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Making a Difference, One Jew at a Time

June 7, 2016 2:16 PM

We had known for a while that we would be spending Pesach in Peru, but it was only a few days before the holiday that we were informed that our final destination was Arequipa. Our initial reaction was a mixture of excitement and trepidation—through the roving rabbi grapevine, we had heard that Arequipa was a really nice place, but for our purposes, there were only a handful of local Jewish families—Israelis who work in the mining industry living there for a few years at a time. And while droves of Israeli tourists had visited in the past, the current trends were pointing in other directions.

After some discussion, we resolved that we would put our best feet forward and prepare for a Seder for five or ten with the same excitement as one for five hundred. After all, we reminded ourselves, the roving rabbi program is a tribute to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, who had inculcated his followers in the value of every Jewish soul. Thank G‑d, when we arrived in Arequipa a couple of days before Passover, we already had twenty reservations—on par with the previous years! We ended up having thirty people for the first night and six for the second.

Yehoshua, 19, along with his mother and older brother, was a tremendous help to us before Passover began. They spent several days with us in the kitchen, peeling, chopping, and asking questions. These visits are their sole connection to Judaism, and they were hungry for any morsel of information about their heritage. In previous years, our colleagues had broached the idea of Yehoshua attending yeshiva, but the family hadn’t been ready for such a drastic move. Not anymore! Yehoshua will be traveling to Argentina this summer to begin his yeshiva career, G‑d willing! Meanwhile, he and his mother have enrolled in J-net, where they will be matched with a suitable study partner and learn the Jewish topic of their choice every week via telephone.

Marom moved to Arequipa two months before Pesach. A fellow Israeli expat had connected him with us, and he made reservations for both Seders. After the first Seder, he shyly inquired if he could join us for the festive day meals as well, since he hadn’t been able to procure kosher for Passover food. Of course, we said that we’d be delighted to have him, and we spent most of the afternoon enjoying each other’s company and discussing Jewish concepts. When we headed back home after the first days of Passover, we dropped off a care package of our leftover food, and put him in contact with the Chabad rabbi in Lima so that they could arrange periodic shipments of kosher food to Arequipa.

Tzachi, an Israeli doing his stint in the mines, initially made reservations to attend the first Seder with his family. We were thrilled when he told us late Friday night that he would like to attend the second Seder as well. He was noticeably more involved the second night, singing along and asking questions. Tzachi’s eagerness to learn more about his Judaism was so refreshing to observe! With his permission, we plan on passing along his contact information to the rabbis visiting Arequipa this summer, so that they can continue to help him explore his Jewish identity.

David and Linda, a lovely middle-aged American couple, were checking into a local hotel Friday morning. By Divine Providence, an Israeli family was checking in at the same time, and they struck up a conversation. Naturally, they were soon talking about Passover, and the Israelis invited them to join our Seder. While they were shocked that Arequipa would be host to a Chabad Seder, they said they would be happy to participate. We were pleasantly surprised when they did indeed show up! It seemed like they very much enjoyed the Seder, and meeting all sorts of Jewish people in a place far removed from any semblance of Jewish life.

Last but not least, Jamie, a young man from London doing the popular South American circuit, found us through fellow roving rabbis he had met in Ica. He was dynamic and enthusiastic and really enhanced the second Seder. We hope to have made a significant difference in his Jewish life as well—we connected him with Chabad at Manchester Universities, where he will commence his college studies in a few months.

When we returned to the US, our friends and family wanted to hear all about our experience. Some were skeptical about the need for roving rabbis in a place like Arequipa, where there isn’t the potential to touch a great number of Jews, like Lima, Cusco, or Kathmandu. Still, we firmly believe that we were needed in Arequipa. Numbers may tell part of the story, but the impact one can have on a fellow Jew—when motivated by love for the Torah and love for each other—is truly immeasurable.

Connecting Jamie to a Seder 500 Miles Away

June 7, 2016 2:03 PM

We encountered Jamie in the beautiful sand dunes of Huacachina, Peru, while making our rounds in that popular tourist destination, searching for some Jewish guests to grace our Seders.

“Hey, are you rabbis!?” asked a young man. He approached us, the shock on his face mirroring ours.

“Hi, I’m Jamie from England. I’ve been traveling through South America for the past few weeks. Before I left, I promised my mother I would attend a Seder on Passover, and now it’s two days until the holiday starts and I haven’t been able to find one! Would you be able to help me?”

“Of course,” we responded. “We’ve actually travelled thousands of miles from Brooklyn, New York, so that any Jew in Huacachina will be able to attend a Seder!”

“That’s truly lovely. But my group is leaving town tonight. We’re off to Arequipa for the next few days…”

“Jamie, you won’t believe this!” we said. “Our friends—we all left New York together—are making a Seder in Arequipa! We’ll be glad to give you their contact info. You can let your mother know that come Passover, you will be sitting at a Seder, G‑d willing.”

Five hundred miles away, Shneur Wechter and Mendel Cheruff were preparing for their Seder in Arequipa, another Peruvian tourist hotspot.

“I was in the kitchen preparing the food for the Seder,” Shneur relates, “when I decided to take a quick break to check my phone and see if any Jews needed help finding a seder in Peru, as I had also been tasked with answering all questions on Chabad of Peru’s Facebook page.

“I was surprised that I had received a Whatsapp message from a +44 area code, a UK number, since we had only advertised our Seder in Hebrew. It was Jamie, saying how he had met my friends in the desert and they had told him that we were making Passover in Arequipa. Of course, I invited him to the Seder, included all the pertinent details, and Jamie wrote back that he would be delighted to join us for the second Seder.

“Jamie turned out to be the star of the evening. He followed along in the Hagaddah, and sang all the songs—he truly felt at home!”

“This is my first Seder away from my family,” he told the other participants as they were enjoying the festive meal. “In London, the Seder is a huge event, and my parents—especially my mom—were so upset that I would be missing it. I promised them I would find a Seder, and I tried searching online, but nothing doing. Then, my story takes on biblical proportions! I was in the desert sand dunes, and who do I bump into? Two rabbis! I am so amazed and thankful that I am celebrating Passover here tonight.”

We’re happy to report that the initial, five minute encounter will continue to have a positive impact on Jamie’s life. Wechter and Cheruff connected him with Rabbi Eli and Mushka Simon of Chabad at Manchester Universities, where Jamie will be pursuing his undergraduate studies this fall.

Scared to be Jewish

June 7, 2016 1:46 PM

When we book our trip to Cairns every year, we always schedule our return flight for a couple of days after the Seders. This gives us time to pack up our Pesach paraphernalia and put it away in storage for the next Pesach, as well as to catch up on any house visits that we weren’t able to do in the days preceding the holiday.

Early Monday morning, after pulling somewhat of an all-nighter, our stuff was all stowed away. We had two more house visits planned for the evening, which meant that we had several free hours, so we decided to do something unusual for roving rabbis—hit up the local tourist attractions. We settled on Crystal Cascades, which features waterfalls, rain forests, and other natural wonders.

After two enjoyable hours, we headed back to our car, when we heard a voice saying “Shalom.” In our experience, most times this does not mean that the person is Jewish. We smiled up at the two men ahead of us and nodded our heads in recognition of their greeting, thinking that they were probably non-Jews being friendly and respectful. But they came over and inquired if we were from Israel. When we explained that we were from Melbourne and had come here to celebrate Passover, they proclaimed, “We are Jewish!” They even introduced us to their mother—an elderly woman standing a short way back.

Now, we had chills running down our spines. We thought we had come to this scenic location to relax for a while, but it was obvious that our steps were of a much higher purpose, directed by the One Above.

We were extremely curious as to how this Jewish family came to settle in remote Cairns, but before we could even ask, the mother told us that she was born in Holland to Holocaust survivors whose families had been entirely wiped out in the concentration camps. As a child, her parents never let her talk about their Jewish identity. They cut themselves off completely from Judaism, and from any Jewish people as well. Eventually, she moved far across the world to Cairns, where she raised her family. She too, was terrified to have her children associated with anything Jewish. Sadly, this is another legacy of Hitler’s that is not at all uncommon.

After hearing all this, we felt that we had clearly be sent to Cairns to share the beauty and light of Judaism with this family. We spoke for a while, explaining how special it is to be born a Jew, a sacred part of the Jewish nation. We told them that a Jew always remains a Jew, regardless of their actions, since they possess a soul with is eternally bound to G‑d, who loves and cares for us.

They seemed to be drinking this all in, so we offered to come and properly converse later that evening in their home. They jumped at the opportunity. We exchanged numbers and continued on our way to the car, completely overwhelmed by what had just transpired.

About an hour later, we called them. The older son answered and sadly informed us that his mother was too anxious to have us come over. We suggested that he visit us at our apartment instead, and he happily agreed.

The two brothers came over, and we had a long conversation. We left them with some books about Judaism to study, exchanged contact information, and they promised to stay in touch.

As we concluded our Pesach activities in Cairns, we felt that we had been granted a beautiful gift—a sense of purpose and direction, and a security in the knowledge that G‑d was guiding our steps. We hope that our actions paid a small tribute to the vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who saw the value of every Jew, and established an army to bring them back home.

My First Experience as a Roving Rabbi

June 1, 2016 2:46 PM

My name is Lev Yaakov Voskoboynik and I live in Northridge, California. I used to be your average Los Angeles teenager—toiling in rigorous high school courses, partying when I could, and heavily involved in sports (I was a varsity tennis captain and a Los Angeles Tennis Champion). Life was good—busy and fun —but I always had a niggling feeling that something was missing.

Three years ago I attended the CTeen Extreme Summer Experience, and the impact it had on my life has been nothing short of incredible. In a nutshell: I am currently attending Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad in Los Angeles, and, in between attacking my studies I have created numerous outreach programs here to help share the light and beauty of Judaism, such as CTeen Yeshiva night, Shabbatons, and Jewish programming.

This Passover, I had the privilege of travelling to the Quad Cities to help the local Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, with his holiday activities. This was my first stint as a “roving rabbi,” and when all is said and done it was the best experience of my life. I came into Iowa, as a home-grown California boy, having absolutely no expectations. I arrived to a thriving Jewish community with a rabbi and his family who are helping to connect all those around them to Judaism.

We hit the ground running. Assisted by my friend, Aharon Chanan Weindruch, we distributed close to 100 boxes of matzah to Jews throughout the Quad Cities within four days, as well as installing several mezuzahs and putting on tefillin with many in the community. The highlight, hands down, was the beautiful Seder, which brought together many of the local Jews, people who originally hailed from Israel, the FSU, and all over the United States. It was truly inspiring to witness a tactile expression of how we Jews are united, no matter who we are, where we live, or where we find ourselves in life.

Since I haven’t had the advantage of a complete Jewish education, I like to use every opportunity to expand my knowledge. Here are my notes from this Passover:

The Jewish nation is truly an eternal and unified people, an “eternal nation unto G‑d.” When we, as Jews, stay together and remember that nothing can stop us from connecting to G‑d and connecting with each other, that will bring the ultimate time of freedom, a time of breaking of one’s true boundaries, and connecting to the ultimate truth, the Torah. Next Passover, may we all sit together at the glorious Seder in Jerusalem!

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