With charcoal in hand, a street artist tries to woo beach goers. A few Croatian kuna for a hand-drawn portrait, and he’ll draw a masterpiece in minutes. Saadiah Yanni a rabbi-in-training from Brunoy, France, wanted a souvenir from his weeks in Opatija, where he sought to connect with some of the world’s most isolated Jews. But the artist gave him much more.
The artist knew about an 83-year-old Jewish woman who lived in town. Sonja. Yanni and his colleagues, Tzvi Neuman and Menachem Mendel Marboni, went to visit Sonja. Her apartment windows were open to let in the gentle breezes of Opatija’s coast on the “Croatian Riviera.” But the salty air did not banish the heaviness the three rabbinical students felt in the apartment.
Before the Holocaust, Sonja’s father had served as Croatia’s consul to Italy. He, along with most of Sonja’s family, was murdered in Croatia’s infamous Jasenovac concentration camp. Sonja escaped that fate but spent her war years in Auschwitz. Due to paperwork mix-ups, she could never prove that she had been in a concentration camp and was denied aid from Jewish agencies. Her only contact with anything Jewish from then on was when she was hustled to pay Jewish community fees… until she met Yanni and his friends.
“I was trying to explain to her that we are not here for money. We are here to help,” Yanni said. Sonja softened to the enthusiastic yeshiva students offers. She showed them her only Jewish possession, a menorah candelabrum with one broken branch.
Although the students invited Sonja to share in the Sabbath services and meals they set up in the resort town, she refused. Her recent foot surgery made it hard for her to walk anywhere. Yanni is not giving up. “I hope by the end of the summer she will want to light Shabbat candles. Or maybe she will let us put a mezuzah on her door. She is not young, but I hope we can make the end of her life better,” he said.
The forgotten. The isolated. The uninvolved. These are the Jews reached by Chabad-Lubavitch’s annual Merkos Shlichus -– or Jewish Community Enrichment Summer Program. This year, some 300 students fanned out across six continents to reach hundreds—possibly more—of communities. “Each pair of students visits anywhere from 5-10 communities,” explains Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad Lubavitch and director of the program. “So it’s hard to estimate how many locations will be reached.” Some fly out to places where no rabbis nor any yeshiva students have trod in months: Kos, Turkey; Fortaleza, Brazil; Etlingen, Germany; Vermillion, North Dakota. Others become the arms, legs, heart and energy of the Chabad rabbis who are committed to one community but sought out by Jews in need several hours away.
It’s the sixty-second consecutive year of the Merkos Shlichus program, which seems to grow from year to year, with more students visiting more places than the year past. Budgets have been maxed out to meet the demand. According to Rabbi Kotlarsky, a modest estimate puts the cost at $750,000 sponsored by Merkos which processes requests from around the world, places the students, pays airfare and more.
Some Merkos Shlichus participants have been sought out to attend to more than the usual rabbinical functions. In Dallas, Texas, the rabbinical students will be riding the wave of Jewish pride that is sure to swell there when the Maccabi Games come to town. Their “community” will be an international roster of 1,500 Jewish athletes who compete in Maccabi’s Olympic-style games. A Chabad representative in Hungary asked for some help in reaching Jews who are sure to visit Obuda island’s Sziget 2005 music festival.
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, began Merkos Shlichus as a way to bring Jews in contact with their heritage at a grassroots level. Summer was the logical timeframe for the program, as that is when the rabbinical students have their school break. Over the years, students who put down roots in boondocks communities went on to move there after marriage and start Chabad centers of their own. “It is like an internship for rabbis,” said Zalman Feldman, who spent his Merkos Shlichus summer in India eleven years ago. “Going out into the field gives them practice at what it means to be a rabbi.”
As successful and satisfying as Merkos Shlichus has proven to be, it is no wonder that the program has grown into a year-round operation. Chaim Benjaminson of Brooklyn, New York, flew out to the Greek Isles for his summer Merkos Shlichus stint. Benjaminson spent Passover in Nigeria, the High Holidays in Colorado, Sukkot in Maryland, and Purim in Texas. That’s aside from his time in Budapest as a junior rabbi and yet another Passover in Lithuania.
A growing trend has seen some young rabbis-to-be returning to their Merkos Shlichus posts year after year. Chaim Yehudah Friedman, 20, of Montreal, is headed back to Ashland, Oregon. He spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with his brother-in-law and sister, Rabbi Avi and Faigy Zwiebel, Chabad’s representatives in Ashland. “He has a good personality and people open up to him,” said Rabbi Zwiebel.
Friedman and his colleague Yaakov Katz, also of Montreal, will be giving classes on Jewish themes, and sharing a wide range of Jewish educational materials, mezuzot, tefillin and teaching people to develop their own Jewish communal programs. They will also be conducting services in small southern Oregon towns a couple hours away from the Ashland Chabad center. The Jewish population in some of these town numbers in the low two hundreds, according to Rabbi Zwiebel. Jews living in places like Rogue River, Talent, and Williams are professionals, professors, back-to-the-land-ers, and more than a few aging and new age hippies.
In September, Friedman met a 21-year-old eco-entrepreneur who heads up his own organic jeans company. The fellow came by Friedman’s sukkah mobile, and the two chatted and engaged in the earth friendly mitzvah of waving the four species. This time, Friedman looks forward to continuing their conversation, perhaps going a step further. “There is already a starting point between us. It will be more like old friends meeting and taking up where we last left off.”
Furthermore, a return visit means that Friedman knows the lay of the land, where “pockets of Jews” reside. He’ll be one of hundreds of young Chabad emissaries cruising down the highways and off the beaten track to bring Jewish people a little bit closer to their roots.