Faith amid the Fleshpots

It’s not why they went to Thailand, but a guitar-playing rabbi gives thousands of Israeli backpackers a taste of home — and bails them out of trouble



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report



At first glance it may seem like an optical illusion: A black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jew ambling down Khao San Road, a backpacker paradise of licentious oriental chaos? Sidecurls and tzitziot in a world of braided hair and body piercings, throbbing bars and neon-lit massage parlors, fried grasshopper and roast squid?

Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm, a Lubavitcher from Jerusalem who runs an outreach to Israeli backpackers on Bangkok's rowdy Khao San Road, is recruiting a traveler (who happens to be the author) for a minyan (photo: Tibor Krausz)

You blink and look again, but the image persists. Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm is a permanent sight on Khao San, part of the texture of life in the fleshpots of Bangkok. Khao San has lots of flesh and lots of pot: cheap sex and easy drugs.

And it’s the sex and drugs that keep Wilhelm on Khao San, tending to the flocks of visiting Jews and Israelis lured from the ways of Torah and Zion by this Far Eastern Sodom and Gomorrah. Every evening, the rabbi positions himself between Susie’s bar and a roast pork vendor and listens for Hebrew-speakers in the beer-swilling, let-your-hair-down throng. “Are you Jewish? We need people for a minyan,” he tells his picks: henna-tattooed travelers with pierced eyebrows.

Amazingly, he often has his 10 men in as many minutes. “In Israel, things are Jewish all around so you don’t care,” says Tsahi Abuhatzira, 25, from Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, dressed in a purple tie-dyed shirt and baggy orange pants. “But here, so far away, it’s touching to have a feel of home.”

Not every young Israeli waxes so generous. “You, here!” exclaims an irate Uri Peled, 27, from Haifa, pony-tailed and ear-ringed, as he emerges from stalls of bootlegged Hollywood flicks and mass- produced lucky charms to find his way blocked by the rabbi. “I came all this way from Israel just to get away from your lot!”

Rabbi Wilhelm, a 27-year-old hasid from Jerusalem who looks 40 with his balding pate, John Lennon glasses and ginger Moses beard, has become a legend with Israeli wayfarers. Reports of the rabbi, whom his clients fondly call “Rabbi Nehemya,” pass by word-of-mouth from one Jewish backpacker to the next.

Now, his minyan complete, the rabbi has almost done another day’s work. He herds his flock to his headquarters in a side street off Khao San. He stands before the ark, draped in a prayer shawl, and leads his companions in prayer. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?” he turns between recitations to a young man in a rainbow-colored knitted Jamaican hat, who seems baffled and lost. “For many of them,” the rabbi tells me later, “it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a minyan — or ever prayed at all.”

Beit Chabad of Khao San Road is a five-story building, housing a kosher restaurant, a synagogue and a library. It’s one of some 2,000 such Lubavitch establishments from Moscow to Cape Town to Buenos Aires. A poster of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, sums up Chabad’s agenda in the rebbe’s command to his followers: “Let’s welcome the Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness.”

Probably, none of the other Chabad houses hopes to usher in the Messiah in a more unlikely locale — or has won greater rapport with non-religious Jews.

Sitting in Beit Chabad’s crowded restaurant, Dubi Alder, 26, from Tel Aviv, recounts: “Before I came to Thailand, my friends told me, ‘If you want good Israeli food, go to Chabad. If you need help or information, go to Chabad.’ So my first question on arriving in Bangkok was ‘Where’s Chabad?’”

Last Rosh Hashanah, some 1,000 Israeli backpackers rallied for Chabad’s New Year services and celebration in a Bangkok hotel — several of them straight from acid parties on Thailand’s freewheeling islands. For Hanukkah, the rabbi put out a large menorah in front of the Chabad House. A couple of hundred Israelis gathered daily to light candles and party. The rabbi played Hanukkah songs on the guitar, as the Israelis sang, clapped and danced. “It’s very hip to attend a Chabad party when you’re in Bangkok,” says Michelle Bashan, 23, from Tel Aviv. “It’s your ticket to the family of Jewish travelers.”

Every Friday evening, some 250 Israelis attend Chabad’s Shabbat dinners and listen in silence to the rabbi’s sermons. “Rabbi Nehemya is the ace of hearts,” enthuses Alon Hason, 28, from Holon. Hason, an ascetic, in white muslin with dreadlocks and a pointed goatee and mustache, has been bumming around East Asia for six years. At least once a year, he comes back to the Chabad House. “The rabbi gives you real good vibes,” he explains.

Young foreign travelers seek some coconut juice refreshment on Khao San (photo: Tibor Krausz)

Ofer, a backpacker from Tel Aviv who only gives his first name, disagrees. “Their hospitality is a sham,” he fumes. In his month on Khao San, Ofer never set foot in the Chabad House. “All they want is to feed you their fusty principles wrapped as candy.”


Rabbi Wilhelm came to Bangkok as a Chabad emissary with his wife and three children for a three-month stint. “Then I took off my watch,” he says. That was five years ago.

Ever since, he has been catering to Israelis on Khao San Road. It’s a sizable congregation. Last year about 80,000 Israelis reached or passed through Bangkok. Most of them, traveling on a shoestring, ended up in Khao San.

The area has become a veritable Little Israel. Restaurants offer pita, felafel and humus with their Thai fare; second-hand bookstores have a wide collection of Hebrew material; moneychangers give a good rate for the shekel; and several vendors hawk their goods in passable Hebrew.

The Chabad House, too, has adapted itself to backpacker needs. The four permanent staffers have put up a notice board for messages and travel tips. They relay mail between travelers and their parents back home. And they dole out advice freely on anything from where to eat and stay in Bangkok to the most popular regional tourist destinations.

Rabbi Wilhelm is on stand-by for emergencies. He will help the sick find doctors, and will lend money to cash-strapped travelers until they get some wired from home. Last October, he put up $5,000 bail for two Israelis arrested for smoking marijuana. The local police commissioner now calls the rabbi before the Israeli embassy when an Israeli runs afoul of the law.

And the embassy is happy about it. “Rabbi Nehemya is our one-man bureau on Khao San,” says attaché Oded Norman. “He’s in the thick of the action and is a lot better placed to deal with the daily problems of Israeli travelers than we are. He is doing a lot of things that we cannot do because of diplomatic and official restraints.”

For instance, the rabbi rescues those who overdose on psychedelic mushrooms. Heavy users often descend into hallucinatory psychosis, suffering from severe delusions. Some end up believing they’re God. Wilhelm is their man.

He brought a young woman who had lost it to mushroom-induced delusions in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Bangkok, then flew in a psychologist from Israel to take her home. He arranged for another addled woman to be fetched by a special police boat from an island in a rain storm while flights were grounded. And he went to a Bangkok hospital to feed a man who thought he was God and had been refusing food and medication from “my creations.” The patient relented on seeing the rabbi. “Good!” he said, “Here’s someone who works for me!”

The rabbi lends a ready ear to the adventures of less eccentric travelers. “I have traveled all over the East dozens of times — not physically, of course,” he says. He tells them in turn about the values of an Orthodox life. “I want them to see that Judaism is not as bad as it sounds,” he explains. “Many of them would never go within a mile of an Orthodox Jew in Israel, but here they’re more receptive when they see we don’t throw rocks at them.”

Rabbi Wilhelm with a group of Israelis at the local Chabad House (photo: Chabad Thailand)

Occasionally, the rabbi wins a traveler over to religion. Once, he recounts, he was called to the local prison to bail out an Israeli arrested for smoking a joint. On seeing the rabbi, the man apologized profusely. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “Yesterday, you asked me to join your minyan, and I told you to get lost.” The rabbi got the man out of jail and for the next two weeks taught him Torah. A year later, the rabbi met his protégé in a yeshiva in Safed. “We are here to help,” he says. “If we can help them to come to the faith, that’s a bonus.”

But his urge to offer assistance has not made Wilhelm dump any of his uncompromising, stringently Orthodox principles for Bangkok’s anything-goes liberalism. Help for marriage with locals is out. “I’ve managed to prevent a lot of those, thank God,” he boasts.

One afternoon, a young Israeli comes to the Chabad House and asks the rabbi to help his Japanese girlfriend convert to Judaism so that the couple can marry under the huppah. The rabbi tells him to forget it. “If she loves you, she’ll leave you,” he says after an hours-long lecture about the man’s obligation not to “finish Hitler’s work” by marrying a non-Jew. “If it had been an American or European girl, I’d have said OK,” the rabbi explains later. “But Asian women [of a Buddhist background] are very different culturally and could never adapt to a Jewish way of life.”

That may not be entirely the case. The kosher restaurant’s kitchen is staffed by Thai women, who hold their own with the dietary laws, following the rabbi’s instructions.


The Chabad House’s ambition, says Wilhelm, is to “create a mini-Jerusalem in the heart of Bangkok.” But what if, instead of Jerusalem coming to Khao San, Bangkok seeps into this mini Me’ah She’arim? Bangkok is Bangkok, after all, and some of his Hasidic helpers may be tempted by secular self-indulgence.

The seductions are everywhere. You poke your head out the glass-fronted entrance of the Chabad House, and lewd Bangkok leers right back at you. This outpost of Orthodox Judaism rubs doorsteps with a neon-lit massage parlor offering the whole gamut of erotic sensations from an “herbal facial” to a “full-body massage” with oil.

“You think Orthodox people have no feelings?” asks Moti Mendelson, a 22-year-old rabbinical student from Brooklyn on a three-month internship with the rabbi. “When they offer to give you a body massage, yeah, sure you want to do it. But I know I can’t.”

One evening, after filling in for Wilhelm to mobilize a minyan, Mendelson is pacing back to the Chabad House. He spots a newly recruited Israeli straying into a massage parlor, sidetracked on his way to prayer. Mendelson steps in to redirect him. He freezes in his tracks. There he is, standing before prostrate, near-naked people getting thorough rubdowns. He backs out and ducks into the refuge of Chabad.

Close calls like that will remain a daily risk. And Wilhelm will be there, blocking the way. “I will stay,” the rabbi pledges, “until the last Jewish traveler has left.”


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