend the Seders in Kathmandu.

“It all started in Kathmandu 35 years ago,” said Lifshitz. “There was no Chabad house then. It was just travelers. The Seder was something new. It was something special and it became very famous.”

In addition to the communal Seders in Kathmandu, Seders are held across Nepal—including in Pokhara, Annapurna and, for the first time ever in 2023, at either Namche or Dingboche, one of the Sherpa villages leading up to Mount Everest.

“At Annapurna [a famous mountain range in Nepal], we do a Seder at 3,500-meter altitude, and we usually get about 100 people,” said Lifshitz. “Doing a Seder in the mountains, it’s the most interesting experience. It’s the one people talk about. And this year, for the first time, we will do a Seder on the way to Mount Everest. We are expecting tens of people!”

But it’s not just Chabad that will be hosting Seders in Asia.

The Jewish Community of Japan, led by Rabbi Andrew Scheer, is excited to welcome a mix of locals and tourists to its community Seders in Tokyo and is expecting about 100 guests per Seder night.

“We start planning at least six months in advance. We import supplies from the U.S. We make our own horseradish (wasabi),” said Scheer. “Last year we asked the Ma Nishtana questions in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and German.”

Like most Jewish communities in Asia, Japan endured lockdowns, with community Seders canceled in 2020 and 2021, with individual Seder-to-go kits provided to community members instead. Public Seders ran in 2022, but the crowd was smaller than usual.

However, in 2023, Tokyo’s community Seders will operate as normal. “We’ve been waiting four years to welcome visitors from all over the world to our Seder in Tokyo,” said Scheer. “It will be two nights to remember.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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