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We Called Again

April 17, 2013 11:57 AM

Although the Kingdom of Cambodia is rich in natural resources, decades of war, genocide, and political unrest have left it one of the world’s poorest countries. Amid the abject poverty, there is a beacon of light—a beautiful Chabad Jewish Center, in the heart of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital.

This Passover, my friend and I made the 8,000 mile journey from Brooklyn to Cambodia. Our bullet list for this trip was pretty straightforward—to make a meaningful connection with every Jewish person who calls Cambodia home.

David lives in Siem Reap, four hours away from the Chabad Center in Phnom Penh. We travelled there before the holiday to meet with some of our Jewish contacts. When we phoned David and introduced ourselves, his hostility was apparent immediately. “NO, I am not interested,” he said curtly, ending the call.

We couldn’t be satisfied with that. Without further ado, we pressed redial.

“David, we travelled so far to be here, and all we want to do is give you some matzah, can we please stop by for a few minutes?” Reluctantly, he agreed.

Several hours later, we found ourselves in David’s apartment. “Sit down,” he told us. “I have something to tell you. As you know, I didn’t always live here. But I’ve visited many times. Five years ago, I went through a really big crisis. I decided to run away and the best place I could think of was here. My parents raised me like their parents raised them—with the beauty of traditional Judaism. But I left that behind too. I wanted out of everything.” At this point, David cleared his throat, while tears filled his eyes. “Then, you boys called me. You heard my knee-jerk reaction. You called again. And I remembered that today is my father’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing). My father was a great man, a proud Jew. I know he must be happy that you’re here with me now. So…would I be able to put on tefillin in my father’s honor?”

We quickly recovered our bearings, and helped David with the tefillin and prayers. We then reached for the matzah we had brought, but David put out his hand to stop us. “Thank you, but there’s no need for that. I will be coming to spend the Seder night with you.”

The Rabbi's Grandson

April 12, 2013 8:45 AM

The Torah refers to Passover as Chag HaAviv—the spring festival. In many places around the world, spring is beginning to make its appearance. Not in Ukraine. Here, winter is still in full force, spring a distant dream. We landed in Sumy on the Thursday before Pesach, and were greeted by a massive snowstorm, the largest in fifty years!

Shabbat arrived, and the snow was still falling steadily. We celebrated with the local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Yechiel Levitansky, and his family. On Sunday, we were scheduled to travel to Haditch for the holiday, but the roads were unplowed and barely passable. Normally, it would be a trip of several hours, but under the circumstances, we knew it would be a lot longer. We also heard that Haditch had lost electricity due to the storm. Despite all that, we hit the road, accompanied by the Chabad Rabbi to Haditch, Rabbi Menachem Taichman. We drove at a snail’s pace, taking note of all the stalled cars and trucks as we passed them. At one point, it seemed that our van wouldn’t make it as well, but some beefy Ukrainians came to our rescue, giving us a human boost. We reached Haditch on Sunday night, and almost as soon as we entered the town, the electricity turned back on!

The next morning, the day of the Seder, we went with Rabbi Teichman to visit one of the very few local Jews—Baruch Friedman. He lives alone in a Soviet-era apartment complex. His neighbor led us to the apartment, explaining that he usually looks after Mr. Friedman. Rabbi Teichman told us that Baruch’s grandfather had been the last community rabbi in Haditch, but Baruch had grown up in the height of the Communist era, when the practice of Judaism was an offence punishable by death. Subsequently, Baruch was completely distanced from his Jewish heritage.

We entered the apartment, and Baruch, 85 and bedridden, was very excited to see us. We sat around his bed and talked, enjoying Baruch’s cheerful and lively demeanor. Eventually, we pulled out our tefillin. “What is that?” Baruch had never seen tefillin before. We briefly explained the mitzvah of tefillin to Baruch, and then helped him put them on. “Baruch, it’s your bar mitzvah!” Although somewhat confused, he continued to smile as we all sang and danced around his bed.

We took out the Seder supplies we had brought: wine, a Haggadah, and some matzah. When we showed these to Baruch, he pointed to the box and exclaimed, “That’s matzah!” Baruch then asked us if we knew about the great Jewish priest who is buried in this town. He was referring to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose burial place is in Haditch, but sadly was not familiar with the word Rabbi…

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, entrusted our generation with the task of reaching out with love and concern to every Jewish person, in every remote corner of the world. He taught us that each mitzvah a Jew performs stands on its own merit, and will hasten the Geulah—the final redemption. These were our thoughts as we bade farewell to Baruch, and walked out into the snowy streets of Haditch.

The Story Behind the Sobs

April 9, 2013 8:31 AM

In our years as roving rabbis we have traveled to places as far-flung as Cusco, Peru; Pucon, Chile; and Rosarito, Mexico; and have witnessed many a heartwarming moment. This Passover, we made the long trip from Brooklyn to Chengdu, China, where we were privy to the following encounter, arguably the most touching yet.

We arrived several weeks before the holiday to prepare. We were expecting 150 people at our Seder, and were directing all the cooking ourselves. In China, cooking is much more labor intensive, since all fruits and vegetables must be scrubbed well before using. Luckily, we had many volunteers—community members and tourists—helping out in the kitchen. We were all in the holiday spirit, eagerly anticipating the Seder at the culmination of our efforts.

A few days before Passover, Annette strolled into the kitchen of the Chabad House. She had seen the advertisements for the Seder and wanted to take part in the preparations. We directed her to a huge bucket of potatoes that needed to be peeled.

Amidst the hustle and bustle in the kitchen, we heard the unmistakable sound of sobbing. It was Annette, peeling potatoes, tears streaming down her face.

“Annette, what happened? Is everything alright?”

For a few endless moments, Annette could not compose herself, as if the cries were coming from the very depths of her soul.

“I’m living in Chengdu for twenty years now. I made a life for myself here; I’m busy, working all the time. My mother, my father—I left them, I left their life with all the beautiful traditions behind. I made myself forget that I am a Jew. But now, I’m sitting here peeling potatoes before Passover, and oh how I long for those simple days, sitting with my mother and my grandmother, peeling potatoes together...”

Japanese Wanderings

April 8, 2013 8:47 AM

Japan is well known as a fascinating country to visit. For us the attractions were not the ancient temples or cutting edge architecture, but the Jewish people.

The Sunday before Passover, we made the short trip from Kobe to Kyoto to visit with several Jews that lived there. Kyoto is a popular destination, so we arrived a few hours early and strolled the streets, hoping to find some Jewish tourists. Almost immediately, we spotted an American, possibly Jewish gentleman. We introduced ourselves to him. His name was Tzvi, and he knew Chabad very well. He had lived in Tucson and met the Chabad rabbi there. He even spent time on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, a few blocks away from Chabad World Headquarters! Twelve years ago, he moved to Kyoto, worlds away. He couldn’t believe that Chabad has a presence even here. We helped him put on tefillin, gave him a mezuzah for his home, and matzah and a Haggadah for his Seder.

We were still saying our final goodbyes to Tzvi when a large group of Israelis walked by. “Chabad is here!?” They exclaimed. “Maybe you have matzah for us?” We were happy to accommodate.

Lawrence lives with his family in Kyoto. We called him to confirm our three o’clock appointment. “Rabbi, one minute, I’m driving and I think I see the two of you…” Right there on the side of the road, he put on tefillin, and received matzah, enough for the fifteen people he expected at his Seder.

Next on our schedule was a visit with Amir, a native Israeli, at the falafel shop he owns. We started walking there. Fifteen minutes in, we met a Jewish woman and her children. She lives in Latvia, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She was visiting Japan to attend her son’s graduation from university in Osaka. The children had no exposure to Judaism. We spoke with them for a while, eventually wrapping tefillin with her son. “It’s your bar mitzvah, congratulations!” We left them with matzah, a Haggadah, and hopefully a newfound Jewish identity.

Two minutes later, a young man passed us. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” He replied in the affirmative but kept on walking. “We have matzah for you.” He turned around and took the matzah with a smile.

The falafel shop was apparently further than we had thought. We stopped to buy some water. On the checkout line, we noticed someone staring at us. “Are you Jewish?”

“There is Chabad in Japan? Welcome, I’m Jack, or Yaacov, originally from Montreal. I moved to China seven years ago and have been living in Japan for eight months now.” We chatted with Jack for a while. He promised to attend our Seder the following night.

An hour later, Amir was thrilled to see us. We spoke for a long time about jewish life, past and present. When it came time to put on tefillin, we inquired whether he owned a pair of his own. He told us, “My grandfather didn’t have tefillin, my father didn’t have tefillin, but I will.” We had brought along a new pair of teffilin from New York, for just this kind of occasion, and were more then happy to part with them, knowing that they would come to goood use! The smile on his face when he had doned his own pair of teffilin was exquisite, priceless.

We returned to Kobe late at night, physically exhausted but on a spiritual high, and began our preparations for the Seder.

Looking for the Fifth Son—or Daughter

April 7, 2013 11:17 AM

Australia, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Israel . . . these are some of the places the guests at our international Seder in the Dan Hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, hailed from. We had over 130 attendees, mostly tourists and backpackers.

Sunday before the Seder, we traversed the old city of Cartagena with one goal of mind: The Rebbe, of righteous memory, had taught that there is a fifth son in the Haggadah—the child who is conspicuous by his absence, who has no interest in Torah and mitzvahs and is not even aware of the Seder. We were determined to find these Jews and bring them home.

We met many people and invited them to join us. Two girls that we bumped into were delighted to see us. “We heard there is a Seder at the Dan Hotel, but we don’t know any more details about it.” We gave them all the information they needed, and sure enough, they showed up at the Seder. Afterwards, they told us how happy they were to be here, at a Seder with the same traditions of their parents and grandparents back at home.

We were reminded once again of the Rebbe’s incredible vision and care for every Jew, directing our steps to make certain that Judaism is accessible to all—even in Cartagena, Colombia.

How To Prevent an Eviction

April 4, 2013 3:03 PM

We were excited to learn that we would be assigned to Ulyanovsk, Russia, since we had spent the previous Passover and summer there, and had made many meaningful connections.

We arrived about a week before Passover, and immediately got to work. After koshering the kitchen of the Chabad House and the Jewish kindergarten, we prepared many kitchens around town for Passover. We sold matzah and wine, Passover’s essential ingredients, to people in the community. We organized a mock Seder, explaining to 30 children what to expect at the Seder. The night before Passover began, we had 25 teenagers join us in the Chabad House, and we searched for leaven together, ensuring that the premises was ready for Passover. In the week preceding Passover, we wrapped tefillin with more than 100 men. What we enjoyed most was the reunion we had with our former summer campers. After catching up, we took the opportunity to teach them about the upcoming holiday.

The morning of the Seder, after burning our remaining bread in a communal ceremony, we jumped into a marshutka–a minibus with the top speed of 27 mph—and headed towards nearby Dimitrovgrad.

We arrived at the apartment that had been arranged for us. We were promised that it would be large and luxurious. In reality, it was a stereotypical Soviet Union apartment building. The year before, our apartment was on the seventh floor, in a large building with an elevator—not very convenient accommodations, since riding an elevator is forbidden on the holiday. We had explained to the local community leader why it didn’t work. Now, she had placed us in a small building, in a fifth-floor apartment, without an elevator, and with an electronic magnetic door, which we would not be allowed to operate on the holiday. We walked into the apartment, and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It was completely bare, lacking even beds and windows! One of the locals told us, “Don’t worry, I’ll build you beds. And windows.” He was good as his word, but the beds broke as soon as we sat down. The kitchen was so tiny, only one person could stand in it at a time. We turned the bedroom into a multipurpose room, using it as a kitchen, dining room and sleeping area. We made some arrangements, and then left to the hall for the Seder.

Our Seder was a huge success! Forty-five adults and five children attended. The translator we had hired never showed up, so we had the opportunity to practice the Russian we had picked up over the years. As a substitute for speeches, we sang boisterous songs, in true Jewish style! The people were so happy, enjoying every moment. They told us that they want to have more Jewish events and parties, especially during the holidays.

After the Seder, a man approached us. “I am so inspired by tonight, I want to keep the rest of Pesach the way you do. Can I stay with you?” Of course, we agreed. He walked home with us, and we spent the next two days together. We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning discussing the Haggadah and singing Jewish melodies.

The last morning of the holiday, we were awakened by loud knocking at our door. It was our landlord, who told us that our two-day rental was over and our marshutka was waiting to drive us back to Ulyanovsk. Luckily, our newfound friend was still staying with us. He explained to her that we couldn't drive on the holiday, and we could leave only at eight in the evening. After a lot of negotiating and animated gesturing, she left. Our friend told us that she had agreed to let us stay only until six, and was heading to tell the driver that we would be leaving then. Unperturbed, we went about our day—praying, eating, learning and walking around town in search of Jews.

We were finishing the festive meal in our apartment when we heard another knock on the door. Two elderly Russian women walked in, and wordlessly began moving our suitcases to the door. We realized that they had been sent by the landlord to clean and lock up the apartment. To lighten the atmosphere, we began singing some Russian Jewish songs that we knew. To our great shock, one of the women started singing along. She told us that she has no identifying documents, so she doesn’t know if she is Jewish, but she remembers these songs from her youth. We spoke to her and sang more songs for her, until the sky had darkened, marking the end of the holiday. We recited the Havdalah prayer, and then headed to the marshutka and our ride back to Ulyanovsk.

7,000 KM for Four Jews With No Seder

April 4, 2013 3:03 PM

Druskininkai, Lithuania, is a scenic vacation village around 120 km south of Vilna. It is often frequented by Israelis in the summer months. We were the first group to be assigned there for Passover, and the weather was bitterly cold, so we had absolutely no clue as to what to expect.

Our first objective upon our arrival was to find the Hotel De Litta, were we would be staying and holding the Seder. The Chabad rabbi in Vilna, Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, was acquainted with the owner of the hotel and had made our arrangements. When we met the owner, he proudly informed us that he is the only Jew in Druskininkai. “You’re in for a surprise,” we told him.

Armed with a map and lots of optimism, we started walking towards the center of town. We placed signs announcing our Seder in many shops, and stopped by the spas and hotels, asking everyone we met if they were Jewish, or had any Jewish friends. The replies were usually along the lines of “No, but we have Jewish friends in Vilna,” or “You’re way too early for that; the Israelis come only in the summer.”

An hour into our search, we struck gold—an elderly Jewish couple from Moscow, vacationing in Druskininkai! When we told them about our plans to make a Seder, their faces lit up. “How nice,” the wife exclaimed. “As long as our feet can carry us there, of course we will come!”

We were still trekking through town when a woman approached us. Her name was Sarah, and she had just discovered that her maternal grandmother was Jewish. The grandmother had shared the news with her on her deathbed, and it had been confirmed by other relatives. We explained to her that she is also Jewish, and ran through the history of Passover with her. We then gave her all the pertinent details about our Seder the following night.

Our last stop of the day was the largest spa in Druskininkai. We asked the front-desk receptionist if there were any Jews registered there. “No, nobody here is Jewish. I’m sorry.” It was getting late, and we still had to catch a bus to Vilna. On our way out, we noticed two women staring at us. We approached them and started chatting, and it turned out that they were Jewish, visiting from Israel, and were thrilled to be able to join our Seder.

Twenty-four hours later, after a very eventful day, which included traveling to and from Vilna, schlepping, negotiating, shopping and setting up, our Seder table was ready. We set twenty places, hoping for the best. At 6:30, half an hour before the scheduled time, our first guest arrived—Sarah. She was followed shortly thereafter by the two women from the spa. Our last guest was Itzik, originally from Vilna but now in a local rehabilitation center.

The three women lit candles, and then we all took our seats. Due to the small and intimate crowd, we had the luxury of being able to explain the proceedings in depth, step by step. We were all swept away by the moment, especially Sarah, who lapped up every piece of information we shared. One of the Israeli women said that the Seders she had attended in the past were very rushed affairs, unlike this one which was “amazing,” and the other told us that she had never been to a Seder before. Itzik was just overjoyed to be at a Seder this year, in Druskininkai.

No, we didn’t have huge crowds, or make the front page of the paper or the seven o’clock news. But to four precious Jewish souls, our small Seder meant the world.

Passover Comes to Pest

April 4, 2013 3:02 PM

We are very busy here in Budapest, Hungary. Two Seders will take place, in Obuda and Budapest, with two hundred people expected at each, so we definitely have our hands full!

Budapest was once a thriving Jewish metropolis, but now, unfortunately, only a small fraction of the Jewish population has ties to communal life. There is overt anti-Semitism—we walked around to meet Jews, not letting the spits, shoves and name-calling deter us. We distributed many pounds of matzah, and put on tefillin with locals and tourists, including several people who have not had the opportunity to do this mitzvah before. One person we met, the owner of an exclusive restaurant, told us that his mother was rescued during the Holocaust by an Irish nobleman, and he was raised in the Irishman’s home, with hardly any exposure to his heritage. He was incredibly moved when we presented him with matzah, and happily put on tefillin, the first time since his bar mitzvah. On Shabbat, we had over 100 people join us for Friday night dinner at the Chabad House, and similar numbers on Shabbat day.

Because of their tragic history, the Jewish people in Budapest are generally guarded about their Judaism. We feel privileged to witness their eagerness and joy in embracing their birthright.

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