By Hadassah Chen for COLlive
I used to write about people who are alive, now I find myself often writing more and more on people who left us too early. What is remarkable is that they have left an incredible impact in this world, and often their impact leaves a very loud noise that can be heard only after their passing to Gan Eden.
Rabanit Miriam Bentolila OBM, the Chabad Shlucha in the Congo and Central Africa who passed away last week at the age of 52, is one of them.
Miriam, as I remember her, was born and raised in Milan, where I come from, she was much older than me, she was the “higher classes” girl, the ones that us younger girls would look up to like the “seniors.”
Miriam, the daughter of the known and very much loved Rabbi Yeshua Hadad of the Sephardic community in Milan, was my counselor during my first summer experience in camp. She was hysterically funny, smart and full of laughter.
I was young and a little scared of the older groups and counselors, she was always nice to everyone, the small ones and the older girls. I remember when I heard she had gotten engaged, we were all so happy for her, and then we heard they were moving as a young couple to carry out the Shlichus of the Rebbe in the Congo.
Congo, almost 30 years ago, for an Italian girl born and raised in Milan it was like saying go to live on Mars (the moon would be too easy).
Congo? where is that? Africa… where the monkeys and chimpanzees wander around freely on the streets, if there are streets!
Who lives in the Congo? Are there even Jews there?
Miriam didn’t even question the directions of the Rebbe. She and her husband Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila picked themselves up and moved there as if they were moving from Milan to Rome.
Years went by, us girls from the younger bunks in camp got all married. Miriam had already children who were growing up fast. We would sometimes see her when they came to Milan for some family simcha. To tell you the truth, I forgot about her. I was busy raising my family and with my career.
I knew her brothers and sisters all living between Europe, America and Israel, but never bothered asking, “how is Miriam doing in the Congo.”
I didn’t know that while we were busy going on about our ordinary life, Miriam and her husband had developed a vibrant community, earning respect from all the main cities in Africa. Rabbi Bentolila had become strong, powerful and respected by all – Jews and non.
It was only two years ago when one of Miriam’s daughters got married to an Italian boy from Milan and the wedding took place in Israel.
I was there. The wedding was beautiful, the bride was gorgeous, the long list of dignitaries at the wedding was impressive, and then I saw Miriam looking frail and in pain trying to stand under the Chuppa next to her daughter.
“What’s wrong,” I asked someone.
She is ill.
I didn’t ask any further questions and that was the last time I saw her.
I had heard she had moved to Israel to get the best care she could get. I was sure she would be ok eventually.
She was far from ok. She was very much in pain. Silently, hardly anyone knew the terrible suffering she was going through.
And just like that on the eve of Pesach when Miriam the prophetess represented the incredible power and strength women have, Miriam Bentolila left this material world.
On that same day another Miriam – Mrs. Miriam Bracha Segal, a Shlucha in Phuket, Thailand, passed away at the age of 37 after battling the same horrible illness.
Is it all by chance?
I sat by my computer trying to find some explanations for all this madness. I start reading incredible stories from people I never heard from, writing about their personal encounters with a special woman called Miriam, the Shlucha in Africa.
The more I read the more I am stunned by the incredible greatness of this woman we all hardly knew. A woman who devoted more than half of her life to others.
I am amazed, as I met the family today sitting shiva all together in Kfar Chabad, I relate to the husband of Miriam all I had read on his wife and he answers with a large smile. I didn’t even know half of the things she had done, he says, apparently, she had a second life where she only helped people in silence.
None of us knew.
As I keep hearing more and more stories of the life of this woman, two things I cannot forget.
She didn’t want her children to see her in her terrible conditions, and in fact, none of the children managed to be with her on her final days, and the last words she whispered before closing her eyes forever was: “Hashem and Rebbe, I don’t want to suffer anymore.”
I left the shiva speechless and as I made my out, I saw a diplomatic delegation from Zimbabwe coming in. I turned my head and realized that the men section where Rabbi Bentolila is sitting is full of dignitaries from all over Africa. All coming to pay respects.
Miriam’s silence is now loud and clear for everyone to hear.
I hope Miriam will not be upset at me, for she hated anything that put her in the spotlight and always shied away from honor and attention.
May her neshama have an aliyah and shake the heavens to bring Moshiach now.