Rochel Pinson doesn't much understand how anyone today can kvetch about their lifestyle. "Today almost all of us live in democracies!" she says. "It's so easy to live as a Jew, compared to how it was!"

She should know. Born in Leningrad in 1928, her family propagated Torah and Jewish practice when it was a state crime to do so — and they suffered terribly for their courage. But the tremendous self-sacrifice of those early days helped Mrs. Pinson develop an iron determination to carry on the torch of Judaism, no matter where it took her and what the dangers were. In the end, this Russian-born, wandering Jewess went from one end of the Soviet Union to another, from Asia back to Western Europe, and finally, to the not-so-welcoming arms of North Africa.

Now in her eighties, Mrs. Pinson is still very much spry, effusive, and well-dressed in clothing with European flair. Her voice is raspy but vigorous; the Yiddish accent pervades the French. When we spoke, she was visiting her sister in Crown Heights, switching back and forth between Russian with her sister and French with me, and then mixing them all up and bursting into laughter at her own mistakes.

This merry, lively lady began life under the most somber of circumstancesYet this merry, lively lady began life under the most somber of circumstances. Born into a family of four sisters, she was the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin, who worked as a ritual slaughterer despite the hostility toward religion in Stalinist Russia. "My father was a very big presence in the community," she recalls. "We lived very close to the Great Synagogue, and people were always coming in and out of our house, sleeping there, eating there. My parents gave of themselves completely to them. It was like living in the tent of Abraham."

Wasn't it hard to feed all those transients at a time when Russia was known for food shortages? She shrugs. "We had what we needed," she says. "My father was always able to find chickens that he would slaughter for us. We got by."

At the time, a small group of Chabad-Lubavitch disciples were clustered together in Leningrad, sworn to remain faithful to Torah and its precepts despite Communist persecution.

"We were like the Jews at the time of the Syrian Greeks before the story of Chanukah," Mrs. Pinson says. "Everything the Greeks had forbidden Jews to practice — circumcision, kosher, keeping Shabbat, Torah study — were also forbidden in the Soviet Union. But my parents and others had vowed that nothing would keep them from practicing Torah and Jewish law."

Rabbi Elchonon Morozov, secretary of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was her father's close friend. "My parents hid him from the secret police in our home, along with his wife and three children," she says. "They stayed with us for seven years, from 1931 to 1938." She brushes aside the obvious dangers and self-sacrificeinvolved in cramming a family of five into their house ("We found the room," she says), and feeding them with shared Soviet rations.

One bitter night in February 1938, the knock they had all dreaded came hammering at the door. "They had started another Stalinist purge, and the KGB had found us out," Mrs. Pinson says. "They took away Rabbi Morozov, and my father with him." She was all of ten years old at the time, but she still remembers her father enjoining her: "Do all of G‑d's commandments! Never forget why I was taken!" as he was arrested and led away from his family.

"The KGB took ninety prisoners and shot them — my father and Rabbi Morozov among them"Rochel would never see him again. "On the eighth day of the Jewish month of Nissan," she says, "the KGB took ninety prisoners and shot them — my father and Rabbi Morozov among them. It was a purge in which many doctors and intellectuals were shot. I will always remember the date — it was my sister's birthday."

The family arose from the seven days of mourning to observe a decidedly non-festive Passover that year.

Soldiering On

It seems that this lesson in ultimate self-sacrifice would brand her for life; after that, no level of self-sacrifice, no matter how uncomfortable, could ever compare to what her father had suffered. After his death, the remaining Raskin women continued to soldier on as best they could, but World War II began a year later in Europe, and by 1941 the Soviet Union had entered the fray. The Nazis began invading Russia, and panic set in as German troops approached Leningrad. "There were rumors the city would be bombed," Mrs. Pinson says. "Everybody wanted out."

The Raskin family was able to miraculously procure four tickets for a train out of town. "People were told they could exchange their bread ration cards for a train ticket into the interior of the country," Mrs. Pinson recalls. "My mother was worried because she had used her ration card, but somehow we got together four of them anyway: for her, my grandmother, myself, and my sister.

"Then there was a problem… How would we get from our house to the train station with all our luggage? Almost every form of transportation had been disbanded."

A second miracle occurred: Rochel found a worker on the street with a wagon, and he was willing to take them. "He was apparently a non-Jew, a peasant, but he appeared out of the blue for us, like Elijah the prophet! He loaded us and our bags onto his wagon, and got us to the station. Once we arrived, we almost lost each other in the pandemonium [of people frantic to escape the city], but finally we all managed to get onto the train together." Later, once the family had gotten settled, they were overjoyed to discover an uncle and his family on the train as well.

It requires a certain grasp of Russian history to appreciate just how great a salvation was the city of Karaganda," she explains. "It's in the center of a coal region [the name, in Kazakh, means 'black city']. That first Pesach was very hard; we had very little to eat, just a few potatoes and beets."

The arduous conditions were too much for her grandmotherMrs. Pinson relates that "shortly after we left, the Nazis arrived in Leningrad, and burned all the reserves of food. The famine was terrible, and they were bombing the city all over. People were dropping like flies from starvation and bombs." The Raskin family had escaped by a hair's breadth.

"We later learned that we had made it onto the very last train out of Leningrad before they closed the station," says Mrs. Pinson. The family then traveled to the nether regions of Kazakhstan, where a group of religious Jews had set up a community.

The arduous conditions were too much for her grandmother, already 85 years old, who passed away that year. Shortly afterward, in 1943, 15-year-old Rochel's mother tragically succumbed to a heart attack.

"My sister and I then moved with my uncle to Samarkand," she recounts. "Many Jews had fled to these areas, to Samarkand and Tashkent, because in those more isolated, Muslim areas, there was less persecution of religious Jews." In fact, Chassidim had been living there since the turn of the century.

"One of my married sisters was already living there," she says. Rochel and her sister would remain there for the next five years. When she came of marriageable age, the community helped find her a matchwith Rabbi Nissan Pinson, a young man from a town named Kharkov in the Ukraine, whose father had been sent to Siberia for his Jewish activities. Nissan Pinson had studied in the underground Lubavitch school system in Kharkov.

The couple married in 1946, after the war ended, when Rochel was eighteen. Then they began figuring out how to get out of the Soviet Union, so they could establish their home in a country where Torah and the practice of Judaism were not punishable by death, imprisonment, or exile.

In one of their postwar agreements, the Polish and Russian governments had decreed that Polish citizens and their spouses who had taken refuge in Russia during the war would be allowed to return to their homeland. This policy sparked a frenzy of Jewish attempts to procure Polish papers, marry a Pole, or buy papers. Russian citizens caught trying to flee their Soviet "paradise" would be punished with imprisonment or death, and many a halachic debate was held over the question of whether it was even permissible to risk one's life to cross the border. The Pinsons decided to try to get out with false Polish papers.

Like Abraham and Sarah, they traveled masquerading as brother and sister"There were several Polish Jews in New York who were helping Jews get out of the Soviet Union," Mrs. Pinson recounts. "A man named Leibel Motzkin used to help people get Polish documents, and another association helped Jews cross the borders. My husband and I managed to fly to Lublin and then travel to Soviet-occupied Lvov, where we received our Polish passports."

The Pinsons' passports identified them as a brother and sister from the Pinsky family. Like Abraham and Sarah, they traveled masquerading as brother and sister, claiming that they planned on attending the university in Lvov. While sitting on their flight from Samarkand to Lublin, they had the incredible Divine Providence to find themselves seated next to someone who knew everything about the city and the university. This armed them with the information they needed to bluff their way through customs.

Once in Lvov, however, Rabbi Pinson was unable to leave the apartment where they were staying; the streets were patrolled by Soviet police and his beard was a sure giveaway that he was a religious Jew. The couple waited for months until the right opportunity arose to leave.

They finally got the go-ahead to get on a train out of Poland, which Mrs. Pinson remembers as being full of Lubavitch followers. Miraculously, the Russian police didn't notice the forged names on any of their passports, and so their group passed from Poland to Munich, where many Lubavitcher disciples were staying in the American-administrated DP camp in Pocking. "We had a whole community there, even a religious school," Mrs. Pinson recalls. "The mother of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Mrs. Chana Schneerson, was there with us. We spent two years living in that community."

From Pocking, the couple made their way to Paris, France, settling in Brunoy and hoping to follow other Lubavitch families to New York, where Mrs. Pinson's brother-in-law was already settled. But getting visas took time, and the years passed; the couple's first two children were born during their sojourn in Brunoy.

In the end, their dreams of New York weren't realized. Instead, G‑d had more exotic plans in mind for the Pinsons.

A New World in a Very Old World

Unbeknownst to the Pinsons — or anyone else for that matter — the newly appointed Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, was already looking at ways in which his followers could revitalize Torah practice in North Africa.

"I had just spent years in the Soviet Union; I didn't want to go to a primitive place"In 1950, barely three days after the Lubavitch community got up from mourning for the sixth Chabad Rebbe, he sent a letter to Russian-born Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, asking him to leave Paris to go propagate Torah in Morocco. Chabad-Lubavitch managed to get funding from the American Joint, and Rabbi Lipsker traveled to Marseille to arrange passage to Morocco.

At the time, one couldn't go just like that. By chance, Rabbi Lipsker met a Moroccan man in Marseille who left him a business card, and through him, was able to get an invitation to Morocco from Rabbi Raphael Baruch Toledano, of blessed memory, of Meknes. But the authorities still wouldn't let him in. He finally hired a lawyer, and was granted permission to go.

Once there, Lipsker was joined by Rabbi Shlomo Matusov, and in 1952 by Rabbi Pinson, who went alone to help out for two years. As soon as it became clear that Rabbi Pinson's services would be required long-term in Morocco, his wife was requested to join him with the children.

"I didn't want to go!" Mrs. Pinson says emphatically, not in the least ashamed of her reluctance to leave Paris. "I had just spent years in the Soviet Union, in Samarkand; I didn't want to go to a primitive place. I envisioned camels and deserts!"

But her resistance melted when she received a personal letter from the Rebbe in Yiddish. "He reassured me that it wasn't necessarily a permanent posting. He told me the Jews of Morocco were a very good community.

"After that, I agreed to try it out."

The Pinsons set up house in Casablanca and became active in helping to build a school system and Jewish life. Mrs. Pinson was pleasantly surprised to find that Casablanca was nowhere near as backwards as she had feared.

"We were very well received by the Jewish community," she says. "We became involved very quickly."

Two more children were born during their stay in Morocco.

But the Rebbe was right when he said that her stay in Morocco might not be permanent. When Mrs. Pinson's cousin, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Raskin, arrived in Morocco to pitch in, the Pinsons were directed to move into more uncharted territory: Tunisia.

A Real Desert

"We arrived in Tunis in 1959," Mrs. Pinson recalls. "And it really was a desert as far as Judaism was concerned!"

This was a serious challenge, for there was so much work to be done in an Arab country not so hospitable to Jews.

"There was no strong Torah education. Because of this, the chief rabbi of Tunisia was very happy we had come to lend a hand."

Many of her new Sephardic friends had a hard time believing the newly arrived Mrs. Pinson was even JewishIn Tunisia, the more religious community was located on the island of Djerba. "They've been there since the destruction of the Second Temple," says Mrs. Pinson. "It's a unique, ancient community. Today thousands of tourists flock to Djerba, especially for the festivities on Lag B'Omer. I've often gone there myself for Lag B'Omer; it's something to see."

The Jews in Tunis did not live in enclosed mellahs, a walled Jewish quarter, like the Jews of Morocco. "Most of the French people lived in suburbs of the city. Our area was Arab with Jews mixed in."

When asked about the quality of life, she answers matter-of-factly, "Well, we didn't live in luxury; we got by. We had exactly what we needed, not more and not less — normal living! I had a Jewish woman who used to help care for my children, and household help was very cheap."

Mrs. Pinson says she did her best to make a good impression on the locals, Jews who were traditionally observant, but strongly influenced by French culture. She took care to dress well and introduce herself to everyone as she went about setting up the school and hosting lectures in her home.

But with her fair skin and Ashkenazi accent and customs, many of her new Sephardic friends had a hard time believing the newly arrived Mrs. Pinson was even Jewish. "The ladies would say to me, 'You mean you don't cook couscous boulettes [couscous with meatballs] on Friday nights?'" she laughs. "'Then how can you be Jewish?'"

But she made believers out of them when she and her husband built a new mikveh, a ritual bath,and opened a Jewish day school, Ohr HaTorah (and later a high school, Oholei Yosef Yitzhak).

"When we started, we had only 33 children," says Mrs. Pinson.

"But before long, we had over 300." The street where the school was situated bore the name, appropriately, Rue de Palestine.

The years following the establishment of the State of Israel saw the flight of some four-fifths of the country's original 250,000 Jews. After the Six Day War, dangerous rioting broke out among the Arabs. "They went around breaking things, and threatening to kill the Jews. They even burned 84 hectares of land." The Great Synagogue of Tunis was ransacked, several Torah scrolls were burned and desecrated, and Mrs. Pinson remembers that "90 holy books from our synagogue were destroyed."

Despite all their years in Tunisia, the Pinsons were never granted citizenshipOn that terrifying day, the rioters burned the matzah factory, then came to the school threatening to destroy Rabbi Pinson's car (they pulled back when he came out in full rabbinic regalia and calmed them down). Nevertheless they surrounded the school, forcing Rabbi and Mrs. Pinson to secretly evacuate the students out the back. "The parents were terrified until all their children got safely home," she remembers. After those terrible moments, even more Jews packed their bags and left the country (as of today, only 1 percent of the original population is left).

During the period that followed, Rabbi Pinson was accused of being an Israeli spy, despite the fact that he had never set foot in Israel. His passport was confiscated for three years. Despite all their years in Tunisia, the Pinsons were never granted citizenship; when their son got married in New York, they were refused permission to travel to the wedding (in the end, the authorities relented and allowed them to go for the celebrations after the wedding). Their phones were tapped and their private conversations listened to, causing their Rebbe to reportedly remark, "It's worse there than in Russia."

The Tunisian government regularly provided their school with police protection and their synagogue with armed guards when hostilities flared. Danger pursued Tunisia's Jews throughout their stay. Chacham Matzliach Mazouz, a rabbi and author of many Jewish volumes, was murdered in 1971 by an Arab gunman in Djerba. In 1982, following the war in Lebanon, the Pinsons discovered they had a distinctly unfriendly new neighbor occupying an office in the building next door to their school: Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, freshly kicked out of Beirut!

"One day, my husband went to see somebody in that office building, and by mistake he walked straight into Arafat's office!" Mrs. Pinson remembers. "The secretary just looked up and said, 'No, you're in the wrong place,' and went back to what he was doing." But despite the presence of an enemy on the block, no physical harm ever befell the Pinson family.

On Eagles' Wings

Many less hardy souls, raising a family of five children, would have used these dangers as a good excuse to beat a hasty retreat. Not so the Pinsons. I ask Mrs. Pinson, "Weren't you ever afraid to stay there?"

She answers with a verse. "We learn that G‑d carries His children on eagles' wings," she says. "The eagle raises the Jews above all the dangers below. We also felt ourselves to be on eagles' wings, flying high through serving G‑d, and protected by it."

"I love Jews!" she declaresWhich leads me to wonder if, despite the difficulties, Mrs. Pinsondidn't perhaps develop an attachment to this Mediterranean country after so many years; it is a place that has been described by others as a land of sunshine, beaches, and bright colors. "Did you come to love Tunisia, even though you didn't want to go at first?" I ask.

Her answer is almost brusque in its directness: "I love Jews!" she declares. "I love the Jews of Tunisia, and I'll do whatever is necessary to promote Torah and Judaism."

"We spent two generations planting Torah in a desert," she says. "We still have a job to keep it going." Sadly, the "we" no longer includes her beloved husband, Rabbi Nissan Pinson.

He passed away two years ago at the age of 89. "This past Chanukah, a Torahscroll was dedicated in his memory in Paris," she says. "His students[many of whom have since moved to France] were so very, very grateful for all he had done for them."

By now, the Pinson family has had a presence in Tunisia for over 50 years. Today the Jewish population is dwindling; the protection of the French colonialists is gone, so between that and the Arab-Israeli conflict, most people have chosen to live in France or Israel. The school that once boasted over 300 pupils is now down to 60. But Mrs. Pinson nevertheless continues the work that she and her husband initiated —overseeing the school, hiring new staff, inspiring students and teachers – with the frequent help of her son, Yosef Yitzchak. "I travel to Tunisia every two or three months," she says. "Yes, it's tiring, but we have to stay on top of things. Fortunately, between the telephone and fax machine, I don't need to be there all the time." The American Joint and Chabad-Lubavitch contribute much to funding the school.

Mrs. Pinson is clearly very proud of her five children and many grandchildren who have continued in the family tradition of outreach and Torah education.

Rabbi Nochum Pinson is one of the teachers at the Lubavitch school in Brunoy, France; Rabbi Shmuel Pinson is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Brussels; and Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Pinson directs Chabad outreach for the Riviera coast. Feigy Hecht and Tscherna Matusov are emissaries of Chabad-Lubavitch in Nice and Cannes.

Mrs. Pinson is an inspiration simply by virtue of her indomitable energy and optimism. Her life has not been easy; she lost both parents at an early age, braved the dangers of Communist regimes, and raised the flag of Torah in a hostile Arab country. While others enjoyed lives of comfort and ease in Western countries, Rochel Pinson gave her all to helping Jews in a tough, unfamiliar land; while others enjoy their retirement, she is spending her eighties continuing outreach work in France and Tunisia.

And yet, despite these exertions, she strikes the casual observer as one of the most upbeat people you could possibly meet. In fact, today, Rochel Pinson serves as a living illustration of the principle that the happiest people are the ones who give their lives to other people and to worthy spiritual ideals.