Roving Rabbis

Finding Rhonda - No Easy Task!

April 30, 2015 4:36 PM

April, 2014–one year ago:

It was a typically busy day at the headquarters of Passover Australia when we received the following call.

“Hi, this is Rabbi X from Sydney. May I please speak to whoever is going to Cairns for Passover?”

The phone was handed to me, since I, along with Yosef Kasle, had been assigned to Cairns.
“Hi, how can I help you?” I asked.

“I know someone there, a woman named Rhonda, he explained. “If you could, I’d like to give you her number so you can get in touch with her, maybe even visit her.”

At Passover Australia, it’s quite the common occurrence to be contacted to check in on someone’s friend or relative in the remote and desolate parts of rural Australia. We took down Rhonda’s contact information and promised to do our best.

Unfortunately, once we arrived in Cairns, we weren’t able to meet up since Rhonda was busy dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Ita, which had ravaged the state. Our time in Cairns ended quickly, and after the Seders we flew back to Melbourne, without having met Rhonda.

The next twelve months passed by, and Passover Australia was once again preparing to reach out to many of their Jewish brethren in the remote parts of Australia, who otherwise may not have any Passover experience. I was once again assigned to Cairns, this time with Shmuly Lezak.

As we looked over our contact list, we saw Rhonda’s name. We tried phoning, but couldn’t reach her. We thought she may have changed her number, so we decided to call Rabbi X and see if he could help us. He didn’t have Rhonda’s number, but gave us her father’s number. We were able to get in touch with him, and we learned that he was from Brisbane and a proud member of the Brisbane Hebrew Congregation. After a few moments, we asked him about his daughter, and immediately his cheerful tone turned into one of pain and pessimism.

“Ah, Rhonda,” he sighed. “She was such a good girl, but…you know how it is, they feel the need to rebel against conventional thinking. We argued, I screamed, she ran away...last I heard she married some non-Jewish Aussie bloke and lives on a remote property outside of Cairns. I wouldn’t waste my time on her if I were you; she rejected all the Judaism I tried to teach her. I’m sorry to say she’s a hopeless cause.”

Despite his pessimistic predictions, we asked for her new number, and told him that when there is life, there is hope; a Jew can always come back. Rhonda answered on the first ring, and after her initial surprise she graciously invited us to come over, provided it was at a time when her husband, Johnny, wouldn’t be home. She gave us her address, and we promised to see her soon.

Thursday morning, the day before Passover, we hopped into the car to drive to Rhonda’s house. I typed her address into the GPS. “That’s weird.” I told Shmuly. “It’s two hours away and there are no other homes nearby. Do we have the right address?”

We checked Google Maps and saw that it was indeed a very remote area. It would be an adventure just getting there, via a long and windy road, surrounded by endless forests. Her father had meant it when he said she had run away.

At last we reached Rhonda’s home, and she happily invited us in. After the usual introductory chit-chat, she started to open up. She explained how her parents didn’t appreciate her growing up, and that the Judaism she was exposed to felt stale and dry. Plain and simple, she didn’t see G‑d in Judaism, only books, rules and restrictions. She ran away to Cairns and met Johnny, and they were married shortly thereafter. They moved out to this property because she wanted to see the spirituality in nature. Clearly, she was searching for meaning, and the spark of G‑dliness within her was still burning…

We started discussing some Jewish concepts with her, as well as the upcoming holiday. We presented her with a mezuzah, and she became very emotional, and broke down into tears when we gave her some matzah. When she composed herself, she inquired on how to affix the mezuzah, asking us to detail the intricate laws of mezuzah placement.

We still had lots to prepare for the Seder, so after exchanging contact information and promising to keep in touch, we took our leave of Rhonda. Over the long drive back, we reflected on the visit, and how true our earlier conversation about the Rebbe guiding his emissaries had proven to be.

This was just one of the many visits we made while in Cairns for Passover. We felt privileged to witness the Rebbe’s message affecting and inspiring Jews, even in a place that defines remote. We truly believe that these Jews will continue in their growth, and help fulfill the Rebbe’s mission, the speedy revelation of Moshiach.

The Basketball Game that Led to a Seder

April 30, 2015 4:06 PM

Unlike New York which we had just left, it was balmy and summerlike when we arrived in Florida a few days before Passover to assist Rabbi Benjaminson, Chabad rabbi to Palm Aire.

We had been visiting and bringing matzah to a Jewish family, one afternoon, and as we left the building we noticed some teenagers playing basketball nearby.

After a long winter spent mostly indoors, the thought of a good game appealed to us, and we decided to take a short break before continuing with our day.

“Hey guys, mind if we play?”

They looked at us, and at our white shirts, black pants, kippahs and tzitzit with disbelief.

But once we started playing, they were impressed!

There’s nothing like some healthy competition to foster camaraderie, and our game soon led to a friendly chat. We discovered that one of the guys, Devon, was Jewish. He was visiting his grandfather who had recently moved to the area. Well, that was more exciting than winning the game! We gave him matzah, and invited him to join us at the upcoming Seder.

“I’m going back to Ohio tomorrow night, but I’ll definitely tell my grandfather about the Seder,” Devon promised.

“Great, thanks Devon! And here’s some matzah and our contact info for your grandfather.”

Before parting ways, our new friends suggested we come back for a rematch the next day. Regretfully, we had to decline, since Passover was rapidly approaching and there was a lot of work still ahead of us.

The following morning, Devon’s grandfather, who had not yet been involved with Chabad, called to make reservations for the second Seder.

On Shabbat, at morning services, an elderly gentleman approached us. “You must be the boys who beat my grandson and his friends,” he said with a chuckle. “They were sure they’d run you guys over!” We spoke for a while, and then Rabbi Benjaminson invited him to join his family for Shabbat lunch. He gladly accepted, and we all had a lovely afternoon.

That night at the Seder, he stood up and told the crowd how he came to join the Seder.

“If not for that basketball game, I wouldn’t be here tonight. Thank you to these talented young rabbis, who can also play a mean game!”

Dan's First Seder

April 29, 2015 5:08 PM

Rabbi Shmuel Vishedsky, Chabad rabbi in Kobe, Japan, is a force to be reckoned with. He arrived in Kobe with his family less than a year ago, to help and invigorate the existing Jewish Community Center. He has since worked tirelessly “to contact every Jew within a four-hour train ride radius.” Since most trains in Japan are bullet trains, he will have his hands full for quite some time!

When we arrived in Japan after a long, exhausting flight, Rabbi Vishedsky welcomed us into his home, and we were quickly swept up in his enthusiasm and excitement for the upcoming holiday. Emails poured in, phones were ringing, and over 300 people had made reservations for the Seder, which would be held in conjunction with the Jewish Community Center.

In the days preceding Passover we helped Rabbi Vishedsky visit his Jewish friends around town to deliver matzahs, put on tefillin, and invite them to the Seder.

We noticed that the rabbi greeted almost all passersby with a hearty “Shalom!” Most nodded politely, until one man returned his greeting! We began chatting and discovered that his name was Dan and he had been born in Germany to Jewish parents, the children of survivors. Though both his parents had been raised without religion, for some reason they chose to marry Jewishly. Dan grew up in a home like his parents, completely devoid of religion. All he know was that he was Jewish.

After law school, Dan left Germany for Duba, and we happened to bump into him as he was visiting Japan for the famous cherry blossom season. At that point, Rabbi Vishedsky interrupted him. “Dan, would you please join us for the Seder?”

We didn't think he would accept the invitation; it’s a big commitment for someone who hardly knows what a Seder is, but to our surprise Dan replied that he would love to, and we gave him the information he needed.

The Seder in Kobe was beautiful. Young and old, locals and tourists, students and businessmen, we sat together, celebrating the traditions that unite us. Dan very much enjoyed himself, and stayed until after the end of the Seder.

We chatted some more before he went home, and he told us that he had decided to start lighting Shabbat candles every week. At one point during the evening, Rabbi Vishedsky had mentioned the recent horrific Brooklyn fire which had claimed the lives of seven children of Gabriel Sassoon, who was born and bred in Kobe. The Rabbi urged the assembled to take upon themselves a good deed in memory of the children. “It’s hard to be very Jewish in Dubai, but I will start with that." Dan said, adding, "Who knows where it will take me?”

We don't know either, but we are confident that Dan's Shabbat candles in Dubai will dispel a great amount of darkness.

MK Elazar Stern at Chabad Seder in Cusco

April 21, 2015 2:02 PM

Cusco, Peru, located 11,000 feet above sea level, is known as the Tel Aviv of South America. Thousands of Israeli backpackers visit each year, and Hebrew is the city’s unofficial language. Chabad emissaries Ofer and Yael Kripor tend to the spiritual and physical needs of the Israelis. A large part of their work is operating three restaurants, which are open around the clock, and serve traditional Israeli cuisine, as well as the opportunity to put on tefillin and hear a Torah thought.

Passover is Chabad’s biggest event. With over a thousand attendees, a combination of locals and tourists, it is one of the largest Seders in the world, and requires intense preparation. The Kripors hired 25 staff members, recruited a small army of volunteers, and two weeks before the Seder, roving rabbis Mendy Harlig, Ephraim Merovitch, Meir Shemtov, Avremy Piekarski, Lazer Gajer, Shneur Zalman Ushki, and Nissim Ben Harroush arrived in Cusco.

When they weren’t working in the kitchen, they helped register the Seder guests. Because there wasn’t a venue large enough to hold the crowd, two Seders were held consecutively, and everyone received either a blue or yellow wristband corresponding to the different times.

Present at the Seder was MK Elazar Stern, who wrote the following on his Facebook page: “The Seder night in Cusco, Peru, was an uplifting experience. Hundreds of Israelis traveling in South America look forward to this evening, to experience a Jewish experience, thanks to the Chabad emissaries…”

An Israeli in Fiji

April 21, 2015 1:50 PM

Late Thursday afternoon before Passover, we were making the final preparations for the Seder, like the rest of the Jewish world. Unlike everyone else, we were doing our errands in a supermarket in picturesque Fiji.

The three of us, and the majority of the holiday essentials, had arrived from Melbourne, Australia, a five hour flight away. But we needed some more things to make the SederChabad’s first on the island—a truly memorable one.

We were perusing the aisles, scanning for kosher products, when a young gentleman approached us, smiling broadly. “Hi, I recognize you from this morning’s paper!”

Part of our PR methods for the Seder had been to arrange an interview with The Fiji Times. Our story and picture had made it to the front cover. Had our efforts already born fruit? Could he be a potential Seder guest?

“Hi, yes, that’s right, that was us in the paper! Are you Jewish by any chance?”

“No, I am not.”

“Oh, okay. Would you perhaps know someone who is Jewish?”

He thought for a moment. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do! His name is Daniel. Let me get you his phone number.”

Abandoning our shopping carts for the moment, we raced outside to make the call. Daniel was actually a native Israeli, currently living in Brisbane, where he was in touch with the local Chabad rabbi. He was visiting Fiji to help his son with his business, and was thrilled that we had contacted him. Although he was on another island, four hours away, he told us that he would be delighted to join us for the Seder.

It was a warm and intimate affair, with a colorful cast of characters befitting a Fijian Seder. Daniel was our hero that evening—with his trademark Israeli humor, he ensured that everyone, including himself, had a great time. He kept the conversations flowing and regaled the crowd with tales from his army days.

At one point during the evening, he asked to say a few words.

“Friends, I’d like to express my deepest appreciation to these young Rabbis, for coming to this end of the world, to make a Seder here. They left their families and a comfortable holiday, so that they could spread Judaism to everyone. I think you’ll agree with me that they give us hope in our youth, and hope in the future of the Jewish nation!”

Dancing Outside the Royal Palace in Norway

April 21, 2015 1:45 PM

Norway has historically always been anti-Semitic, and unfortunately it is currently home to less than a thousand Jews, most of whom live in the capital, Oslo. Rabbi Shaul and Esther Wilhelm and their children have been the Chabad emissaries there since 2004, fulfilling their mission with a level of self-sacrifice and dedication that we can only aspire to. We were thrilled to join them for Passover this year.

As soon as we arrived, we got straight to work, helping the Wilhelm family prepare for Norway’s largest Seder. This year, they were expecting close to 200 people. We shopped and schlepped, cleaned and chopped, and with all hands on deck, we were completely done by late afternoon.

We decided to use the remaining daylight hours to try to meet some Jews, offer them some matzah and the opportunity to put on tefillin, and, of course, to invite them to the Seder. The Wilhelms suggested that we go to the Royal Palace of Norway, a popular tourist attraction.

Now, this wasn’t our first time asking people if they were Jewish in a public venue. The typical reactions we’ve received in the past range from, “No, but my friends are,” to “I wish I was.” In Oslo, however, we kept hearing, “I’ve never seen a Jewish person here before.”

Determined to prove them wrong, we spent the next hour approaching people, without success. Then, we met Ben, a young Jewish man from Los Angeles! We couldn’t be happier. We gave him a box of matzah (he was leaving Norway before the Seder), and showed him our tefillin.

“What’s that?” he asked, “I’ve never seen those before.”

We explained, and he immediately agreed to wear them.

“Ben, it’s your bar mitzvah! Mazal tov!”

We grabbed Ben’s hands, and marked the occasion with a spirited Chassidic dance, likely the first to take place in the courtyard of the Royal Palace of Norway!

Jewish Life in Poland

April 21, 2015 1:07 PM

My phone buzzed. I quickly scanned the email. “You have been selected to be a part of the Rabbinical Student Visitation Program. Assignment: Poland.”

Poland. Its recent memories make us shiver, but we are determined to help the Jews who still live there. We would be spending Passover in Szczecin, which is up north, close to the border with Germany.

We left on March 31, which coincided with the 113th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who founded this program 72 years ago.

After several delays, many hours and a couple of misunderstandings, we settled into our motel.

We contacted Mikolai, the community head, to make the arrangements for the Seder. In broken English he told us that he would meet us at our motel at ten o’clock the next morning and take us to the synagogue.

The synagogue turned out to be a second-floor, two-room apartment with a tiny kitchen. One room was used as the synagogue; the other was designated as the social hall. Unfortunately, all four of the synagogue’s old Torah scrolls could no longer be used.

It was time to breathe some life into the place and set up for the Seder. Just in time, our shipment of food and supplies arrived from Warsaw, and we brought the boxes upstairs. Between cooking and shopping, all in a foreign city, we finished with barely minutes to spare.

Our guests started arriving at 6:30 pm. We welcomed them warmly, trying to figure out who could be our translator. Rosa, an older woman, seemed to fit the bill. Yiddish was her childhood language, and she was thrilled to be able to help out. She had been yearning to converse in Yiddish for quite a few years, and here was a great opportunity!

Before the Seder, the women lit candles. As we progressed through the Seder, everyone took turns reading parts out loud in Polish. We could tell from their expressions that they really identified with the story—most of them had been oppressed during their lifetime, and they understood the meaning of slavery and freedom. Rosa translated for us with much animation and emotion, and that contributed a lot. We made sure to include lots of stories and songs, too.

The next afternoon, Rosa stopped by the synagogue and asked if we would like to join her for a walk around the city. While showing us the sights of Szczecin, she shared its tragic history.

Szczecin was the first Polish city invaded by the Nazis. After the War, when the surviving Jews returned to rebuild their lives, the Poles attached and killed many of them in a deadly pogrom. Over the years, some Jews trickled back in, mainly from Russia, but the vast majority had moved to greener pastures, including Israel. Less than 30 Jewish people now live in this city which was once home to 400,000.

We returned to the synagogue, determined to utilize our remaining time in Szczecin to rejuvenate our fellow Jews, beginning with the second Seder. Seven people attended, and it was an inspiring and intimate evening. Like any family gathering, everyone stayed to chat long after the conclusion of the Seder.

The next day we spent time conversing with Mikolai. He told us that he had been raised in a staunchly Communist home. His mother, who was from an Orthodox family, fell ill at a young age, and called Mikolai to her deathbed. She said she deeply regretted forsaking her roots, and urged Mikolai to learn about his heritage.

That was a turning point in Mikolai's life, and he began his Jewish journey, ultimately becoming head of the community. Though his knowledge was limited, he felt passionate about keeping the Jewish faith alive for the few Jews left in Szczecin. When night fell, marking the end of the holiday, we printed out a picture of the Rebbe for Mikolai. He was clearly moved. “I already feel the Rebbe’s blessings," he told us. We said a heartfelt goodbye, and began to prepare for the long trip home.

As we traveled, we had plenty of time to reflect on our experiences. We were proud to be able to walk on the streets of Poland, proclaiming our Jewish identity in a city where so many Jews were killed simply for being Jewish. We were honored to be able to make a Seder for people who had risked so much to practice their Judaism. And we felt privileged to be the Rebbe’s emissaries to bring the light of Torah and mitzvahs to this dark corner of the world.

A Passover Seder in Kosice, Slovakia

April 16, 2015 11:00 PM

Passover is usually the time when families get together, often celebrating the Seder with several generations under one roof. But for Chabad rabbinical students like ourselves, Passover is the time when—with our parents’ blessings–we travel far and wide to make Seders for Jews who might not otherwise have one to attend.

Our assignment was Kosice, Slovakia. We were scheduled to land in Piestany, where we were warmly welcomed by Rabbi Zev Stiefel and his family, who have been living there since 2004. We enjoyed dinner together, followed by an inspiring Farbrengen. Satiated in body and soul, we planned our itinerary: we would leave early the next morning for the five-hour train ride to Kosice with our suitcases and ten cases of delicious food, graciously prepared by Mrs. Stiefel.

Thank G‑d, we arrived in Kosice with plenty of time to prepare. Our anticipation ran high as we set up the room—everything looked beautiful, and we knew our guests would appreciate an authentic Seder in Kosice, a city which before the Holocaust had been home to one of the largest and most influential Jewish communities in Slovakia. Now, there are less than 300 Jewish residents, though their ranks are boosted by Israeli medical students who attend the local universities. Thirty people chose to celebrate the Seder with us.

As we sat together, we were delighted to see the joy that was apparent on their faces. For many, this was their first time celebrating a Jewish holiday. They were fascinated by the age-old story of Pesach, of the miracles G‑d wrought and the timeless lessons that apply to each of us. Questions were asked and answered, conversation flowed, and souls were inspired during the four hours it took to complete our Seder.

Much of the crowd had already left when we noticed one remaining group of Israeli students, sitting around deep in discussion. We headed over and joined them. Ornella and Tal were part of this group. Ornella had been raised in a modern Israeli home, and had no prior exposure to Judaism. She could not pinpoint what it was, but something inside her had prodded her to join this Seder. She asked all sorts of questions, cherishing every morsel of information and inspiration she received.

Tal, on the other hand, although not observant himself, was familiar with Judaism. Tal joined the Seder to enjoy a traditional Pesach experience. We spoke with him for a couple of hours after everyone had gone home. We discussed the Torah’s approach on various topics and how to implement them into our lives.

We were gratified to see that both Ornella and Tal were deeply moved by the Seder’s message, which they were able to apply to their personal lives and their respective journeys in Judaism.

It was our honor and privilege to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ambassadors to reach out and touch the souls of our brothers and sisters in Slovakia. And luckily, Passover is eight days long. Our families were happy to enjoy our company for the second half of the holiday.