As Chabad women leaders from all over the globe gather in Brooklyn, N.Y., to celebrate and gain inspiration at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos), they will leave their workshops and sessions to join the funeral procession of Henya Federman, beloved and pioneering emissary to the Virgin Islands.

Henya passed away at the age of 40 on Wednesday, Feb. 8 (17 Shevat), after battling for her life for more than two months in the aftermath of a water accident that claimed the life of her 4-month-old daughter, Shterna.

Pulled out of the water and resuscitated after attempting to save her baby, Federman was flown to the mainland of the United States for emergency care. During the time that she lay hovering between life and death, countless people around the world increased in prayers, good deeds and Torah study in her merit.

Since 2005, Henya and her husband, Rabbi Asher Federman, lived in St. Thomas, where they founded and directed Chabad Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands. Over 18 years, the couple built a thriving community and a center of Jewish warmth where locals and tourists alike can connect to their Jewish heritage, celebrate joyous occasions and mark life-cycle events. Whether during personal crises or natural disasters, the Federmans were there for their community, working as a team to create a Jewish lighthouse on the islands while raising a growing family.

“They brought this great sense of tradition, of simchah [‘joy’],” local resident Sharon Triman told about Rabbi Asher and Henya’s impact on her island home. “It’s where I felt I was connecting to my parents, my grandparents … [and] a sense of joy and light.”

Henya Federman assists a daughter in lighting Shabbat candles.
Henya Federman assists a daughter in lighting Shabbat candles.

Lifelong Devotion to Others

Henya was born in Milwaukee in 1982, the eighth child of Rabbi Yisroel and B. Devorah Shmotkin, who had been sent to the city by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in 1968 to direct Lubavitch of Wisconsin.

Growing up with parents, grandparents and elder siblings all devoted to carrying out the Rebbe’s mission of sharing Jewish awareness, observance and celebration everywhere, it was her lifelong desire to follow suit.

Even as a teen, when she helped with her parents’ and siblings’ Hebrew school and camp, her care for others was legendary.

As news of the accident first spread, Virgin Islands’ locals and tourists formed social-media groups to share inspiration and anecdotes they had gleaned from Henya over the years, posting questions like “What’s your favorite Henya insight?” and “What’s your best parenting tip from Henya?”

As each one viewed him or herself as Henya’s “best friend,” it soon became apparent that they all were, as she nurtured and cherished a unique bond with each individual she encountered.

As the “Henya memories” continued to flow, they concluded, as did others across the globe, that the best gift they could give her was to increase in mitzvah observance and acts of kindness, and to encourage others to do the same.

Tina Shayani frequently spends time on the island with her family. She told that Henya was her close friend and “rebbetzin on speed dial” because she was somehow always available to answer any questions.

“Rabbi Asher and Henya are always so warm and helpful, and Henya is like a sister to me,” she said. She reported that her children looked forward to their trips to St. Thomas so they could visit the Federmans, who taught the Shayanis a truly meaningful and deep-felt kind of Judaism—something they never experienced before.

Shayani honored Henya by taking a fellow Jewish woman to the mikvah, or ritual bath, for the very first time—helping her fulfill a mitzvah she knew Henya cherished.

Concurrently, Henya’s seemingly countless friends—people from around the world who were impacted by her—began encouraging their own families and friends to take on a mitzvah related to family purity. The effort has received hundreds of commitments to date. One participant pledged to donate towards the building of a new mikvah while another committed to studying the laws of family purity. One woman in California reported that she’s been reaching out to women in her community and, in an effort to encourage them to engage with this foundational mitzvah, speaking with them about the sacredness and beauty of mikvah.

It wasn’t limited to mikvah; similar initiatives came together organically around the mitzvahs of Shabbat candle-lighting and tefillin.

Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman surrounded by some of their children.
Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman surrounded by some of their children.

Thousands Share Their Memories

Over the past months, thousands of former campers, students and beneficiaries of her legendary care and hospitality have reached out to share their memories. “Henya was my camp counselor when I was a kid,” wrote Stephanie Rosenberg on Facebook. “We talked from time to time, the last being right after my father passed. She sent me a book about grieving, which I still keep at my bedside.”

“She was my favorite counselor at Camp Gan Israel of Milwaukee, year after year,” wrote another. “She brought so much joy and enthusiasm. My memories with her bring me so much happiness to this day.”

On Facebook, Liza Wiemer recalled her sons’ first day at the Milwaukee Community Hebrew School. She was nervous because they hadn’t enjoyed their previous Hebrew school. To her amazement, when she picked them up, the boys declared that Hebrew school was ‘better than Disney World!’ ”

Henya was their teacher, and she showered her charges with warmth and love as she taught them about Judaism week after week. So caring was she that the children looked forward to school every Sunday.

Following her marriage to California native, Rabbi Asher Federman, the couple began looking for the corner of the world where they could establish a Chabad presence of their own. That place turned out to be St. Thomas, possibly the smallest locale of a Chabad outpost until that time.

During the Federmans’ first Chanukah on the island, they stationed yeshivah students near the docks, where they greeted six cruise ships a day, each unloading about 3,000 passengers. Before long, shouts of “Happy Chanukah” were ringing out, up and down Main Street. Menorahs were being passed from person to person.

One man e-mailed the Federmans later through to tell them that upon returning to his cruise ship, his group was inspired to hold a Chanukah party. Five-hundred-and-sixty people showed up—and almost 250 of them brought the tin menorahs they received from the Federmans and lit them at the party. Some of the others relit the menorahs in a second shift.

Success followed success, and each challenge made the Federmans stronger and more resilient, more determined and more devoted.

“Living on an island that is nine miles by three miles can get to you,” Henya shared with her fellow shluchot at the 2014 International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries “We islanders call it rock fever. It might be hard for someone living on the mainland to understand, but when you live on an island, the sight of a departing plane, even though it may be full of total strangers, can make you choke up. A cruise ship slowly drifting away can leave you with a heaviness inside.”

Counseling her colleagues with the ideals she herself lived by, she concluded: “If you’re ever feeling alone or wondering what you’ve achieved, just remember that you are part of both a huge army and a close-knit family. Your role is unique and plays an integral part in bringing each Jew closer to Hashem.”

Bringing people closer to G‑d, one at a time, the couple built up a well-attended synagogue, a lively Hebrew school, kosher-food services and, of course, joyous Shabbat services and dinners for both locals and tourists.

“Her kind and sweet nature inspired and brought so many to her beautifully set Shabbat table—with incredible food!—and serves as a constant reminder for so, so many, of the sweetness and approachability of Yiddishkeit and mitzvot,” said David Brainson, a St. Thomas resident and dear friend of the Federman family.

“With her gracious hosting and incredible eye for style, she showed the beauty of mitzvot, so anyone could see that mitzvot are worth doing, and worth doing right.”

Even more than from the activities and programs she organized and planned, islanders say they learned just from watching how she educated her children, giving each one individualized attention and lovingly guiding and nurturing them through childhood.

Speaking of how he was impacted by watching Henya parent her brood, a neighbor, who is not Jewish, commented how he was inspired to “be kind to everyone and make it easier for one another.”

This sentiment was echoed by neighbor Ashleigh Baldwin, for whom Henya was the go-to person for parenting advice and encouragement on anything from caring for feverish children to toilet training. She says she was initially “surprised” by how warmly Henya had greeted her when she moved to St. Thomas from Pennsylvania since “I was not a member of the congregation, but Henya was naturally gracious and warm. I felt like I had known her for years and suddenly St. Thomas felt like home.”

“As a mother, I was in awe of her,” continued Baldwin. “She directed everyone with gentle authority and I never heard her raise her voice. But Henya was not just a mother. In addition to raising her children, she actively led the Chabad community alongside Asher.”

Baldwin says that looking around the room at a pre-Purim event, she realized that “everyone there felt special. Henya had a way of doing that. She made everyone around her feel good and feel at home.”

“Down to maybe the number of fingers on one hand, Henya was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” said George S. Eltman, formerly a judge in St. Thomas and now of Jerusalem. “Henya was the essence of authenticity. And commitment. And generosity. And kindness, such kindness. Because she seemed to know just who she was, in a most profound way, her authenticity shone bright.”

As the Federmans’ work burgeoned and blossomed, so did their family, and they were blessed with their 13th child, Shterna, last summer.

“Henya was such a sweet woman and an amazing mother,” said Aisha Zakiya, who periodically photographed the family over the past 10 years. “I am not Jewish, but I so appreciate what she imparted to me about G‑d, religion, commitment, and family. She touched me in so many ways and will continue to touch me.”

In a message they addressed earlier this evening to “our dear extended Virgin Island family,” Henya’s siblings wrote: “We know that during these trying couple of months you ached right along with us, and right along with us you prayed and beseeched G‑d with all your might, and each of you in your own special way did all kinds of special things to share Henya’s beautiful life and ways with others.

“Henya will live on through each of you, her dearest friends and family, sharing her warm light and love with all the concentric spheres of your own lives and influence.”

In addition to her husband, she is survived by their children: Chaya Mushka, Menachem Mendel, Yitzchok Leib, Levi, Shneur Zalman, Chana, Feigel, Zelda Rochel, Yehudah, Meir Shlomo, Nechama Reizel and Sheina.

She is also survived by her parents, Rabbi Yisroel and Devorah Shmotkin (Milwaukee, Wis.), and siblings Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin (Stamford, Conn.); Rabbi Shmaya Shmotkin (Oak Park, Mich.); Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin (Glendale, Wis.); Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Feigel Tenenbaum (Gurnee, Ill.); Chana Klein (Eilat, Israel); Rabbi Levi Shmotkin (New York, N.Y.); Rabbi Yehuda Shmotkin (New York, N.Y.) Rabbi Shmuel Shmotkin (Miami, Fla.); and Rabbi Meir Shmotkin (Alameda, Calif.).

The funeral procession will depart at 2:30 p.m., Thursday, 18 Shevat (Feb. 9) from Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y., with interment at 3:45 p.m, at Old Montefiore Cemetery, in Queens. Shiva will be held at 1227-98 120th Avenue, Queens, N.Y., through Sunday 1:30 p.m., before the family members will continue in various locales.

Please donate to the Federman Family Fund, which is assisting the Federman family.

Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman and children on St. Thomas.
Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman and children on St. Thomas.