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Episode 15 Transcript

SPEAKERS

Chanie Zirkind, Chaya Harlig, Sarah Bracha Koroghli, Gary Waleik

Gary Waleik  00:00

Hi.

Gary Waleik  00:03

I’m Gary Waleik, and this is Lamplighters stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.

Gary Waleik  00:12

Life as a Chabad emissary is often joyous, but it can be unpredictable and even dangerous. Chabad has become a ubiquitous presence in every corner of the world. But behind every Chabad house are emissaries, regular people striving to transcend their circumstances and the community that supports and relies on them. These are their stories.

Gary Waleik  00:41

Chaya Harlig is a Shlucha at Chabad of Henderson Nevada, a city near Las Vegas, Chanie Zirkind is a Shlucha at Chabad of Fresno California, aside from their work as Chabad emissaries, the rebetzins have something else in common. They’re both very close to an extraordinary woman. Chaya Harlig describes her like this,

Chaya Harlig  01:02

like I called her “the Rus of this generation”, The Ruth, because she came from a princess lineage.

Gary Waleik  01:08

Ruth, of course, is the Moabite Princess at the center of the book of Ruth, who gives up royal prestige for a life in Israel among the Jewish people.

Gary Waleik  01:18

So what is it about this mutual friend that would cause Harlig to make such a comparison?

Gary Waleik  01:26

Sathsowie Thay was born in Washington, DC in the early 70s. Her mother was a princess, the youngest of the 56 children of King Sisowath Monivong, who ruled Cambodia for 23 years. Her father was a Cambodian diplomat to the US. When Sathsowie, or Susie as she came to be called, was just two years old, the family moved to Cambodia for a brief time, but had to flee a growing civil war. The family returned to the US and settled in Long Beach, California to be closer to their extended Cambodian family and to explore their cultural heritage.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  02:05

My mother, she spoke Khmer to us from the get go, we would go to the Buddhist Vihara and La on Sundays for Buddhist temple services.

Gary Waleik  02:16

It was in California that her mother told Susie that she was a member of the royal family of Cambodia. She taught her to carry herself in a royal dignified fashion. But her mother stressed, her lineage didn’t make her better than anyone else.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  02:33

I learned how to be humble. I learned about how to be compassionate, just to look inside myself.

Gary Waleik  02:41

Susie practiced what she had learned. Many years later, that would lead her to an entirely new family.

Gary Waleik  02:51

When Susie was just 12, her father passed away and the thays moved to Fresno, California. About 10 years later, Susie moved to Las Vegas. in 1996, She met Ray Koroghli at a friend’s birthday party,

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  03:05

and we just started to talk and we formed a friendship

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  03:09

They dated, but there was a problem. Ray was a Persian Jew.

Gary Waleik  03:13

When the relationship progressed, did you find that your religious backgrounds presented any problems for you?

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  03:19

In the beginning? Yes, because I was raised Buddhist, my mother and my sister, they were not happy with it. Here I’m going to something totally different.

Gary Waleik  03:30

Susie and Ray dated, and occasionally attended a non orthodox synagogue, and she was learning about Jewish customs. But she didn’t know much about the Jewish religion.

Gary Waleik  03:40

One night in 1999, she attended a class with Ray at Chabad of Southern Nevada, it was taught by Rabbi Shia herlig.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  03:49

And towards the end, he was mentioning about God, who is God, what is God, God is infinite. And it was at that moment where something intrigued me. You know, I’ve always felt this, but I never knew what it was. So when I heard that, I wanted to know more. And that’s when I started taking classes in Judaism and reading more, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Because within myself, this is what I’ve always felt.

Gary Waleik  04:23

Susie and Ray met more people in Las Vegas’s Jewish community, including Rabbi Mendy and Rebbetzin Chaya Harlig, co-directors of Chabad of Henderson. Harlig says she was drawn in by Susie’s sense of humor.

Chaya Harlig  04:37

But then when you sit down, and have a conversation, or you talk to her deep, you see that deep connection, and that kind of neshama hovering over her. You felt it. you felt the sincerity and the wanting so much to really come down to the truth.

Chaya Harlig  04:54

Always curious, asking questions, and always in such a dignified manner.

Gary Waleik  04:59

Susie and Rebbetzin Chaya developed a close relationship. Susie kept studying and became more involved in shul life.

Gary Waleik  05:07

In 2003, Susie underwent a non orthodox conversion and took the Hebrew name Sarah bracha. Her mother gained a new perspective on her daughter’s spiritual life.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  05:18

My mother, she knows how I am. I think with my heart, my soul, always with love and kindness just like her.

Gary Waleik  05:27

Susie’s mother began to see the beauty in Judaism, and she accepted her daughter’s new path.

Gary Waleik  05:35

Sarah bracha and ray married in 2005 in Israel.

Gary Waleik  05:39

Back in the States, she frequently visited her Cambodian family and friends now, and she remained involved with Chabad. Before one visit, she reached out to Rebbetzin Chanie ZIrkind of Chabad of Fresno for help.

Chanie Zirkind  05:52

I got a phone call. “Hi, I’m calling from Las Vegas. I want to join for Shabbat to light candles”.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  06:02

She’s like, “okay, come on over”.

Gary Waleik  06:03

Sarah bracha arrived in Fresno the next day.

Chanie Zirkind  06:06

From the first second, from the moment she walked in, there was some energy. From the time I greeted her, It was almost – I know this sounds funny, but it was almost – as if we had known each other for a very long time, there was a certain warmth, something kind of resonated with me with Chanie and Rabbi, there was something there.

Gary Waleik  06:31

As Shabbos drew near Sarah Bracha asked if she could call Ray, who was home in Las Vegas, when she lit candles. The Zirkind children responded:

Chanie Zirkind  06:41

“Ummm.. you don’t really be on the phone when you lay Shabbat candles”. And I thought to myself, “Oh man, this is starting off wrong”. And we lit a couple minutes early so that it wouldn’t be in violation of Shabbat.

Gary Waleik  06:57

She got up to leave. But the Zirkinds invited Sarah bracha, who was there with Ray’s daughter, Elizabeth, to stay for Shabbos meal, she accepted. And they talked

Chanie Zirkind  07:07

that night she told us her story. And she said, “Well, I’m from Cambodia”.

Gary Waleik  07:15

She also told the Zirkinds about her Jewish husband and about her non orthodox conversion. The Zirkinds accepted her for who she was.

Chanie Zirkind  07:23

You know, this is her journey. But we’re not here to change her.

Chanie Zirkind  07:27

And the evening just went by. And I think she ended up leaving like two or three in the morning.

Gary Waleik  07:32

In just a few short hours, Susie and Chanie Zirkind had become close friends.

Chanie Zirkind  07:37

And we both said we feel like we’ll always be part of each other’s lives. And she’s like, “Are you sure? can I be part of your life even if I’m not accepted Jewish by you?” And I said, “Of course, I feel like we’re meant to be in each other’s lives. And you have family here and you’re always welcome to come back”.

Gary Waleik  08:00

Sarah bracha returned to Las Vegas, where she continued to learn and to practice Yiddishkeit with Chaya Harlig.

Gary Waleik  08:07

But she says she had a deep yearning for more.

Chanie Zirkind  08:10

All of a sudden, from that one meeting, she started the phone calls, and then she started to travel in more often. And she would ask me all the tough questions that she normally would not have asked other rebbetzins, because it’s not easy. But she was like, “just answer everything”, like she just wanted to hear everything raw and honest.

Gary Waleik  08:36

After a few years of honest talk and a gradual infusion of Torah and mitzvos into her life, Sarah bracha correctly decided that she wanted to pursue an orthodox conversion.

Chanie Zirkind  08:47

And then in 2011, when she once again decided that she wanted to go through gairus, she spent the summer with us

Gary Waleik  08:58

While Elizabeth attended summer camp in Fresno with the Zirkinds, she and Ray who the Zirkinds insist on calling by his Hebrew name “Rachamim” – studied a range of subjects. But there was one biblical book in particular that the Zirkinds wanted to learn with Sarah bracha.

Chanie Zirkind  09:14

And my husband and I said to her, we think that it would be proper being that you’re from royalty, we would like to learn Megilas Rus with you, the story of Ruth. It was just right. It just felt comfortable.

Chanie Zirkind  09:29

And we learned the story of Ruth and she’s like, “this is my story”, and it’s solidified everything for her.

Gary Waleik  09:40

Chaya Harlig noticed the difference right away

Chaya Harlig  09:43

On when the Sheitel, and on when Tznius Clothing. I mean, a full on Ruth. So it was just an unbelievable thing to watch. I mean, in general, we don’t push people to convert but here we saw clearly the hand of Hashem, and the desire for her to receive her Jewish Neshama.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  10:03

in the beginning, I was thinking “wow, Orthodox is very hard”. You know, it’s a tough lifestyle. However, when I actually immersed myself into Chabad it was just something so beautiful. The love of Torah, the Rebbe, at that point, it was no longer intimidating.

Gary Waleik  10:27

In December of 2012, Sarah Bracha Koroghli, got the green light from the Orthodox Bet Din. The following month, the Koroghlis, the Harlig’s and the Zirkind’s made the trip to the mikvah in Los Angeles, where the Gairus would be finalized.

Gary Waleik  10:43

Chaya and Chanie were there with her when she was asked,

Chaya Harlig  10:46

Are you ready to accept the one Hashem, the One God of the universe? And she said, Yes.

Chanie Zirkind  10:54

You know, in that moment when she said “Yes”, we were holding hands, squeezing each other, hugging.

Gary Waleik  11:02

Sarah Bracha says she had a hard time reciting the blessing for immersion, because of the tears in her eyes.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  11:08

But I have to finish to say the bracha. I looked at the chart there and finish saying the bracha. I turned around and I looked at Chanie and Chaya, and they were hugging each other. At that point, I’m like, “did they feel what I felt?”.

Chaya Harlig  11:26

We all felt Hashem’s hand literally taking her Neshama, placing it inside of her.

Chanie Zirkind  11:32

You felt a new creation, it was something that you almost cannot describe.

Chaya Harlig  11:38

It was a day like I’ve never experienced.

Gary Waleik  11:41

Sarah bracha Koroghli had accomplished her goal. But there was little time to reflect on that. She and Ray were married three days later, and then they went to Cambodia.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  11:52

For my cousin’s funeral, King Norodom Sihanouk. My mother, she could not attend. Therefore, she asked for Ray and I to go to pay our respects on her behalf.

Gary Waleik  12:03

They visited the entire royal family, toured the grounds of the royal palace and visited locations named after relatives, including Sisowath Street, honoring her great grandfather, King Sisowath Monivong. When she was young, she had wondered what it meant to be a member of a royal family.

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  12:22

You know, I know my mother is a princess. She’s the daughter of King Monivong. But, living in the Western World, how would we ever conceive that? But at that point when we went then I’m like, “Okay, you know what? She’s the daughter of a king at one point that ruled Cambodia.”

Gary Waleik  12:41

Sarah Bracha and Ray returned to Vegas , where they run the family business and raise their children. In 2019, the Koroghlis made international headlines – and history – for becoming the first Jewish family to celebrate a Bas Mitzvah in Cambodia. Sarah Bracha planned – and pulled off – a totally kosher gathering in Phnom Penh that included dozens of friends and members of the Cambodian royal family, who lit candles on a giant Menorah as part of the festivities. 

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  13:13

 For me, I found such love in that, because my family members, they love me. And, therefore, they saw this is part of me. And they were there to support my family and I. Which is huge.

Gary Waleik  13:29

This year, the family celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of their son, Matanel. Because of Covid  travel restrictions, it was held in Henderson  …  not Phnom Penh.

Gary Waleik  13:39

Sarah Bracha somehow found the time to compose a Dvar Torah for the occasion. Her message resonated with Chaya Harlig.

Chaya Harlig  13:47

About what she wanted from her children, that she wanted them to lead a Torah life, to make Hashem happy, to make the Jewish people happy. That really touched me.

Gary Waleik  13:57

Matanel chanted all seven Aliyahs of Parshas Bereshis, read the Haftarah and led Shabbos services.

Chanie Zirkind  14:05

I just turned to Sarah Bracha and to Chaya, and I was like, “Is anyone else feeling what we felt all those years ago by the Mikvah?” And they looked at me and they said, “We’re feeling the exact same thing.”

Sarah Bracha Koroghli  14:17

Seeing my son there reading, and the way he rocks himself as he dovens, I couldn’t be any more proud. And I see the work of Hashem in my children.

Gary Waleik  14:32

There are those who would say that they see the same thing in Sarah Bracha Koroghli. 

Chanie Zirkind  14:37

She’s so comfortable within herself that she’s able to share her story, and she’s open with it. And her children are proud of who she is.

Chanie Zirkind  14:48

And they are true Lamplighters

Gary Waleik  14:55

After Chanie Zirkind’s words about Sarah Bracha and the family she’s helped build, could there possibly be anything left to say?

Gary Waleik  15:07

I’m Gary Waleik.

Gary Waleik  15:08

Thanks for listening to Lamplighters, stories from Chabad emissaries on the Jewish frontier.

Gary Waleik  15:17

We welcome your questions and comments about what you’ve just heard on Lamplighters, please email us at podcast@lubavitch.com. And if you know of a great story involving about emissaries or the people they inspire, please let us know about them. That’s podcast@lubavitch.com.

Gary Waleik  15:44

To subscribe digitally to Lubavitch international magazine, or to receive it at your doorstep, please visit lubavitch.com/subscribe

Gary Waleik  15:55

This is a Lubavitch International podcast.

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