I recently watched a TV documentary [could it have been this? Here you’ll read a short description of the film, about a Chabad couple “setting up shop” for outreach in ― are you ready? ― Ho Chi Minh City [hereinafter: HCMC]. Most of the program was spent following them around HCMC as they attempted to identify (and ascertain the kashrut of!) the unfamiliar foods at the grocery and explain to the furniture maker what kind of bed their toddler would need.
The suspense derived from the uncertainty of whether their things would arrive in time for Passover Seder, to which they’d naturally already invited a dozen or so guests. Their stuff arrived within hours before Passover, which they of course attributed to haShem working a miracle on their behalf.
Throughout, I could not stop exclaiming Why? I suppose I get the Chabad aspiration of increasing the per capita number of mitzvot performed anywhere on God’s green earth, but there? Vietnam? This article says that the Jewish population of HCMC is 200, most of whom are married to Vietnamese. Now what are the chances that an ex-pat Jew living in Vietnam and married to a native is going to “see the light” and return to the fold? Even if there should be such a Jew out there, among these 200, does it justify the formidable outlay of resources needed to relocate a family to a locale that Jewishly speaking is far-flung both in the geographical and figurative sense?
Yet my problem with Chabad shlichut goes beyond the expense. I "get" Chabad on college campuses, say. But the transplanting of an inherently Western institution to the Far East contains a distinct element of colonialism, manifested in the fact that all needs, down to formula for the toddler, flour for baking challah, and of course matzot, need to be imported; and also in the fact that the family’s only contact with the locals was to instruct the movers where to put things and supervise the carpenters who were assembling the Holy Ark ― tasks to which the shluchim naturally won’t or can’t stoop.
I find the entire phenomenon of Chabad in the Far East distasteful (and certainly not cute, as many Jews do): It smacks of paternalism, particularly the flagship Katmandu Seder, for which they’re famous among the post-IDF backpacker set, the underlying presumption of which is “those spiritually vapid seculars need us to ‘do’ Seder for them”.
Therefore, I would actually go so far as to actively discourage my kids from attending this or any other Chabad Seder or celebration, should they ever find themselves in the vicinity. Why not instead encourage our kids to join together with fellow travelers, shop for supplies to approximate a Seder (or Sabbath or other holiday) meal, and hold their own Seder? Such a Seder would certainly more closely resemble more Sdarim throughout Jewish history than does a Chabad Seder-in-a-box (Seder-in-a-vacuum?), and would no doubt not only have a more genuine feel, but would also likely be more memorable. So, calling all backpackers: Boycott the Katmandu Seder!