By Hadassah Chen
The call came from an unknown number from Russia. I didn’t want to answer it, thinking it must have been a mistake, but I did. A nice and pleasant voice of what seemed like a young man, asked me if I could organize an event at the Great Synagogue in Rome for a group of 800 Russian Jewish students coming to visit. It would pay homage to this beautiful city and pay homage to its ties with Judaism.
I think you got the wrong person, I say. I live in Jerusalem, I don’t produce events and have no contacts with Italian politicians.
Are you Hadassah Chen and you are Italian?
“So it’s you! Your name was suggested by a few people. We need a creative mind to put together this ceremony in a very short time – a little less than a month.”
Funny joke, I replied.
“I am getting ready to go to Florence for Pesach, have a house to clean and 4 kids to pack for. I don’t think this is ever possible.” That’s what I was supposed to say, but my mouth just said, “OK.”
And so, just like that, I got into this adventure – coordinating the Italian leg of the annual “Eurostars” trip to sites of Jewish interest across Europe. It is organized by the Yahad special programs by Rabbi Mendy Wilansky under the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS.
The saying, “life starts out of your comfort zone” is insanely true. When you feel pulled into something that you know deep inside will enrich you and open new horizons – follow your heart, even if you know it will take a few sleepless nights, some headaches, and some serious work – do it!
As I poured myself some coffee, I started thinking about where do we start… I’d have to work with the Jewish community in Rome and its chief rabbi to welcome us and close off the main synagogue for our visit. Politicians will need to be invited and I’ll need to be careful not to step on anyone’s toes, but at the same time, get results fast.
The hardest part would be to travel back to Italy just a few days after our return home to Israel from Pesach, when kids were finally back into a routine. Disappearing in the middle of the night, flying solo back to Rome, kissing them goodbye in their sleep while I snuck out the door like a thief.
I left my house while missiles from Gaza were flying over Israel. My kids asked to sleep all in one room because they were scared – even though Jerusalem was not really at risk. I felt such a heavy heart boarding that plane at 4:00 AM.
I left on a silent dark night, Israel still under attack, and found myself welcomed the next day in a stunning home in the middle of ancient Rome. A different world indeed. The home had big windows overlooking the roofs of this marvelous city. My incredible hostess Milli Arbib gave me all she could, materially and “spiritually” for the next 3 days.
Next step I had to place myself in the offices of the Jewish Community of Rome and work with all their staff for 3 intense days, while gently imposing myself. I thought they would hate me, but the President of the community Ruth Dureghello welcomed me with open arms and a super cute smile. We had chemistry right away, Baruch Hashem.
The ceremony started taking shape slowly. We had one guest confirm, and then another two disappear. There was the logistics of getting 800 students in less than an hour inside a synagogue in the middle of chaotic Rome and going through tight security… A smiling man called Emanuele, always with a positive attitude, calmed me down every day while we drank espresso and ate the amazing fresh croissants from the kosher bakery in the Jewish ghetto.
My Milanese accent even started changing sounding every day more like the Roman accent! I saw myself from far, parading between offices, talking to the press and staff of the Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte who finally confirmed his presence for the event. It was funny to be in the middle of an important meeting and taking an insistent call from my daughter in Israel, telling me she scratched her knee in Gan (kindergarten)…
We ran through the potential program a million times, changing it by the minute, making sure everything is down to the tee. As the day finally arrived, I woke up early and davened in my room. I felt calm in the early morning, I just needed a good espresso…
As I came to the ghetto, the area was already under tight security. I walk past the police who already know me and I make my way down to the synagogue through a small door that is usually used by staff. I find myself in the middle of the bima, I look up at the incredible height of the ceiling of this jewel and I feel like crying, it is so overwhelming.
80 kids slowly make their way up to the small stage to rehearse the choir, they all try to remain composed. I look at my watch and think, “OK, from now on everything has to work perfectly like a Swiss watch!”
I am known to be always late, but today I had to be the one keeping everyone on time. And then my cell starts ringing, and ringing, and ringing… every problem that could ever rise was happening one after the other.
The buses were coming in late, the security started taking it out on me, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar was on his way earlier than planned and he hates to wait. No word still from the staff of the Prime Minister whether he will be on time.
“I can do this…” I think to myself.
60 Italian journalists are covering the event and 10 Russians have already come and need to be placed at their location. Suddenly, I see people running to me from all sides only with questions and I need to give all the answers. My head starts spinning…
At 10:40 AM the first bus arrives. Security is fuming. They tell me that at 11:30 AM they are closing the doors. Rabbi Lazar arrives, I greet him and take a few moments to explain where he will be seated and run through the program together. He instantly gives me a feeling of calm, saying “yes” to all I say and just following directions.
I take him to his reserved place of honor, he turns around to the crowd filling up the synagogue and sees from far the famous Holocaust survivor Sami Modiano walking to his seat. He walks towards him, they hug and Rabbi Lazar starts wrapping him with Tefillin and saying the shema. I follow with my eyes the whole scene and have almost tears. I can’t stop watching. This Chief Rabbi is so simple and true, searching for who he can put Tefillin on, and this old man who has risen from the ashes of the Shoa, hugging him with his eyes closed.
There are 8 buses missing still to arrive. We’re already running 20 minutes late. I cannot leave 400 people on the road. I turn to Emanuele and tell him, “you have to got to keep them coming …and we must start now.” The Prime Minister is coming in 20 minutes and we haven’t started yet!
According to my program, the Prime Minister is only coming towards the end of the event, saying his speech and leaving. The speakers start going one after the other on the podium, the program is moving well. I can breathe for one second when I suddenly see with the corner of my eye one of the police for the Prime Minister coming towards me. “He has a delay of 30 minutes,” they notify.
Now I cannot breathe. How am I going to fill now 30 minutes of the program until he arrives? Ok, let’s get moving… get the kids choir now, move them on stage, let them start singing. The director of the choir looks at me confused. “We’re not meant to start now,” he says. Get the kids ready to sing for 15 minutes, I reply. I don’t care what. Sing a song twice if you must… I whisper under a faint smile, there’s cameras all over.
As kids sing I slowly move behind Rabbi Lazar, I just whisper to him, 30 min delay. He understands and says, “get my father to speak…” Fantastic idea. I move to the first row of reserved seats and invite my former headmaster and adored teacher, Rabbi Moshe Lazar. I whisper to him, “please save me, you can talk for as long as you wish…”
He agrees and addresses the 800 students in English, Russian and Italian with enthusiasm and affection.
Kids have sung, Rabbi Lazar Sr. has spoken, the other speeches are meant to take place after the arrival of the Prime Minister. What now? should I take the mike and sing Tumbalalaika?
I then get a notice that the Prime Minister will not be coming after all. “Perfect,” I say, Let’s go as planned. I notify Rabbi Berel Lazar, but he replies calm and relaxed, “Let’s see… he might still come.”
As Rabbi Lazar takes the stage and starts his speech, I see my press guy, Daniele motioning me from far. “He’s coming…”
The lighting ceremony begins presented by me hoping not to forget who lights, and from far I see a commotion… With an hour and 15 min delay, the Prime Minister makes his entrance into the synagogue and is welcomed by 800 students singing “Hevenu shalom aleichem.” What a sight! I want to faint.
The Prime Minister makes his way up on stage and delivers a very impressive speech. I stand there with a backache and a desperate need for coffee. It’s 1:20 PM instead of 11:40 AM.
In these 3 hours I thought I saw my new career of “macher face, or aka as responsible for the event” die before it even started, only to take a huge turn, with flashes of amazingness accompanied by feelings of superpower abilities and thinking of having become the new IT girl, followed by moments of utter embarrassment and despair. All in 3 hours.
I saw real leaders who fear G-d and respect their fellow Jew mingle in the crowd and be modest and open to all while still keeping their strength and dignity.
I saw leaders being led by the people around them, not knowing where they are going and what they are doing…
I saw leaders who lead but lack faith and knowledge, their words tremble their voice sometimes shake…
And then I saw a girl scared of being interrogated in class by her teacher, suddenly turning around and going up at the top of the class and deliver an amazing speech.
That’s how I felt today. Overcome fear, push your boundaries, have faith in Hashem and enjoy what you do.
As the Prime Minister finishes his speech, he turns around and meets my smile.
I compliment him on his speech: “Complimenti Primo Ministro splendido discorso forte e senza paura.”
He responds, “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking”?
Hadassah Chen, I say. I’m from Israel and I helped organize this ceremony at the synagogue. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
I have never felt more proud to say my name and origin.
As he leaves with all the photographers around him, I see my mom and run to hug her. I whisper in her ear, “Let’s go have the best pasta in the ghetto now…”
I am so proud of you, she whispers back. In the end, that’s all it matters.
Back home in Jerusalem, I tuck my child in bed. The event seems like a distant moment in my life already, but it’s through these moments of intense pressure and work that you can appreciate more those moments like being able to tuck your kid in bed and falling asleep next to them.
Thank you Hashem. And thank you to my dear husband!
To the next one… L’chaim.