Last Tuesday afternoon, a crowd gathered on the rooftop of a Phnom Penh landmark to witness a historic milestone: What is believed to be Cambodia’s first kosher Jewish wedding. Over the buzz of a nearby construction site, about 50 people guests chatted in English, French, Hebrew, Khmer, Kazakh, and Yiddish before the ceremony, as they admired the Buddhist temples dotting the capital city’s chaotic traffic below.
The notes of a live keyboard signaled: women filed to the left, men to the right. Moments later, the bride, Irina walked down the aisle—she was escorted by the wives of Chabad rabbis in Cambodia and Thailand, Mashie Butman and Mushka Hecht—toward her groom, Vadim. (The couple requested their last names not be used.) Rabbi Bentzion Butman, a native Israeli who has run Chabad in Cambodia since 2009 and established the new building in December 2015, officiated the ceremony underneath a white chuppah framed by the glowing sunset. “It was an obvious choice to have the wedding here,” said Butman.
After the groom broke the glass, Butman spoke about the couple’s connection to the region and community with a microphone in hand in the reception hall. Guests listened from round tables draped in white tablecloths, matching chairs with pink sheer bows, eating the second course of pumpkin soup after “Hava Nagila.” As if a kosher Jewish wedding in Cambodia is not unusual enough, the couple’s unique background was an added twist: a bride from Kazakhstan and a groom from Israel with Russian roots.
Chair lifts aside, the gathering itself was not completely unusual. Every Friday night throughout the year, in the six-story building accessed by either side of a winding alley, Chabad opens its doors to the community and visitors from around the world. When the need for a Jewish presence was identified in the region after Passover visits in 2007 and 2008, Butman was assigned to relocate to Phnom Penh, where he now resides full-time with his family and six children.
“I was living in New York, studying, and looking for a destination for our life mission,” he said, noting that while his lifestyle may seem unusual to some, there are 4,000 other families in the world who are doing the same. Yet for Butman, as well as for all other Chabad rabbis, he said, leadership is not only a job, it’s a lifestyle. This is evidenced by his warmth toward everyone who steps in the door and involvement in all aspects of the community in a country without local Jewish history; the facility operates a kosher restaurant, hosts services and meals on Shabbat and high holidays, and provides general support for its members. In 2013, a plot of land was purchased for the Jewish cemetery, now a resting place for three.
“As an American living abroad in Phnom Penh, the wedding manifested what Chabad is to me—community,” said Martin Karopkin, a native New Yorker who serves as a judge at the Trial Chamber at Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. “The setting was beautiful, but even more beautiful was that fact that, there we were, men and woman from all over the world, expats and tourists, and we were instant family. To the happy couple and to each other!”
Dara Bramson is a journalist covering Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.