Roving Rabbis

Trekking Across South Korea

July 30, 2014 4:46 PM

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, taught that every Jew is a precious and vital part of the Jewish nation. This message has been ingrained in us from our earliest youth, so it was only natural for us to make the 150 mile trip from Seoul to Daegu, South Korea, to visit two Jewish souls currently living there. Yoav from Canada works for a tech company, while Renee from America is an English teacher.

We headed out early, but navigating the Korean public transport network was confusing to say the least! It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Daegu, and we immediately set out to our meeting with Yoav. Yoav was thrilled to see us. As the only Jew in his company, he really has no contact with other Jews, and gets his Judaism “fix” via the World Wide Web—Chabad.org is among his favorites. After a lively conversation, we helped him put on tefillin, and soon it was time to say goodbye; we still wanted to catch Renee that evening.

When we arrived at our hotel to make the arrangements, we discovered that Renee actually lived in another city, 90 miles north. We would have to push off our visit for the following morning.

Bright and early the next day we found ourselves waiting for the bus in the thick Asian smog to begin the first leg of our journey. We then took a train to the picturesque mountainous region where Renee lives, followed by lots of running around in her neighborhood to find her apartment, but finally we arrived!

At first, Renee was rendered speechless by the sight of two Chassidic Jews at her front door, but she recovered quickly and greeted us warmly. She couldn’t fathom how we had found her place, and quite frankly, neither could we! Knowing she had to go to work, we were expecting a short visit. That short visit quickly turned into a two-hour chat covering numerous topics ranging from her memories of her grandfather to her current life in South Korea. “I am probably the only person in this city lighting the Shabbat candles,” she told us proudly.

When we said our goodbyes, we felt like we were parting from a long lost friend, a fact that the two of us marveled at while on the train back to Seoul. Sometimes, you have to travel to Eastern Asia to realize that we truly are one family. We had never met Renee and Yoav, yet they welcomed us with open arms, fully cognizant of the special bond we share. We hope to extend that same warmth to our brothers and sisters, in Korea and back home.

40 Years on the Island

July 25, 2014 11:33 AM

The Roving Rabbi uniform - white shirt, dark pants, tzitzit, and black hat or kippah - is bound to stand out from the crowd, and it's particularly prominent on the colorful island of Kaua'i, Hawaii. But truth be told, it serves us well wherever we go, because it announces us as the new Jewish address in town.

Our first night on the island and we bumped into a friendly young Hawaiian right outside our apartment. Kamua had never seen religious Jews before, so we explained who we are and why we were spending our summer in Kaua’i. Kamua seemed impressed and suggested, “You know, my boss is Jewish, you guys should meet him.” We pressed him for more details and arranged to meet his boss, Greg, the following morning.

Greg owns a surfboard and scuba gear rental shop in Hanalei. As we drove up, he called out a boisterous “Shaloha!” - his unique hybrid of Shalom and Aloha.

We started chatting, and Greg shared some details of his childhood in California, and life in Kaua’i, his home for the past 40 years. His parents, both Holocaust survivors, had raised him in a home completely devoid of religion, so although Greg knew he was Jewish, he knew very little about his heritage.

We offered him the opportunity to put on tefillin, explaining what they are and why we wear them.

Greg agreed, “Sure, there’s always a first time, right?”

He put on the tefillin, said the shema prayer and we danced the hora in celebration. But soon the enormity of the moment caught up with Greg, and he found himself overcome with emotion, tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Does G‑d love me?” he asked suddenly.

We assured him that He does. Because of the atrocities his parents had suffered, they believed that G‑d had scorned them, and Greg grew up subconsciously believing the same. While there are no explanations for the Holocaust, we told Greg that G‑d is our compassionate Father, and His love for us is deep, binding, and unconditional.

We had opened a whole new world for Greg, and he was eager to explore. Too soon, it was time to go. We promised we would visit again, and left Greg with these parting words:

“Greg, here’s proof that G‑d loves you. He arranged that we go outside at the exact moment that Kamua was walking by. It’s by Divine Providence that we’re here today. Shaloha!”


We met Gregg again today. He was delighted to see us.
He told us that he had read the booklet about the Rebbe that we had given him, and it inspired him very much.
We put on tefilin again.
We promised to stay in touch.

A Tenacious Survivor in Ioannina, Greece

July 23, 2014 2:53 PM
Shmuel Cohen
Shmuel Cohen

Ioannina, a scenic town in northwestern Greece, features a medieval fortress, picturesque lakes, snow-covered mountains, and a long and rich Jewish history. But like many cities in Europe, the Holocaust all but wiped out its Jewish community. Today fewer than 50 Jews remain, and most of them are elderly. Nevertheless, we were determined to include Ioannina on our itinerary this summer. We felt that these Jews, many of them survivors, would benefit from our visit.

Our first stop was the local synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Yashon, built in 1826 and beautifully restored. There we met Moses Elisaf, the community president. “You have to meet Shmuel Cohen,” he told us.

Shmuel is 93 and has lived in Ioannina all his life. We made our way to his apartment, a short distance from the synagogue, where he and his wife, Esther, greeted us warmly. Shmuel spoke to us in Hebrew, which he had taught himself utilizing a Greek-Hebrew dictionary. That was our first inkling of the tenacity of Shmuel’s character.

As he shared his life story, we learned that his peaceful youth was shattered with the Nazi occupation of Ioannina. Sensing that his days were numbered, he fled to the mountains and joined the Greek resistance movement. When he returned home after the war, he faced the bitter reality: his community had been obliterated—men, women, and children. But Shmuel fought on, marrying Esther, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and settling in Ioannina together with the handful of orphaned Jews who shared his fate. They had two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom emigrated to Israel. Tragedy struck close to home again, and Shmuel’s grandson was killed while serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War. Then his son passed away, still in the prime of his life. His daughter and granddaughter live in Rechovot, Israel, so they don’t see each other often.

One might expect Shmuel and Esther to be angry and embittered. The gentle couple sitting and chatting with us were anything but that. The synagogue is a big part of their life, and Shmuel is the cantor, singing the tunes he remembers from his childhood. He practices at home daily, filling their life with music. In fact, we were lucky to be treated to his beautiful rendition of a traditional Jewish song.

After almost two hours, we decided it was time to go and let Shmuel and Esther rest. But first, we pulled out our tefillin. Shmuel was ecstatic to put them on. We helped him wrap them and say the blessing, and then took the requisite picture—our personal testament to the power of the Jewish soul.

Stranded in Norway

July 15, 2014 6:37 PM

On Thursday evening, July 3, we boarded our SAS flight en route to Vilnius, via Oslo and Copenhagen. The four of us found our seats and made ourselves comfortable. We were looking forward to running a camp for Jewish children from broken homes, under the auspices of Rabbi and Mrs. Krinsky of Chabad of Vilnius, and then travelling to assorted Jewish communities throughout Lithuania to share the joy of Judaism.

Engrossed in conversation, we didn’t realize that the plane wasn’t moving until a flight attendant announced that we were delayed due to stormy weather. After three hours, we finally departed for Norway. The flight was uneventful, and upon arrival we went straight to the rescheduling office, because the delay meant we'd missed our connection.

We were delayed due to stormy weather

“Sure, no problem, we can put you on a flight tonight,” we were told.

“We can’t fly tonight, it’s the Jewish Sabbath,” we explained.

The woman behind the counter deliberated for a few moments."If you don’t want to fly tonight, we can reschedule you for later, but we aren’t paying for your costs to stay in Norway for the weekend,” she decided.

Fair enough.

We tried to contact the Chabad rabbi in Oslo, but he happened to be out of the town for Shabbat.

Then we discovered that all our suitcases had been lost in transit.

So there we were, in one of the most expensive countries in the world, with very little money, non-working credit cards, no clothing, no food, no wine or challah for Shabbat. Things weren't looking great, but we were confident G‑d would help.

He did.

We unearthed a bag of four bagels in our hand luggage, to use in lieu of challah. And a Jewish couple we met in the airport realized our predicament and handed us a bottle of wine. While we tried to figure out where to spend Shabbat, an elderly woman approached us, speaking Hebrew. Mayan wasn't Jewish but felt a special kinship with Jews and Israel.

"We need a place to stay for Shabbat," we told her.

“I would love to help you.”

Mayan was as good as her word, and after a few phone calls she found out that the Anker is the cheapest hotel in Oslo. “You’re going on a holy mission, let me help you,” she said. We were astonished when she pulled out 1000 nok—equivalent to $170. (We made sure to take down her information so we could repay her.)

After spending six hours in the airport, we finally headed to the train station to get to our hotel. We stopped the first person we saw, “Excuse me, is this the train that goes to Oslo?”

“You’re in the right place,” the bearded man replied in an American accent.

“Are you Jewish?" we asked.

“No, but my mother is Jewish.”

“You are as Jewish as Moses!”

David had never put on tefillin before. He had to travel all the way to Norway to have his bar mitzvah. After the tefillin were wrapped, we found ourselves dancing and singing “Am yisrael chai” on the platform with the surprised and delighted bar mitzvah boy.

We ended up spendingWe spent Shabbat in a small, cramped hotel room Shabbat in a small, cramped hotel room, eating some fruit, instant soup, and cookies. It may have not been the most comfortable Shabbat, but it sure was inspiring and uplifting, as we sang chassidic songs and learned Torah until the wee hours. (In the summertime, Shabbat in Norway ends well after midnight.)

On Sunday, we flew to Riga, and then to Vilnius, arriving just in time to catch the buses heading to camp.

Looking back, it wasn't a long and draining journey; it was an opportunity to experience G‑d’s involvement in every detail of our lives.