As nearly every aspect of the world around us was changing in this year of global pandemic, Chabad.org/News worked to provide unique perspectives on the unfolding tragedy and unfathomable loss of life, while at the same time reporting on the outpourings of kindness and humanity from every part of the globe. With the Jewish year 5780 coming to a close, here is a look at some of the stories that defined it, as featured on Chabad.org/News.

It was a year that began optimistically.

As the new year dawned, new Chabad-Lubavitch centers opened in time for the High Holidays in Tiberias, Israel, and Flagstaff, Ariz. The High Holidays and Sukkot were celebrated with joy and reverence as rabbis tweeted their Yom Kippur inspiration, a Bay Area Talmud class celebrated a milestone, and an innovative social-media initiative brought the timeless experience of the Tishrei season with the RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, to life with “real-time” WhatsApp and Instagram posts.

The previous year’s horrific anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh was remembered on its first anniversary, as local Jews cited Jewish unity as key to coping, and a victim’s son pointed to tefillin as the best memorial to his mother. Then the focus shifted west as wildfires raged across California. Stranded by a wildfire, a rabbi and his carpool of yeshivah boys offered tefillin to area Jews and spent the hours stuck in standstill traffic studying Torah.

Elsewhere in the world, Jewish communities faced down disaster, unrest and conflict, as Venice’s Jewish community battled catastrophic floodwaters, a young couple joined Hong Kong’s Chabad center amid turbulence, and rocket attacks from Gaza struck Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel while unfazed, 6,000 Jews celebrated a Shabbat of togetherness at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

While rocket attacks from Gaza struck Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel, more than 6,000 unfazed guests savored festive meals on Shabbat in the biblical city of Hebron. The annual gathering at the Cave of the Patriarchs drew 30,000 visitors over the weekend.
While rocket attacks from Gaza struck Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel, more than 6,000 unfazed guests savored festive meals on Shabbat in the biblical city of Hebron. The annual gathering at the Cave of the Patriarchs drew 30,000 visitors over the weekend.

The year’s trend of building and renewal continued, as Montenegro got a chief rabbi, Chicago’s River North neighborhood received a new Torah scroll and traveling ark, New Zealand began work on a mikvah, and Illinois welcomed its 50th Chabad center.

Fighting hate with Jewish pride, 5,800 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and communal leaders gathered in New York for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. They visited the Rebbe’s resting place, took a “class photo” and celebrated Jewish life at a massive banquet, where they heard about a young couple opening a Chabad House in Myanmar, and about the Chabad Houses that had opened in the past year in Woodstock, Rwanda, Kaunas and Kyoto.

Hate reared its ugly head again, as Chassidic Jews were targeted in a lethal Jersey City shooting that left six dead at the small community’s kosher grocery. In the aftermath of the attack, the importance of education was emphasized as White House anti-Semitism envoy Elan Carr visited the bereaved community.

Sweeping criminal justice reform was enacted, and at the White House, Chassidim were recognized for getting it done. Much of the inspiration for it has come from the Aleph Institute, founded by the Rebbe in 1981, and the venerable Judge Jack B. Weinstein sat down to speak about his relationship with the Rebbe and Aleph’s longtime efforts on behalf of the incarcerated.

Criminal justice reform was enacted, and at the White House, Chassidim were recognized for getting it done. A longtime proponent of reform, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York talked about his encounters with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory; his long relationship with the Aleph Institute; and why at age 98 he still feels that there's more to accomplish. (Photo: Moshe Finkelstein/Chabad.org)
Criminal justice reform was enacted, and at the White House, Chassidim were recognized for getting it done. A longtime proponent of reform, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York talked about his encounters with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory; his long relationship with the Aleph Institute; and why at age 98 he still feels that there's more to accomplish. (Photo: Moshe Finkelstein/Chabad.org)

Chanukah touched down around the world—from stadiums to state capitols to the virtual realm. The world’s largest dreidel was created, and the world’s first public menorah was joined this year by some 15,000 others. A Holocaust survivor was all alone on Chanukah, but then a rabbi walked into her home. Some 800 Moroccan Jews were joined at their Chanukah celebration for the first time by leading officials from that country. Bernie Sanders lit the menorah in Iowa. Uruguay’s president-elect received one,too.

But amid the light was confounding darkness as an anti-Semitic assailant stabbed five people at a Chanukah celebration in Monsey, N.Y., one of whom tragically succumbed to his wounds. In the aftermath, there was fear, but also resolve as a record number of participants joined celebrations on the last night of Chanukah, bringing redoubled light to a world where it was sorely needed.

Jewish pride continued to shine forth. A San Antonio deputy sheriff wore a kippah with pride at his swearing-in. “My grandparents were forced to wear a Jewish star on their chest,” Seth Frydberg told Chabad.org at the time, “and I have the privilege to work for law enforcement with a badge on my chest.”

Proudly wearing a kippah, Seth Frydberg was sworn in as the newest deputy sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, with the help of his father, Felix Frydberg, center, the son of Holocaust survivors, as Sheriff Javier Salazar, left, looked on.
Proudly wearing a kippah, Seth Frydberg was sworn in as the newest deputy sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, with the help of his father, Felix Frydberg, center, the son of Holocaust survivors, as Sheriff Javier Salazar, left, looked on.

Bushfires in Australia, a Puerto Rico earthquake and a diverted El Al flight each spurred local Chabad centers into action, caring for those affected.

We learned what it’s like to be Jewish in Estonia, Wyoming, Morocco, Ireland, Ghana, Romania, Aruba, Spain, Mississippi, San Diego, Normandy and deep in the Amazon rainforest.

The Cambodian Royal Family celebrated its first bat mitzvah, and hundreds of Jewish young professionals gathered for a vibrant Shabbaton. The champion Kansas City Chiefs’ star lineman Mitchell Schwartz brought pride to local Jews.

Cambodia's royal family turned out in Phnom Penh for Princess Elior Koroghli's bat mitzvah party. (Photo: Kang Predi/Teh Ranie)
Cambodia's royal family turned out in Phnom Penh for Princess Elior Koroghli's bat mitzvah party. (Photo: Kang Predi/Teh Ranie)

And then the world as we know it irrevocably changed.

As the first ripples of what would become the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in China, the country’s 15 Chabad-Lubavitch emissary families helped residents and evacuated visitors, even as they battened down their own hatches and confronted shortages, bringing much-needed face masks to vulnerable people in need.

But for the moment, the effects of the devastating virus were localized. Jews in quarantine got kosher food from local Chabad centers, and Beijing emissary Dinie Freundlich keynoted the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries that celebrates contemporary Jewish life. Weeks earlier, 70 years of the Rebbe’s leadership was marked in communities around the world.

Dini Freundlich, co-director of Chabad of Beijing, lights Shabbat candles in January as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through China.
Dini Freundlich, co-director of Chabad of Beijing, lights Shabbat candles in January as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through China.

Then the virus went global. Country after country was struck by the invisible but deadly tsunami of disease. As COVID-19 spread in Italy, that country’s Chabad centers kept their doors open to continue providing much-needed humanitarian aid.

The festival of Purim arrived, and Chabad brought Purim joy to afflicted communities, reading the Megillah for the quarantined and bringing some happiness to countries in lockdown. But Purim of 5780 will be looked back upon as the last time for many months that communities gathered. Because unbeknown to those who had been reassured by officials that there was no need to be cautious, the deadly virus was being transmitted along with the mishloach manot and l’chaims that were shared.

And in the days and weeks that followed, the United States—and scores of other countries—locked down as the pandemic’s spread grew exponentially. Schools and synagogues shut their doors and in-person communal life ceased.

Facing an unprecedented challenge, Chabad.org sprang into action, teaching people how to celebrate Shabbat while social distancing and creating a Kaddish program for those unable to attend synagogue. Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim Office’s Online School attendance spiked as in-person schooling ground to a halt, Shabbat care packages replaced in-person meals, and rabbis reached out to senior citizens isolated for protection from the disease.

As Passover approached, Seder-to-Go kits were rushed into production and distributed by the thousands across the globe. Children with special needs got online visits from their Friendship Circle buddies. Guests from past years’ mega-Seders received Passover help wherever they were, as Chabad-Lubavitch launched the world’s largest Passover campaign, helping the countless Jewish households who would be making their own Seder for the first time. Online chametz sales spiked, and pre-Passover classes moved online.

Chabad emissaries and volunteers worked tirelessly amid the spreading pandemic to ensure that people would be provided with their Passover needs. In addition to general Passover staples—traditional foods, matzah and kosher wine, Haggadahs and other printed materials and do-it-yourself tools— Chabad distributed approximately 3.5 million handmade shmurah matzahs for individual use.
Chabad emissaries and volunteers worked tirelessly amid the spreading pandemic to ensure that people would be provided with their Passover needs. In addition to general Passover staples—traditional foods, matzah and kosher wine, Haggadahs and other printed materials and do-it-yourself tools— Chabad distributed approximately 3.5 million handmade shmurah matzahs for individual use.

In the Chassidic community of Crown Heights, ravaged by the pandemic, kindness abounded from behind closed doors, even as the streets remained eerily deserted. Deserted, but not silent, as every few minutes brought the wail of an ambulance rushing yet another COVID-19 patient to overcrowded hospitals. Many recovered. Many, tragically, did not.

Residents peeked from windows or stood at their doors as the biers of COVID-19 victims, attended by hazmat-suit-clad chevra kadisha volunteers, passed through the streets to allow people to safely pay their respects to the giants, respected leaders and loved ones they had lost.

Rabbi Mordechai Gurary, a congregational leader. Mrs. Guta Schapiro, a Chassidic matriarch. Mrs. Dusia Rivkin, who left hundreds of descendants behind. Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, a talmudic genius. Rabbi Gedalya Korf, an activist for Soviet Jewry. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Groner, an aide to the Rebbe. Reb Mottel Chein, a Chassidic mentor and community activist. Rebbetzin Rachel Altein, a leader and mentor to hundreds. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, an international leader in kosher supervision. Mendel Drizin, who helped build Crown Heights. Mrs. Thelma Levy, a behind-the-scenes force in kosher supervision. Avraham Aaron Rubashkin, a kosher-meat icon. Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Schwei, a beloved rabbi of Crown Heights. Yosef Bentzion Raices, a joyful promoter of Judaism. Faiga Korenblit, a Holocaust survivor and quintessential rebbetzin. Rabbi Motti Kopman, 34, who faced everything life threw at him with optimism. Chaim Osher Kahanov, who escaped the Soviet Union twice.

Rabbi Motti Kopman, 34, faced cancer, COVID and death with invincible joy.
Rabbi Motti Kopman, 34, faced cancer, COVID and death with invincible joy.

And the Jewish community mourned many more victims from around the world. Rabbi Messod Touboul, a beloved Paris educator. Rabbi Yehuda Refson, a senior rabbi in Leeds, England. Rabbi Sholom Eidelman, who served Moroccan Jewry for more than 60 years. Yitzchok Kosofsky, who spread Judaism in Chicago. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Israel’s former chief rabbi. Rabbi Binyamin Wolff, 43, a devoted rabbi in Hanover, Germany. Rochel Yehudis Charytan, longtime Chabad emissary to Winnipeg. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe. Rivkah Karp, a stalwart supporter of Jewish education.

Most passed away due to COVID-19. A number of others had pre-existing conditions or other illnesses that were exacerbated by the limited ability of overwhelmed medical staff to provide care. But all are victims of the pandemic.

Realizing the need to remember these souls, Chabad.org launched a broad memorial initiative. Many had died alone and been denied the honor of a well-attended funeral, but they would not be forgotten. Titled “Each Person, a World,” the memorial page would grow to more than 1,200 tributes and forms the most comprehensive list to date of Jewish victims of COVID-19. Remembered also, though necessarily not by name, were the unknown victims of the pandemic.

Besides the direct victims of the pandemic, many more were indirectly affected by the comprehensive effect that COVID-19 has had on all aspects of life, and Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins continue to find ways to be there for everyone in need. In Montreal, a long-running addiction-recovery center pivoted to online services. A Chicago kosher-food bank saw a 600 percent increase in distributions. A high-stakes rescue by Chabad of Jamaica saved a Jewish artist stranded at sea.

Amit Mendel of Jerusalem put on tefillin and said the Shema prayer at the resting place of the Rebbe. He was rescued after being stranded for six weeks on a tiny boat in the Caribbean, when all ports were closed to him due to the pandemic.
Amit Mendel of Jerusalem put on tefillin and said the Shema prayer at the resting place of the Rebbe. He was rescued after being stranded for six weeks on a tiny boat in the Caribbean, when all ports were closed to him due to the pandemic.

As the world slowly adjusted to a “new normal” of life in the era of the coronavirus, Chabad centers found innovative ways to celebrate an out-of-the-box Lag BaOmer. As many as 40,000 people tuned in to a virtual Lag BaOmer celebration in Australia as around the world, Jewish unity was emphasized even while maintaining social distancing.

Pinpoints of hope and inspiration brightened the months of darkness. A rabbi who spent months in a coma brought on by COVID-19 before recovering became a lightning rod for good deeds. Lawn signs and face masks displayed messages of positivity. Chassidic Jews lined up in enormous numbers to donate convalescent plasma to help fight the virus. A college student spent 11 hours a day grocery shopping for others.

Responding to the pandemic with positive action were volunteers like Kaila Zimmerman-Moscovitch of Chicago, who spent many hours a day at the local supermarket to shopp for neighbors in quarantine.
Responding to the pandemic with positive action were volunteers like Kaila Zimmerman-Moscovitch of Chicago, who spent many hours a day at the local supermarket to shopp for neighbors in quarantine.

Shavuot approached amid the lightening of restrictions in some areas, but synagogues showed caution, prioritizing the preservation of life over the resumption of in-person services. Thousands joined a pre-Shavuot online yizkor service, and the holiday itself was celebrated at home, in some synagogues and on the streets.

The Rebbe’s yahrtzeit on the Third of Tammuz was marked by the largest Zoom event on earth, with tens of thousands of participants. Thousands more attended the Rebbe’s resting place at the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., with social-distancing restrictions. And Wisdom to Heal the Earth, a book of meditations and teachings of the Rebbe by Tzvi Freeman, won the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award.

Hurricanes Hanna and Laura brought devastation to Texas and Louisiana, and Chabad representatives reached out to local community members with much-needed relief. An arson attack at the Chabad center at the University of Delaware was met with a viral fundraising campaign and a pledge to rebuild bigger and better than before. Widespread wildfires along the West Coast incinerated entire communities, and local Chabad centers launched a major relief effort.

It was a year that ended optimistically.

A peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates brought increased hope to the region and has already resulted in the bringing to safety of an elderly Yemenite couple—a joint effort of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi.

As the High Holidays and the year 5781 approached, Chabad couples moved out to new posts, committed to building for the future even amid a far-from-certain present. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement launched a broad High Holiday initiative to bring the celebratory observances to all, even as synagogues remain shuttered. An online course taught many isolated at home how to sound the shofar. High Holiday prayer books sold in record numbers to those preparing to observe the holidays at home.

It was a year of pain, of tragedy, of suffering. But it was also a year of widespread kindness and empathy in the face of unprecedented challenges. As the new year of 5781 approaches, we extend our prayerful wish that it brings with it only good news.

As the year drew to a close, Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin and Eli Soffer manufactured shofars from scratch to go into a “High Holiday in a Box” that Chabad of Tucson, Ariz., is distributing to community members who would not be able to attend services on Rosh Hashanah due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As the year drew to a close, Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin and Eli Soffer manufactured shofars from scratch to go into a “High Holiday in a Box” that Chabad of Tucson, Ariz., is distributing to community members who would not be able to attend services on Rosh Hashanah due to the coronavirus pandemic.