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Economic Opportunities Lure Jews to Land of Ho Chi Minh

Rafi Kot, an Israeli physician, arrived in Vietnam 21 years ago expecting to stay for six months. He never left.

“Now it’s home,” he says. “I love this country.”

With money he raised from West Germany, Kot built health stations in dozens of villages. He married a Vietnamese woman with whom he’s raising a son. In 1994, when the government began promoting private health care, Kot opened up Family Medical Practice, now a bustling $8 million enterprise with offices in Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City.

Kot is one of a small but growing number of Jews in this southeast Asian nation.

While 20 years ago there were practically no Jews living in Vietnam, the country’s growing economy has helped generate a Jewish presence in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The community of “Do Thai,” or Jews, is tiny — fewer than 100 in Hanoi and about 200 in Ho Chi Minh City, the city formerly known as Saigon, among some 85 million Vietnamese.

“To get a minyan here is not easy,” says Nati Brooks, deputy chief at the Israeli Embassy in Hanoi. “The community is very small, so every Jewish occasion is quite special.”

But the Jewish presence here is not insignificant.

Israel opened its embassy here in 1993, a year before President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam. For one week each year, Kot teams up with the embassy for an annual humanitarian mission that sends a convoy of doctors and support staff with supplies into Vietnam’s poorest mountain regions.

This spring “we saw 5,500 patients and distributed ten tons of clothes, rice and pigs,” Kot recalls, though in a report to the home country, the Israeli Embassy chose to describe the pigs simply as “domestic animals.”

The American Jewish World Service, too, has forged a connection with Vietnam to address local health-care needs. The New York-based charity funds three advocacy networks that support Vietnamese living with HIV/AIDS.

The Bright Futures Network — “Vi Ngay Mai Tuoi Sang” in Vietnamese — operates out of a modest storefront on a residential street in Hanoi. Director Dang Do Dong uses American Jewish World Service funding to recruit HIV-positive activists who educate local leaders of Vietnam’s “Fatherland Front,” the official unions for women, youth, veterans and workers, that play a defining role in Vietnam’s highly organized society.

Under a law passed last year by the National Assembly, Dong said, these unions “have a responsibility to mobilize people to participate in prevention and control of AIDS, and to support people infected with HIV.”

Bit by bit, the Jewish community here is growing. The increase is fueled by Vietnam’s radical economic turnaround, a process called “doi moi,” or renovation.

At the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam was among the world’s poorest countries, with the Soviet Union underwriting a quarter of its gross national product and many people living in dire poverty and as farmers. But starting in 1986, Vietnam abandoned collective farming and began to encourage the growth of private enterprise and foreign investment.

The result has been record-setting economic growth — 8.17 percent in 2006 — and a stunning drop in the poverty rate, which has sunk to 18.1 percent from 73 percent 20 years ago.

Vietnam still calls itself a socialist republic, and its government still exercises firm control over a highly structured society, yet the country is eager to strengthen its ties with the developed world. In January, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization.

Israeli investors have been quick to seize the new opportunities here.

“Vietnam has become kind of a darling in Israel,” Ambassador Ephraim Ben-Matityahu told JTA. “The Vietnamese are ambitious, they have a stable government and now they’re a market-oriented society.”

Israeli firms began their relationships here supplying much-needed technical expertise in agriculture, water management and telecommunications. Now investors are jumping into joint ventures in real estate and infrastructure projects.

As economic ties deepen, Israelis are discovering cultural affinities with Vietnam.

“Vietnam has a long history of a strongly intellectual and materially based society,” Ben-Matityau said. “The ideals of learning are as strongly embedded in Vietnamese as in Jewish culture.”

“Vietnamese attitudes toward Jews are very positive,” he adds.

With increasing numbers of Jews coming to Vietnam both as tourists and to stay, a Chabad-Lubavitch center opened in Ho Chi Minh City a year ago.

The tall, high-ceilinged building on a narrow lane off busy Le Loi Street doubles as a synagogue and home for Rabbi Menachem Hartman and his wife, Racheli. Hartman conducts Friday-night services and weekly Torah classes, and he’s on the hunt for Jews.

“I know about a hundred,” he said. “Some come to me, some I seek out. Most have no connection with Jewish observance. We’re giving them the opportunity to practice Judaism.”

The Israeli Embassy hosts holiday celebrations on Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover, and in May embassy staff helped arrange a bar mitzvah ceremony for a 13-year-old Israeli boy traveling through Hanoi, generating headlines in Jerusalem, but Hartman’s trying to offer something more.

On a recent weekday evening, while Hartman’s 2-year-old played on the floor, half a dozen Israeli businessmen burst through the door. In town for a real estate deal, one of the men was looking for a minyan to recite Kaddish for a recently deceased relative.

A flurry of cell phone calls soon produced the necessary quorum of 10, and a stack of yarmulkes stamped with “Chabad Vietnam” were passed around. Then the solemn faces turned eastward and the ancient chant echoed off the wall — punctuated now and then by the furtive clicks of the businessmen-turned-worshipers’ palm-held computers.

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