By Dvora Lakein, lubavitch.com
When Rabbis Laima Barber and Avi Shlomo visited Jews throughout Greece this July, they were often met with eager anticipation or at the very least, open curiosity. Rarely, though, were they greeted with full-on sobs. Until they visited Costas’ shop in Heraklion.
“We had made an appointment with Costas, the only known Jew in town and a Holocaust survivor, to spend some time with him in his store. When we walked in, Manuel, a guy standing near the door, burst out crying. When he finally calmed down, he said, ‘you would never believe what just happened.'”
As it turns out, Manuel owns a vacation home in a nearby town. He makes it a point to visit Costas, an old friend of his parents, when he comes from Switzerland for his annual holiday. Before his trip last year, his mother passed away and he was feeling depressed and in need of inspiration. During his one-hour visit with Costas in 2008, two Chabad rabbis appeared out of the blue, comforting him and providing the encouragement he so needed.
A year later, he felt the same stirrings and again didn’t know where to turn. He came to his friend, Costas, and two more rabbis appeared, out of nowhere it seemed. Again they comforted him. They helped him don Tefillin.
“Manuel,” explains Barber, “is in the store for exactly one hour each year. And both times when he needed help, the rabbis were there. I feel privileged to be a part of such Divine Providence.”
Barber and Shlomo had many priceless encounters during their three-week rabbinical tour of Greece. As part of the Merkos Shlichus Program, which sent 400 rabbis to remote corners of the globe, the pair provided Jews with their annual religious fix.
“There was no cutting back this year despite the economy,” emphasized director Rabbi Schneor Nejar. “Wherever there is a need to reach Jewish people, we are sending rabbis.”
Rabbi Dani Chitrik is winding down a month’s foray in the wilds of Wyoming. Though there is a permanent Chabad representative stationed in Jackson, the rest of the state gets short shrift for most of the year.
“It has been a fantastic few weeks,” raves Chitrik from the passenger seat of his rented Ford Edge. “The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, unreal, and the people here are so nice: I am from New York, and I am just not used to it.”
Together with his partner, Rabbi Dubi Lisker, Chitrik has driven over 2,300 miles, visiting over 100 people in their homes. They also hosted well-attended Shabbat dinners and services in various parts of the state.
“We made chicken, chicken soup with matzah balls, and gefilte fish for a Shabbaton with some serious Jewish cowboys here. I mean real cowboys,” he qualifies, “with belt buckles and boots.”
They also helped people affix mezuzahs, sold them kosher cookbooks (a big hit), and handed out Shabbat candle lighting kits. While most of their names came off of a list, they also dug through local phone books in search of the elusive “Rosenfelds, Goldbergs, and Rosenbergs.”
Rabbi Shmuel Shneur was met with cries of excitement and recognition, upon arriving in quaint Irish towns this July.
“Oh I was expecting you,” he heard time and time again. “I knew it was that time of year when the rabbis come.”
Most people they encounter rarely meet another Jew the whole year, let alone a rabbi, and have little connection with the wider Jewish community. On one memorable Shabbat in Cork, he helped arrange a minyan, the first the city has seen all year, in a beautiful 110-year old synagogue.
“Our mission,” Shneur reflects, “was simply to connect with another Jew. A Jew always has that spark inside, no matter how distant he may appear.”
Maintaining contact with Jews who have no physical community is an important aspect to this summer program. All the rabbis interviewed already keep in touch with people they have met, mainly by email.
In Wyoming, 10 individuals signed up for telephone learning partners through the JNET program. More expressed interest in attending High Holiday services, for the first time, this year. Shneur mailed his Irish friends pictures of their time together. He also plans to send Rosh Hashanah cards before the New Year. And Barber converses regularly with his new friend from Switzerland. He is hoping to introduce him to Chabad’s representatives in his native country.
There is a very old synagogue that still stands in Janina, Greece, a town that the Nazis totaled. Of its 2,500 Jewish citizens, only 20 survived. On their way to that synagogue, Barber and Shlomo walked by an old woman who stared them down and indicated they approach her. She pointed at them and asked, “Israel?” They nodded. She rolled up her sleeve and displayed her numbers from Auschwitz.
“It is amazing how people see us, recognize who we are, and just that brings back memories,” muses Barber. “Sometimes,” he admits, “we just couldn’t hold back our emotions. It all just catches up with you.”