Last week, accompanied by my brother Eli, I visited home in the Virgin Islands for the first time since November 30th, the day of the accident that ultimately claimed the lives of my infant daughter, Shterna, and my wife, Henya.

I did not reach out to our island friends in advance, as I was unsure where I would be emotionally during the visit. Some days are so painful and difficult, it is a challenge to just put one foot in front of the other.

I came to ground myself and touch home base after five months of separation. I came to feel closer to Henya and the Chabad House and community we built together.

Boarding the plane, my memory carried me back to the first time Henya, I, and little Moussia’le flew from JFK, as emissaries of the Rebbe, to settle in our new island home until the coming of Moshiach.

It was 2005, and we were both in our early twenties, young and green, energized and inspired to create a loving Jewish island family and community. We were oblivious to the realities and challenges of island life as well as its perks. And it didn’t matter, we were charged with purpose, infused with love of our brothers and sisters, and we were going to make it work no matter what.

We had each other, and we were going to create a “lighthouse of Yiddishkeit” in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

The Hebrew date was 8 Iyar. As the plane took off, Henya and I opened Hayom Yom, a small book with daily Chassidic teachings, to learn the message of that day. It read:

An emissary is one with his sender. This concept is similar to that of an angel acting as a Divine emissary. If this is so with an angel it is certainly true of the human soul; in fact with the soul the quality of this oneness is of a higher order... Now chassidim are emissaries of the Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe. So if the chassid actively discharges his mission, he is bound up with his Rebbe, bound up in his entire being...

This relatable message resonated deeply with us and our journey. We felt empowered. We were bound with our Rebbe and with our Creator and were on a meaningful mission, in which we would succeed.

We would frequently remind each other of this passage when the going got tough and when we needed motivation or direction.

And here I am, exactly 18 (chai) years and one day later heading to our island home on what feels like a new journey ... so lonely, so different, so unimaginable, so painful ... longing for Henya and Shterna and the beautiful life we built together.

Sitting on the plane, in my constant, insatiable, grief-stricken, and desperate search for solace, guidance, reasons, or answers, I opened that same book to learn the message of the 9th of Iyar. It is a small portion of a lengthy letter written by the previous Rebbe:

Our master the Baal Shem Tov taught: Whatever a person sees or hears is a lesson in his service of G‑d. This is what Divine service consists of - understanding and deducing a way to serve G‑d from everything.

I know this teaching well, and for years I’ve shared it with others and consoled friends in difficult situations, sharing with them the belief in Divine Providence and how everything happens for a reason.

But now I am faced with the challenge of practicing what I have preached. When it comes to personally facing pain and loss, it is completely different. One needs to re-assess, internalize and bring into their consciousness everything we believe in the abstract.

I thought to myself: How in the world am I supposed to find meaning and purpose in everything that occurs? How can I bring redemption to my loss and pain? It’s not fair to Henya, to little Shterna’le, to our children ... to our family and friends, to our island community, and to the world... What can G‑d possibly want?

I feel that I need to apologize to the many people I’ve counseled over the years for perhaps not empathizing enough with the depth of their pain.

Could my new purpose be finding some semblance of meaning and purpose in all the pain?

Did G‑d choose Henya because she was too holy and perfect? Did Henya complete her mission on this earth? Was the original contract with her soul that she would come down to earth for 40 years and I am the luckiest man alive to have shared nearly half of those years with her? Can a person’s destiny be changed and cut short?

And why do children pass away young? Are they a reincarnation of a previous life that needed to come back for a short period of time to fulfill some purpose?

Did G‑d need a spiritual resurgence and an immediate huge collection of mitzvahs to tip some larger scale or avoid a greater catastrophe and chose Henya and Shterna to be the sacrifice?

Is there a need to jolt and shock our nation to bring out vulnerability and create an awakening every so often? To have people appreciate what’s important in life and come together?



I wish I had the answers. I wish I was able to see things from the world of truth, the reality of the soul.

I was about to land on the island where every road, sign, person, beach, store and smell remind me of Henya and the inseparable life we built together.

Where we welcomed thousands of visitors to our Shabbat table, where we raised our 13 beautiful children, where we forged the most cherished friendships, where we built a most loving, beautiful, welcoming Chabad House together with our community, where we celebrated holidays and milestones ...

Where we drove endlessly together on the dark hilly roads at night and basked in the luscious greenery and ocean views by day.

Where we survived and thrived through hurricanes, challenges, and loneliness. Where we celebrated births, bar/bat mitzvahs, and growth.

Where our dreams together were just beginning to take shape. Where we knew we would eventually marry off our children and welcome our grandchildren with nachas and love. Where we would spend the rest of our lives as emissaries of the Rebbe to bring holiness and kindness.

Walking into our home was heartbreaking and deeply painful.

Yet at the same time, there was an overwhelming sense of comfort and peace as I could feel Henya’s touch and presence throughout the house.

The Torah tells us that holy actions remain vibrant in the place they were performed. They don’t depart.

As such, all of Henya’s sacrifice, Torah study, mitzvahs, and giving of herself are forever present in our Chabad House. Together with her absence, I was able to find her presence.

Several days before the accident, Henya placed an order for the kids. It had Crocs for Nechama, pants for Yudel and Meir, and books for Chana, Feigel, and Rochel. Henya’s care for our children is present more than ever, and they were so happy to receive the packages from Mommy upon my return.

Henya had also bought a clip-on high-chair for Shterna’le, which will G‑d willing be a gift to our first future grandchild.

Some of the children asked me to bring back a garment from Mommy and a onesie of Shterna, which they can hold to feel closer to them.

I did end up seeing a few of our local friends and put tefillin with them. It was heartwarming and gave me great comfort. I am looking forward to seeing everyone the next time I return to the island.

The island is forever our home and its residents are forever our family. Henya’s legacy and presence will forever remain with us as she continues to look out for and guide us from on high.

How will we find meaning and solace in the face of such crushing pain and darkness? How will the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov resonate with us? I’m not sure yet.

I don’t know.

In fact, it seems that the Sixth Rebbe and his father (the Fifth Rebbe) were also grappling with this question.

The Sixth Rebbe relates that once, when he was strolling with his father, he asked him the meaning of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching.

The Fifth Rebbe answered:

To be able to learn how to serve G‑d from everything one sees or hears is the alef-beit [the very basis, of our Divine service]. It is not an easy task. It may even be quite a difficult foundation.

He continued walking for a while, rapt in thought. His son accompanied him in silence, reluctant to disturb his father’s reflections.

After a short while, the Rebbe Rashab stopped and said:

The Baal Shem Tov taught it. So that is a fact.

Then I hear what Henya would say.

Ush, the purpose of our creation is to serve Hashem. This is why we are in this world. It makes sense that it should encompass every aspect of our lives. Everything that happens to a person is directed by Divine Providence — down to the smallest detail, everything that we see, hear or experience should contribute to our ultimate purpose of serving the Creator.

Grow from the pain. Be there for the kids. I am with you. G‑d has a plan even when it seems like the greatest nightmare ... And as we read together on the plane heading to the islands 18 years ago, Hashem is with you in your pain and in your struggles ... You are still His emissary

Am I that strong? Does G‑d believe in me that much?

Donations to the Federman Family Fund can be made here.