Emissaries in hostile lands
Neighbors aren't always friendly, hosts define themselves as enemies of Israel, and even security can be daunting. Still, even most hostile Muslim countries get Chabad emissaries to help local Jews observe religion
Nissan Strauchler • Ynet
"Death," the Arabic proverb says, "is a black camel that lies down at every door." But for some Chabad emissaries, even the blackest of camels, or fear of death if you will, is no excuse to stop spreading the word of the Lubavitcher rebbe, even in particularly hostile countries.
October 1985, shortly after the strike on the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia. Israel fears retaliation against the country's small Jewish community, and a Mossad representative is sent to the North African country to try to convince the local Jews to immigrate to Israel. He visits the Chabad house on Rue De Palestine in the capital, Tunis, and tries to persuade the Hasidim. "We will not leave without permission from the Lubavitcher rebbe," the Chabad men said.
The Mossad representative was forced to travel to New York to meet with the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "As long as there are Jews there," the rabbi said, "I cannot order the Hasidim to immigrate to Israel." Just as the rabbi predicted, no revenge was taken out against the country's Jews, and the Chabad house remains standing to this day, and serves the hundreds of Jews who remain in the Muslim country.
Tunis' Chabad house was managed by Rabbi Nissan Pinson for many years. Two years ago he passed away, and his widow Rachel has been running the place ever since. At least once a year she is joined by Chabad emissaries that provide the Jewish community with various services. Rabbi Levi Hecht, 25, originally from Eilat, has already visited the country twice. "Every year, at Lag B'Omer, many Jews travel to the country and hold celebrations in the city of Djerba," he explained. "We went there to assist the Jews that were staying in hotels."
According to tradition, Djerba's Jews who were banished from Jerusalem with the destruction of the First Temple brought with them some of the temple's stones and built a synagogue in the city. Every day they enter the site with great reverence, take off their shoes at the entrance, and worship. Armed with an American passport and full of fear, Rabbi Hecht joined them on Lag B'Omer in 2007. "We didn't know what we were getting into and we were a little frightened," he admitted. "After all, the only thing we knew about Tunisia was that there are PLO and terrorist bases there. Several years ago one of the soldiers there opened fire at troops. At one point, when we saw the security and learned how courteous and kind the police officers were to us, the fear faded. A year later we were walking around without any fear."
A friend carrying only an Israeli passport joined Rabbi Hecht on a visit to the country. "If I am not mistake, his visa was issued in Gaza," Rabbi Hecht said. "In any case, they did not give us any trouble." Despite the tight security, even the most devout Djerba Jews dress in relatively simple clothing, without hats or suits. The Chabad emissaries, however, have decided to ignore the warnings and maintain the haredi appearance.
"We walked around the market with suits and hats despite being asked to wear only caps," Rabbi Hecht said. "In the end, we did get a lot of looks, but we were not hassled. Security was also very tight, and any time we left the fenced Jewish neighborhood we were surrounded by police on motorcycles leading the way for us."
Shortly after he initiated the establishment of the Chabad missions, which now number some 4,500 Chabad houses stretching to almost every part of the world, the Lubavitcher rebbe decided that the first emissary should be stationed in a Muslim country. The country that was selected for the mission was Morocco. In the early 1950s, the first envoys arrived to prepare the ground for the permanent emissary, Rabbi Sholom Eidelman. "The rabbi decided that it was important that we be there," said 74-year-old Eidelman, who has lived in Casablanca for 52 years now. "I got there in the end of 1958, a week after getting married. I was not afraid, because I was sent by the rabbi and no harm befalls those performing a mitzvah."
Rabbi Eidelman lived in Casablanca with his wife (and later, his eight children), and set up his home in the heart of the city's Jewish community, made up of some 2,500 people. "They are well-mannered and respect religion," he said of the relationship with the local Muslims. "Sometimes the adult Muslims would see me and stand up as a sign of respect," he said.
He said Jews in Morocco are treated better than anywhere else in the world. "The Jews here work together with the Muslims and are also respected by the government," he said. "I walk the streets with a suit and hat and no one has a problem with it. Meanwhile, last week I was visiting the Mount of Olives in Israel, and on the way Arabs threw stones at us. In Morocco such a thing would not happen."
Rabbi Eidelman, who was born in Russia, was warmly welcomed by the Jewish community which keenly maintains its identity, and operates Torah institutions and schools. "The Hasidim from Russia have begun speaking Moroccan and adopting some of the local lifestyle," said Eidelman, who today also speaks Arabic, "While the Jews of Casablanca, Marrakech, and other cities have become familiar with the Hasidic terminology that has originated in Ukraine. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, the Moroccan feasts and the days commemorated by Chabad. By the way, quite a few Muslims in the country also visit the righteous Jews' graves."
Friction following Cast Lead
Another Muslim country that has two Chabad houses is Turkey. "The Muslims understand and know the value of religion, and respect religious figures," M., the Antalya Chabad house emissary said. "But clearly, most of our business here is with Jews. We hold Shabbat dinners at hotels in Antalya and keep kosher, and they are slowly beginning to understand what it means and there is hardly any objection."
Recent months have seen a significant cooling in relations between Israel and Turkey, and according to M., it all started during Operation Cast Lead. "After the operation, we received less sympathetic responses, and once in a while peoples' expressions would change when they learned we were Jews or Israelis," he said, "But the Turkish people are very nice, cordial and courteous, and we continue to work to bring Jews closer together and provide Jewish services without disruptions. We occasionally get phone calls from Turks that want to convert to Judaism, but we do not deal with this here out of respect for the place that is hosting us. We are not here to interfere."
After the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka Holtzberg were killed, concern among Chabad emissaries around the world was felt for the first time. As a result, those living in countries considered hostile have been keeping a low profile, and security around them has been boosted. Such countries include Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkish Cyprus, and more.
"When I walk down the street I wear a cap so as not to attract attention, and there are places where I avoid walking around in," said Rabbi H., a Chabad emissary in a Muslim country. "Our community has suffered attempted attacks over the years, and thank heavens we have been spared, but we must watch out and sharpen our security procedures from time to time. When there are anti-Israel protests in the streets, it makes us and the Jewish community nervous."
In order to reduce to a minimum friction with the more hostile community, H. and his comrades try not to make the events they hold public. "We provide all the Jewish services here, but do not publish exactly how we can be found," he said. "There is constant security and surveillance cameras in and around the house and we cooperate with the Jewish community and the Foreign Ministry on anything to do with security. It is a challenge to live as a mitzvah-keeping Jew and as an Israeli in the heart of a Muslim country and uphold that lifestyle under the security constraints."
Despite his concerns, H. said he still feels safer at his home in the Muslim country than in certain European countries. "I once was at the central station in Paris and someone flung the hat off my head and yelled an anti-Semitic curse at me," he said. "I have been living here for many years now, and have never come across anti-Semitism. They respect religious figures here, and when I go to visit a Jew in prison, the law enforcement officers are respectful and assist me. I am not afraid to walk through the streets here, still I do not let my Judaism stand out."
According to H., Chabad's advantage is that it is a Jewish organization, and not an Israeli one. "If Chabad was an Israeli movement, we would not be able to do what we are doing," he said. "Chabad's global center is in America, and this means we have American support when faced with trouble. Nonetheless, we certainly owe thanks to the Israeli authorities and the diplomatic missions that assist us at all times."
Yiddish and tzitzit
Chabad emissaries in Muslim countries, and around the world, sustain themselves independently. Even in the most devout Muslim countries, the Chabad emissaries uphold Jewish traditions and are sure to bake their own matzot, slaughter their own meat, and improvise ritual baths. However, there are still some things that cannot be obtained in certain countries, such as Jewish education. "My children go to online school in order to receive the appropriate education," H. said. "There is a Jewish community here and Jewish children for them to play with, but the online schooling certainly provides an important social dimension."
The children, surprisingly, had no difficulty adapting, and alongside the local language they also speak Arabic and Yiddish. "At first I was afraid and asked them to keep their tzitzit (the fringes worn by observant Jewish men) inside their clothing," H. said. "But it kept coming out of their shirt and locals often pointed it out to us, until we realized that they thought it was part of the clothes."
Even countries that do not attract much Israeli tourism or house large Jewish communities are visited by Chabad emissaries from time to time. Rabbi Levi Hecht, for example, recently returned from his second trip to Egypt. "Every year since the peace agreement a delegation of rabbis has been deployed there to hold a ceremony at the end of the cycle of study of Maimonides." He said. "The initial shock in Muslim countries stems from the fact that the people guarding you with weapons are Arabs. In general, Egypt is more hostile than other Muslim countries. You could actually see the tension on the faces of the police officers when we got stuck in traffic or delayed."
Another country that surprisingly houses a Jewish community is Iran. Despite the great personal risk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's followers hope to open a hidden Chabad house there too – so far, without success. "Chabad emissaries in these countries are actually sacrificing their own personal welfare for the good of the Jews there, under the Lubavitcher rebbe's mitzvah," said Rabbi Yosef Aharonov, head of the Chabad Youth Organization in Israel. "The emissaries' work frequently includes dealing with difficult challenges, some of which are borderline life threatening. But as long as there are Jews there, the emissaries will do what they can to help them uphold the Jewish way of life."
Yehuda Shohat contributed to this report.