Among the thousands of Israelis who set out annually to backpack across Asia, a network of Jewish outposts has come to symbolize home.

Chabad-Lubavitch centers stretching from India to Japan offer these post-army young adults the chance to reconnect with their home country, and with their religious heritage. Emissaries in Thailand, for instance, remind their visitors to call home, and offer some of the largest Passover Seders and Shabbat dinners in the world. In the crossroads town of Manali, India, likewise, the local Chabad House has earned a reputation as an always-open thruway for Jewish tourists on the move.

“Our main goal in being here really is the friendship: to build unity among Jews,” says Rabbi Yehuda Kirsch, a young rabbinical student who with his friend Rabbi Levi Pekar, has spent the past two months in Manali as part of the summer rabbinical visitation program run by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.

Nestled in the mountains at the foot of the Himalayas, the small city of Manali is an important waypoint for people travelling India’s northern region. All main roads leading to such popular destinations as Dharamsala and the sulfur baths of Khiraganga pass through the town. Rabbi Baruch Shenhav founded the Chabad House seven years ago to serve the many Israeli backpackers who pass through and a small expatriate community of Jews.

As much of the region is too cold and inaccessible for foreign tourists during the winter months, the Chabad House has a full-time presence for seven to eight months of every year. For the past few years, visiting rabbis such as Kirsch and Pekar have helped take care of the day-to-day operations and to make forays into the surrounding countryside villages to offer Jewish services.

“During the summer months, people don’t come to Manali to stay,” says Kirsch, “so this has always been sort of a revolving-door Chabad House. People stop by, spend a few days hanging out, and make travel plans with other Jewish travelers they meet here. We have classes based on the interests of those who are here any given week. Visitors appreciate our one-on-one learning.”

On an average day, roughly 100 people stop by the Chabad House. On Shabbat, the number can swell to between 230 and 250 people at each meal. The center includes a synagogue that doubles as a study hall, a storage room for travelers to temporarily unload their valuables and extra luggage, a kosher restaurant and a lounge with Internet access.

Many people make sure to stop once more at the Chabad House on their return trip through Manali.

“We reconnect with the people,” adds Kirsch, “and they reconnect with each other.”

A small city at the foot of the Himalayas, Manali is a waypoint for travelers headed to destinations throughout India’s northern region. (Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda)
A small city at the foot of the Himalayas, Manali is a waypoint for travelers headed to destinations throughout India’s northern region. (Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda)

Love and Unity

The unity engendered among the backpacker community came to the fore this summer as the Israeli travelers, aided by local Indians, searched for one of their own. American-Israeli Amichai Steinmetz disappeared on July 21 while embarking on a hike through part of the Himalayas, and has still not been found.

The rabbinical students were alerted to Steinmetz’s disappearance by fellow travelers, who after losing contact with him, hoped that he had stopped by the Chabad House. He hadn’t, and after checking in with the local populace, Kirsch and Pekar contacted the police and the Israeli Consulate. Since that day, much of the pair’s efforts in Manali have been directed towards finding Steinmetz, including transporting volunteers to base camps several hours away and participating in the search.

“The first few days, Yehuda and I walked all over Manali posting flyers with Amichai’s picture and recruiting volunteers to help with the search effort,” says Pekar.

“Since Amichai’s disappearance, this place has just been exploding with people. Everyone wants to help,” adds Kirsch. “Every class is dedicated to his merit, people are putting on tefillin in his merit.

“Also, people just want to be in the company of other Israelis right now, to pray for him, to hear the latest news about the search.”

This past Shabbat, Steinmetz’s father and sister joined guests at the Chabad House. As efforts to find the man continue, three FBI agents arrived from America to investigate the disappearance. Meanwhile, family friends continue to fly in from Israel to join the search parties combing the glaciers and nearby water reservoirs.

Pekar and Kirsch were originally scheduled to leave the city last week, clearing the way for a young couple from Israel to host meals and run activities during the approaching High Holidays. Due to the search, however, they postponed their departure to this coming Sunday. Two other rabbinical students will take their place until the Israeli couple arrives.

Aside from the search, perhaps the most memorable part of the summer for Kirsch and Pekar was when several former Israeli soldiers, veterans of the Golani Brigade, asked the rabbinical students to organize a memorial on the third anniversary of the passing of their commander and seven other comrades.

The commander, Maj. Roi Klein of the Golani 51st, made history during the Second Lebanon War when a hand grenade was tossed into a house where his unit was stationed. Telling his men “report than I’ve been killed,” Klein jumped on the grenade, absorbing the force of the explosion, sacrificing his life for his troops. Soldiers in the house reported that he died in the midst of saying the Shema, the biblical prayer affirming G‑d’s unity.

At the memorial ceremony in Manali, participants lit one candle for each of the fallen, prayed and donned tefillin, some of them doing so for the first time in their lives. After a short prayer for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas three years ago, everyone danced in a circle and sang “Am Yisrael Chai.”

“What you see here is the real concern that Jews feel for one another,” relates Pekar. “People come in sometimes with misconceptions, with a sense that Jews of different backgrounds can’t [relate]. But here, where everyone is outside of their usual routine, people focus on what is really important.”

In the Chabad House’s guestbook, many comments refer the center as a bayit cham, an Israeli term that literally translates as a “warm house,” but connotes a sort-of refuge, a place where you can relax and recharge.

Wrote one traveler: “I will never forget the warmth and the love that I felt in this place.”