What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in Saigon?
The teeming alleys of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, capital of South Vietnam), with racing rickshaws, outdoor vegetable markets, pagodas and saffron-robed Buddhist monks, are the farthest thing from Rabbi Avrumi Hartman’s childhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 11 time zones away. And worlds apart culturally.
Rabbi Hartman, 30, leads Chabad of Saigon, the only organized Jewish community in Vietnam. Saigon has a population of close to nine million people, lost among them are around 350 Jews. Chabad of Saigon was founded in 2006 by Hartman’s uncle, Rabbi Menahem Hartman, now chief rabbi of Vietnam. Rabbi Avrumi arrived in 2015. Before Chabad there was no organized Jewish community: Individual Jews would meet for Shabbat and the seders in people’s homes.
A newer and smaller Chabad center serves the Jews of Hanoi (capital of the unified country and former capital of North Vietnam), run by Rabbi Levy Laine. Hanoi is the political center of the land (some of the Jews work in politics), while Saigon is the business center. There was once a small Chabad center in Hoi An, in central Vietnam, as well. The site of fierce fighting during the Vietnam War, it served all of 10 Jews, but closed down in the wake of COVID.
Vietnam is still officially socialist but is moving towards a free market. Rabbi Avrumi said that despite the lingering socialism, there are no restrictions on religious practice. There is no official religion, but Buddhism dominates, as in most of the Far East.
Chabad of Saigon, the first Chabad center in Vietnam, has all the institutions necessary to serve a functioning Jewish community: a large shul, mikvah, yeshiva day school, kosher restaurant and minimarket and Torah classes, but try to find a juicy, kosher pastrami sandwich on rye!
Rabbi Avrumi finds great satisfaction in serving the Jewish community and has no plans to leave.
The pride and joy of the small community is its yeshiva grade school, located above the mikvah. Classes are taught in a mix of Hebrew and English by two 20-something Israeli women as part of their national service. The school is open to all kids of the community. The rabbi’s three toddlers attend the school. The children have live classes in the morning, but in the afternoon they study from Chabad sites online. Vietnam has no compulsory education. Children who want to further their Jewish education after completing the school will have to go abroad since Vietnam (and probably the whole Far East) does not have a yeshiva high school.
Rabbi Avrumi is so wrapped up and comfortable in his Jewish cocoon that he rarely ventures out to the rest of Vietnam; even most of Saigon is unknown to him. He rarely mingles with the Vietnamese people other than to return a lost fly ball to his Vietnamese neighbors. He speaks precious little Vietnamese and finds the language barrier one of the major obstacles to adjustment. At times he gets by through facial and hand gestures. “I understand their culture and mentality,” he said. Rabbi Avrumi said being thrown into a foreign environment helped him think out of the box. “Whenever you leave your own community and comfort zone, you need to learn to adapt to a new country and respect the local culture,” he shared.
There is no indigenous Jewish presence in Vietnam or much of the Far East. The longest-standing Jew in Vietnam has been there for 30 years. Since there is no history of Jews in the country, there is no history of antisemitism. Few have ever seen a Jew outside of newspapers and television. Several thousand Vietnamese have spent time in Israel; some even speak Hebrew. There have been some Israeli ventures in agriculture and defense in Vietnam. A group of Israelis started a dairy farm. The farm still exists but the Israelis left after the work was finished.
With a lack of antisemitism and religious curiosity, not surprisingly, there are Vietnamese converts to Judaism. In the religiously tolerant Far East it’s even possible to be a member of two religions at the same time, like Hinduism and Buddhism. Saigon Chabad doesn’t have the facilities to perform conversions; they must be performed in Australia or other countries with a beit din. The community has never celebrated a wedding nor a burial, but has had its share of brit milahs,bar/bat mitzvahs and hachnasat sefer Torahs.
In a community of 350, how do eligible Jews find their bashert? It is not easy, but the community sponsors occasional singles events on Shabbat and holidays.
Since Jews are not native to Vietnam or most of the Far East, all Jews of Vietnam are a hodgepodge of transplants from the four corners of the world: Israel, the U.S., France and Holland, among others. At a communal Shabbat meal, one can hear Russian, English and French, everything but Vietnamese!
How did Rabbi Avrumi enter the picture?. He discovered Vietnam as a 17-year-old yeshiva bochur on a Pesach and summer program organized by Chabad to pioneer new communities. His Uncle Menahem was (and still is) a rabbi in Vietnam. “I liked that [Vietnam] was a very new and upcoming place with a lot of potential.” He liked them; they liked him. It was a shidduch! In 2015 he was offered a full-time position in Vietnam.
Did his parents think he was meshuggah for wanting to go to Vietnam?
“They were naturally worried about the distance, being so far from their kids/grandkids, but they were (and still are) very encouraging and supportive,” Rabbi Avrumi said.
What does he miss? The regular visits to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave in New York.
As I began to write a series about far-flung, exotic communities, I gazed at the globe. Vietnam caught my fancy because of my childhood memories of the Vietnam War. I knew about the Tet Offensive and the battles raging every night in the rice paddies before I knew long division. I cannot hear Saigon and Hanoi mentioned without flashbacks to the nightly TV news reports about the conflict that so divided Vietnam and the American public. Have any Jewish veterans of the conflict that lasted over a decade decided to stay in “Nam”? No, said Rabbi Avrumi.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Vietnam, along with much of the world, the country was awash with foreign tourists and business people excited by the opening of the free market economy, among them Jews. COVID changed everything. As this area has largely returned to normal, Vietnam (and much of the Far East) is still in lockdown. If a traveler to Vietnam is lucky enough to find a flight to Hanoi or Saigon he needs a visa and must undergo a four-week quarantine (three weeks in a hotel one week at a residence).
After 18 months of lockdown there is no end in sight. The pandemic has not spared religious and communal life, halving the number of attendees on Shabbat and at communal meals. Rabbi Avrumi said that the pandemic has put any future plans on hold. Nevertheless development in the community has not completely come to a stop. The shul has been updated and the mini-market expanded. Now that some physical projects are being undertaken, Rabbi Avrumi said that the emphasis is on strengthening the bonds between members of the community.
The rabbi is at the helm of a tiny, isolated community racked by COVID, and he finds strength in numbers. Many Jewish communities in the region are in similar situations and Rabbi Avrumi confers (by Zoom) with Jewish leaders (mainly Chabad) throughout the region, including China and Japan.
Rabbi Avrumi can’t wait until COVID is over and tourists and business people return to Chabad. His dream is to build a Jewish community center. He said that despite the image of Vietnam as an inexpensive country where backpackers can survive on a shoestring budget, real estate is quite expensive. “It will take 3 million in cash just to get started,” he remarked
When Elul rolls around, Rabbi Avrumi and his entourage of Saigon’s 350 Jews will make their way down the ageless alleys, amid raucous cart vendors, rickshaws and saffron-robed Buddhist monks, past the golden pagodas to the shul. Unreal as the scene is, Jewish life thrives and has found its home in the teeming alleys of Saigon and Hanoi.
If you visit Saigon, say Jeff sent you!
By Jeff Klapper