It’s funny to think back about the first time my husband and I crossed paths. We probably did not do more than glance at one another, but we were both praying for the same thing at the same place, just minutes apart from each other—and of all places, in the city of Lubavitch, across the world, in Russia.
It was the summer of 2005 when a friend told me that the government in Belarus had been giving the Chabad rabbi a difficult time opening a summer camp. The camp was for Jewish children from Minsk, Orsha, and the neighboring communities. The program was due to start in July—all had been coordinated: staff, accommodations, food, airline tickets—the works! But with a corrupt government and a little dose of antisemitism, the camp was not allowed to open, and all the hours of planning were on hold.
That’s when my life changed even more, without my even knowing itMiraculously, the camp was able to launch its program, but only in the month of August. All the staff were reserved for the month of July and already had plans for the coming month. So, with the camp being short-staffed and in need of more counselors, here was my golden ticket to Belarus, all expenses paid, to take care of and nourish the souls of Jewish children halfway across the globe.
And so I went and had the experience of my life. I learned that you don’t need to speak the same language in order to teach, love, share, and show that you really care. I learned that happiness is not in how much you have, but how much you appreciate what you do have. I learned that you can find similarities and grow to be friends with people with whom you thought you have nothing in common.
After my wonderful, life-changing experience, the staff were treated to a tour visiting the holy sites of deceased righteous Chabad rebbes. And that’s when my life changed even more, without my even knowing it at the time.
It was a six-hour drive, and one I try really hard to forget, because there are no traffic regulations or speed limits in the forsaken dirt paths in Ukraine. There are no fancy rest stops with Starbucks coffee. And there are cows that can sit in front of your vehicle for a really long time.
Anyway, we finally arrived to the city of Lubavitch, which means “the city of love,” named appropriately for the love that the Jews have toward G‑d and toward each other. We were about to disembark and go to the holy sites there, when we saw a huge group of American boys milling around. They were from a Jewish traveling camp, and had chosen this same day to visit the city—which was more like a village, and was void of any Jewish life. Since the place was crowded, we waited for them to board the buses before we went in.
Avi Richler’s signature on the wall, written minutes before the author took the picture
We did not have a tour guide, so we tried to guide ourselves through the sloshy mud paths so that we could say our prayers by the gravesite of the rebbes and rebbetzins buried there. On our way, three young men passed by. They had stayed a little longer than the rest of the group and were on their way back. One of those men was my husband-to-be. At the time, I did not even glance at him for more than a second.
I was so enthralled with the idea that I was walking through the very same mud paths that our chassidic ancestors had traipsed through every day. I was trying to envision life there just some decades ago. In my mind I was trying to imagine what everyday life was like, what the streets looked like: the sounds of children laughing, neighbors calling out to each other, the strains of Shabbat melodies, and the silence and respect that would fall upon the streets as the holy rebbe would walk by.
I tried hard not to focus and dwell on the horror which befell this city, as innocent Jewish lives were taken and the soil soaked with the blood and tears of our brethren. I tried to focus on the future of our people and the beautiful legacy that the people in the city of Lubavitch had left for us. I promised that I would perpetuate their legacy of unconditional love for G‑d and for our fellow Jewish brothers and sisters.
“Hey, take a picture of the name next to yours. It just might be your soulmate!”While we were looking around, we stumbled upon the most dilapidated building I’ve ever seen—but was intrigued, along with the rest of our group, by the sign that said “770 Beit Chabad” (Chabad House). We walked inside and, to our great amusement, we saw names, lots of names, hundreds of names, scribbled all over the walls. It was a huge walk-in guest book with the signatures of all the young and maybe not-so-young visitors to the city of Lubavitch. I modestly took an almost-dried-out permanent marker which I found on a windowsill, and signed our initials on the door. One of the counselors quipped, “Hey, take a picture of the name next to yours. It just might be your soulmate!” and as ridiculous as I thought the idea was, I did take the picture.
And then we found the gravesites. We prayed all together. I prayed hard. I prayed for health and success; I prayed for my family and I prayed for my friends. I stood by the gravesites of holy rabbis, and then by the gravesites of their righteous and noble wives, who had sacrificed more than any of us can fathom, and I cried with so much emotion. There is something so powerful and so spiritually tangible there by the sites of our rebbetzins, our spiritual mothers. I felt a strong connection to these special women. I asked for a blessing that I get married to the person who is best for me, and that G‑d bless us with children and a beautiful, warm Jewish home. And you know that fulfilling feeling that you get when you prayed and you know that your sincere words were accepted? I had that feeling there.
I’ll fast-forward a bit. I finished my trip to the Ukraine and the trip to Israel which followed after. The summer days were over and the High Holidays were approaching. I was ready to find my soulmate and get married, and my mother had told me that a great young man had been suggested for me to meet. She told me his name, but I had never heard of him.
That very same hour, I was looking through my digital files and uploading my pictures. And there it was. In big, bold, black letters, scribbled on the wall, so close to my name, written just a few minutes before me, “Avi Richler 2005.” It was on that wall in the city of Lubavitch, just a short walk away from the gravesites where we had both prayed to meet our soulmates.
Avi and I met, and I guess the rest is history. We were married on a fine, freezing winter day. Avi likes to say, “The writing was on the wall!” It sure was!