Shifra Marasow (Golombovitz) was the mother of three (including a newborn) in July 1967 when she got the news that her husband had lost his life defending Israel in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. In the years that followed, she went on to care for hundreds of widows and orphans, devoting herself to their every need. Even as her work gained acclaim from military and civilian leaders, she remained the humble “Shifra from Kfar Chabad,” who knocked on doors and made sure that there was food in pantries all over the country. She continues to serve others from her home in Kfar Chabad.

The following interview by Fradie Brod, was originally printed in Mishpacha Chasidit, the family section of Kfar Chabad magazine.

How did you become involved with the wives and children of Israel’s fallen soldiers?

My first connection with the families of Israel’s heroes began with a letter that the RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—had written after the Six-Day War. Rabbi Yitzchak (“Itchke”) Gansburg, who was then active in Lubavitch Youth Organization, had received a letter from the Rebbe asking him to care for the families of the brave men and women who had fallen in the war. He explained that even if some of them had not been particularly observant during their lifetimes, their souls are now begging that their children be brought to Torah.

When Reb Itchke got that letter, he was not sure how to proceed, since this was not something he had been involved in.

His wife, Gita, suggested that he turn to me.

Only two weeks prior, on Shabbat, 30 Sivan (July 8), my husband, David, had fallen in battle at the Suez Canal. After we finished the customary shiva mourning, I went to visit a woman from Givat Brenner, whose husband was a dear comrade of David’s, who had died together with him.

This woman, who is still a good friend of mine, was then pregnant with her first child. When I came to visit her, she said, “It is easier for you—you have your faith!”

That visit showed me that it is possible to lighten the burden of the wives of the heroes (we are particular not to call them “war widows”) through visiting and friendship.

When I heard of the Rebbe’s request, I saw it as an opportunity to turn my tragedy into something positive, for me to be there for struggling families. I accepted the Rebbe’s challenge.

How do you begin the conversation?

Shifra Marasow
Shifra Marasow

You want to know how to enter a house where there is so much pain? The first thing I would generally say is shalom, “hello,” and things would flow naturally from there.

At times, I would just tell the woman, “I happened to be in the area, I know that you live here, and I wanted to know how you are managing with the children.”

One time, a woman really opened up to me, pouring out her entire heart. As the visit progressed she spoke about all the hardships she faced on a daily basis, her children, her extended family and so on. When she finished, she turned to me and said, “So I just went on and on. Good, now you can go home to your husband and tell him everything I told you, and you can have a good laugh together at my expense.”

“You are right,” I told her, “I am going home, but I will not be speaking to my husband.” When I told her that I, too, had lost my husband in battle, all barriers fell away, and we developed a very warm and strong bond.

I always tried to enter the mindset of the woman I was visiting.

I’ll give you one extreme example. We once came to the house of a woman with six children. A primitive gas burner sat on the floor, and poverty was screaming from every corner of her home. It was a depressing sight. I was afraid she may view me as a social worker or another government-appointed intruder.

What did I do? I sat next to her and said, “Are you from Persia? Tell me, how do you make your rice? I’ve tried so many times to make rice, and every time it mushes together like porridge. How do you keep the grains from sticking together?”

Her eyes lit up, and she gave me step-by-step instructions for rice. Once we established that we were both just regular women trying to care for our children, we were able to connect. The end of the story was that she asked for my advice regarding which school to send her children to, and I was able to point her to a school where Torah and Judaism were taught.

The trick is not to come as a superior, but to meet each person at eye level.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin addresses a bar mitzvah ceremony for the sons of fallen soldiers in Kfar Chabad, 1977.
(Photo: Moshe Milner)
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin addresses a bar mitzvah ceremony for the sons of fallen soldiers in Kfar Chabad, 1977. (Photo: Moshe Milner)

The Sukkot Tour That Almost Ended in Disaster

For the first Sukkot after the war, we arranged a tour for our women, two buses full. We began at Gush Etzion, continued to Hebron, and from there to the Kotel.

At Gush Etzion, we were greeted by the future Member of Knesset Hanan Porat, whose parents had been among the original pioneers of Kfar Etzion. During the War of Independence, he was evacuated along with the other children to Jerusalem. He served as a paratrooper during the war and had participated in the liberation of Jerusalem. After the war, he was among the first Jews to move back to Gush Etzion. You can imagine that the place was still pretty bare, but they greeted us exceptionally warmly with the little they had.

They took a metal trough from a chicken coop and somehow made it into a table that they filled with fruit, and Porat began to speak. I don’t know how much time we had budgeted for his talk, but he just kept on talking well past the allotted time. I tried to discreetly point to the clock, but he ignored me.

This turned out to be a great miracle. We could not have known it, but at that very moment there had been an attack in Hebron. By the time we arrived, it was all over, and we saw jeeps transporting the wounded to the hospital.

This was a great miracle, but for us, it was a unique challenge. Our women had suffered great traumas very recently and panic set in. They began clamoring to be taken home immediately.

Even when we arrived at the Kotel, they refused to get out of the buses, insisting that they be taken home.

I saw that our entire carefully-planned trip was about to fall apart and said: “OK ladies. Anyone who does not want to get off the bus needs to sponsor ice-cream for the group.” That did the trick, and everyone lightened up a bit, got off the buses and walked to the newly liberated Kotel.

The image stays with me until this day. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Many of the women were wearing black, and people were asking me, “Who is this delegation?” and I did not know how to reply.

The most significant results of that trip were the friendships that the women formed between themselves. They sat on the buses and chatted about their kids, their struggles, the challenges, everything—and they gave each other a supporting shoulder upon which to cry. Everyone had someone to listen to her and understand.

Those friendships continued to blossom, and there are actually children from these families who have married each other as a result of the connections made on that trip.

War widows in Israel at the bar mitzvah ceremony for their sons in Kfar Chabad, 1977. (Photo: Moshe Milner)
War widows in Israel at the bar mitzvah ceremony for their sons in Kfar Chabad, 1977. (Photo: Moshe Milner)

Continuing on Chanukah

We continued to have get-togethers for every Jewish holiday. On Chanukah, we had a party for mothers and children in the building of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Kfar Chabad. I made contact with a Jewish toy manufacturer in Holland. I sent him the ages of all the children, and he graciously sent age-appropriate gifts for each and every one of them. The event was wildly successful.

Among the attendees, I saw one woman who had come with a son who was clearly in the advanced stages of a dreadful disease. After the event, she called me on the phone and said, “You have no idea how much this meant to my son. After we came home, he said to me, ‘Mommy, there were people there who love me for real.’ ”

Our slogan was “healing through love,” and this was possible only due to the generous and loving people of Kfar Chabad. You would not believe how much these families contributed toward our success. They hosted guests for Shabbat, even those with large families in small houses. They made sure everything clicked, and it was all purely voluntary. No one even dreamed of asking for compensation.

Throughout the years, I made sure to participate in the joyous occasions and milestones of our families: weddings, bar mitzvahs, baby namings. Often when I would come, my friends would say, “We knew we could count on you to come!”

I often made sure to bring some of the most respected and senior members of the Chabad community. Once, I brought Rabbi Berke Chein, an elderly Chassid who had recently been released from the Soviet Union, to the circumcision of a baby who had been born a half-year after his father had fallen in battle. The family was so touched by his presence.

Begin surrounded by war orphans at a special bar mitzvah ceremony in their honor. (Photo: Moshe Milner)
Begin surrounded by war orphans at a special bar mitzvah ceremony in their honor. (Photo: Moshe Milner)

How did you know how to plan your programs and where to focus your efforts?

Our focus was mostly on women who had children. (Despite the pain, women who did not yet have children tended to rebuild their lives somewhat faster.) We believed that if the mother of the home is healthy and strong, everyone would benefit.

Incidentally, many of my theories came from my parents’ home. My father was the chief rabbi of Holland, and after the Holocaust, he would gather orphans into our home and celebrate the holidays with them in a homey setting. When I was young, this was difficult for me, since it meant sharing my parents’ attention with strangers. But when I grew older, and I interacted with people in need of a warm home and parental attention, I modeled our programs on what I had seen at home. This, coupled with the encouraging letters we would receive from the Rebbe, was how we began our holiday programs.

Everyone knows that the night when family is most important is Passover, when families gather around the table and children ask their father the Four Questions. We recognized that this could be a most difficult time for a woman mourning the loss of the man in her life. Even spending the holiday with family or friends is not easy. The women of Kfar Chabad took it upon themselves to host these women and their children for a Passover that would be festive and sensitive.

The first challenge was to find appropriate homes where these families could stay. But that turned out to be simple. The people of Kfar Chabad opened their small homes and hosted as many people as possible. The next step was to arrange the communal Seder itself. Remember, this was before the days of catering and disposable dishes. Reb Itchke led the effort, and many women lent a hand to do the actual cooking. Since all the host families would be celebrating the Seder together, we needed to cook food according to the most exacting standards of kosher-for-Passover.

In Beit Shazar, we had tables beautifully set, with everyone seated together, so you could not even tell which families were from Kfar Chabad and which were guests. We needed to think of everything, toys for the kids who would not sit, and cribs for the little ones who could not stay awake, and many other details.

The atmosphere was so festive. Everyone did their part to make things special. I especially remember how Rabbi Avraham Lider, a Torah teacher from Kfar Chabad, got up and sang Chad Gadya in Arabic. The ladies—many of whom were from Arab lands—just couldn’t get over it. Today, there are public Seders everywhere, but this was ground-breaking at the time.

Begin, seated at left, and guests applaud bar mitzvah boy Shai Cohen. (Photo: Moshe Milner)
Begin, seated at left, and guests applaud bar mitzvah boy Shai Cohen. (Photo: Moshe Milner)

Encouragement From the Rebbe

The greatest reward we got for our efforts came from the Rebbe. In a public farbrengen before Passover, he discussed the communal celebration being prepared in the Holy Land and said he was very gratified by the reports he was receiving.

One year, he sent us $100 with a note saying that it was his personal contribution toward the Chanukah party we were arranging.

Throughout the years, the Rebbe was a constant source of support and inspiration. He once told me that I must view each of the women as a daughter of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

After the Rebbe launched the Shabbat candle campaign, he asked Rabbi Laibov to arrange that every daughter of our families receive a candle holder as a gift. I was afraid that a single candle holder could be seen as a memorial candle, something that could have a very negative effect, and therefore I suggested that we send them each two candle holders, which they would more easily connect with Shabbat.

But the Rebbe had stated that girls should light only one candle. What was I to do? The Rebbe replied that we should indeed send two candle holders, explaining that one was to be used now, and the second should be kept until they would get married.

The Rebbe added that he wanted to pay for the candle holders.

In 1973, I traveled to the Rebbe. Before I went, I told my friends they could write letters that I would personally deliver to the Rebbe. Before long, I had a stack of letters addressed to the Rebbe. One woman, however, had written a note directly to me: “Shifra, tell the Rebbe how broken I am. I want to get married already.”

I handed the Rebbe that letter as well, and he blessed her to find a marriage partner and create a home with him. Two weeks passed and she met an eligible bachelor, whom she soon married.

She later remarked, “You know who was my shadchan [matchmaker]? The Lubavitcher Rebbe!”

A gathering of war widows
A gathering of war widows

Bar Mitzvah Celebrations

Reb Itchke had the idea that we should celebrate the bar mitzvah of our orphan boys. You need to understand the psychology here. For 13 years, a boy looks forward to his bar mitzvah.

From the age of 10, he is already envisioning himself on his “big day.” Then bang, everything changes. Mommy no longer has the strength/desire/headspace/energy for a bar mitzvah or her son’s dreams for the future.

What do we do? We visited the homes of each of the sixteen boys who would turn 13 that first year, and we developed direct connections and friendships with them. The owner of an event hall in Tel Aviv donated space. Representatives of the Ministry of Defense came to the celebration. In order to make things as personal as possible, we printed personalized invitations for each boy with only his name to send to up to 100 addresses.

We continued those annual bar mitzvahs for many years, celebrating with more than 180 boys.

War widows and orphans prepare for an outing.
War widows and orphans prepare for an outing.

Healing Through Love

Another thing that began back then were the camps for bar-mitzvah boys. The purpose of the camp was to meld them into a cohesive group who would feel comfortable sharing their joyous day together. We deliberately arranged for the boys to be hosted by families, so they could be part of the day-to-day family life.

We worked closely with the Israel Air Force and Navy, and we gave those kids a really good time, experiences to last a lifetime and the feeling that they were part of the “Chabad family.”

Someone once told me he was taking a jeep tour in the Golan, and the manager of the business told him he had taken part in our camps as a child. Even though he is not religious, he made sure to marry his wife in a traditional wedding because of the experience.

We never tried to force anyone to do teshuvah, but I have no doubt that the seeds we planted have grown many fruits. I once received mishloach manot with the note, “Dear Shifra, the fruits in this basket are kosher, not picked on Shabbat.” For the people sending that gift, that was real progress!

I once traveled to a certain kibbutz (I will not mention the name, but I assure you that it is far from Chassidic, and that they even sell pork there). When I came to visit a woman there, she showed me that she had prepared juice with kosher certification and paper cups for me. For her, this was a big deal.

Someone recently knocked on my door and told me, “You do not remember me, but you made me a bar mitzvah.” Thank G‑d, I remembered his name, his mother’s name, and even the name of the street where he lived. He told me he still feels especially close to Chabad.

Another anecdote:

Reb Yechiel Neparstak once traveled to the Golan Heights to put on tefillin with soldiers stationed there, but the sentries refused to let him onto the base. When he turned to the commander for help, the commander said, “Why are you not letting him in? I will be the first to put on tefillin, and I want everyone to do the same.”

After the tefillin had made their rounds, the commander explained, “In my kibbutz there is a boy whose father fell in battle and whose mother had been killed in an accident. When I saw how the people of Chabad cared for this boy with love and dedication, how can I not put on tefillin?”

We have been told by professionals that our work of “healing through love” by showing people attention and genuine care had an even stronger therapeutic effect than professional help.

There was one boy whose parents had both been killed in a terror attack. He was raised by his aunt and once came to our camp in Kfar Chabad. When the boys went on trips, he would insist on standing in the front of the bus next to the driver (perhaps to escape if need be). When camp ended, his aunt told us, “His host-mother managed to accomplish what all the psychologists had not been able to do.”

The campers would also write letters to the Rebbe and receive replies, which were just outstanding. From those replies, you could see how the Rebbe cared for each child.

My story is finished, but not complete. I wish I could have told you there were no more wars, no more widows, and that my work is done. Unfortunately, we are still hoping for Moshiach. Thank G‑d, we are believers, and this hope gives us strength and empowers us to strengthen others as well.

Israel's President Zalman Shazar, seated, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, at a ceremony for the daughters of fallen soldiers.
Israel's President Zalman Shazar, seated, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, at a ceremony for the daughters of fallen soldiers.
Shifra Marasow and her children
Shifra Marasow and her children