When you’re a Chabad emissary, there’s no welcoming committee. For some who venture out to foreign countries to serve far-flung Jews, there’s also no reliable electricity, or a safe place to give birth or a single person who speaks English for miles around.
“In a lot of circumstances, you are coming to a place where you don’t have that welcoming network, so you are truly flying blind,” said Dini Freundlich, who opened a Chabad House with her husband in Beijing in 2001 when she was 27. “Besides trying to figure out where I can go to an emergency room or where I can buy groceries, you’re also trying to figure out where’s the Jewish community … how can I reach out, what are the needs of this community?”
Freundlich was one of more than a thousand shluchot, or female emissaries, who gathered in Crown Heights earlier this month for five days of workshops and reunions with family and friends. At the event, they taught and learned news skills, shared challenges and celebrated their ability to overcome them.
Every country has its own difficulties. In Beijing, the biggest one for Freundlich was language. “On the mainland, especially the more in[side the country] you go, nobody speaks English,” she said.
The upside of the city’s relative remoteness was that “the mainland Chinese are very, very welcoming and very, very eager to help,” Freudlich said. Until she learned the language, there was “a lot of attempting sign language” and drawing of pictures.
Another big challenge, she said, is the Chinese government’s distrust of Judaism, which is not one of the country’s five recognized religions. If the Freundlichs were to teach a Chinese citizen about Judaism, or even host a local for a Shabbat meal, the Chinese government would “withdraw our visa and nicely ask us to immediately leave,” said Freundlich.
“We have to be very, very strict … anything that’s connected to a religious event, it has to be ensured that it’s for foreign passport holders only,” she said. In addition, she said, “before every holiday you have to register with the local police.”
Sarale Henig related a run-in she and her husband had with the police in Chengdu, China, where they set up shop six years ago, just four months after their wedding. Speaking to a crowd of more than 3,000 at the emissary gala earlier this month, she said that on a Friday morning a few months after arriving the police knocked on her door, causing instant fear. “We knew that they could expel us from the country at any given time,” she said, and that if something happened to them over Shabbat, “Who would know?”
After an interrogation about their practices and who that white-bearded guy in all the pictures was, they were let go.
There were other, less scary surprises. When she first arrived, Henig said, she couldn’t imagine how she, “a girl from Brooklyn, could live in a country where people wear masks, and checked the air quality every day before letting their children out to play. Where the internet is censored and where the locals touch you to make sure you’re real,” or how she would “manage to fly three hours every month to go to the mikvah.”
While Henig takes to the air, some emissaries are able to use natural bodies of water. Alti Majesky, who opened a Chabad House in Accra, Ghana, three years ago, is lucky enough to live near the coast, allowing her to use the ocean as a mikvah.
Henya Federman also uses the ocean as a mikvah, but for her family, living on the coastline wasn’t so lucky: An emissary in St. Thomas, she had to evacuate with eight children after Hurricane Irma hit in September. Her husband, Asher, stayed on St. Thomas to help with relief efforts and lead High Holiday services, while Federman, who was seven months pregnant, navigated the voyage with children ranging in age from toddler to preteen.
There was no time to prepare. After spending five days in a friend’s newly built office building, Federman was notified at 10 a.m. that the boat for Puerto Rico was leaving at 2 p.m.. In the rush, they didn’t bring food for the seven-hour journey — four hours, in full sun, waiting, and three hours in an open boat on the open sea.
Her children, she said, were troopers. “I think it’s telling that kids growing up on shlichus, that they were very ready to do what needs to be done,” she said, using the Hebrew word for mission.
Now that she’s back on the mainland, Federman realizes just how comfortable she has become with island life. Federman and her children now live with family just outside of Detroit but hope to return to their community of about 400 year-round Jews as soon as power and water systems are stable.
Target makes her “dizzy” with its multitude of choices. She now sees city services, like garbage pickup and steady power, as “amenities” rather than necessities. On St. Thomas, residents drive their garbage to a central pick-up point.
There’s electricity, but with weekly outages ranging from 20 minutes to about six hours.
“In the States they have snow days. We have blackout days.”
And without power there’s no water or internet, meaning her children can’t “go” to their online Chabad school.“You can be preparing for a Shabbat dinner of 70 people and the power goes out and it’s too bad,” she said. Sometimes surges break appliances. “You can get them repaired, but on ‘island time,’” she said; a week, maybe, rather than the next day.
Another difference is the availability of groceries. “To shop for Shabbos I’m at five places,” she said. If one store is out of something, another might have it. She’s adapted. She used to make her shopping list before heading to the store. “Now I go to the supermarket, see what’s there and then I make my menu,” she said.“In the States they have snow days. We have blackout days,” she said.
As for the hurricanes, the Federmans feel lucky that their property was damaged, not destroyed. A resort roof blew half a mile straight into their home, and their trellis/sukkah “came crashing down, fencing came up and hurricane shutters came off,” Federman said. The cistern they use to collect rainwater cracked, the school’s roof was partially blown off and the synagogue’s basement was flooded and had to be gutted. (The Federmans are raising money for repairs at jewishvirginislands.com.)
While Majesky has not had to deal with flooding in Ghana (yet), she also has to work around power outages, which come about three times a week, disrupting, among other things, the air conditioning — no small thing in a city where temperatures are always in the 80s or 90s.
“It’s very hard to be outside. It’s really, really, really hot all year round,” she said.
But what she found most striking when she moved to Ghana three years ago was that there were no street names. There are, however, monkeys, chicken and goats wandering freely, to the delight of her five children, all aged 7 and under. And while several of Majesky’s children were born after she moved to Accra, they were not born there.
“Expats don’t give birth in Ghana,” Majesky said, citing safety concerns. For each birth she’s had to fly to her home country — France — about a month before her due date and wait it out.
But in terms of crime, however, Accra has her home country beat. “I feel safer in Ghana than in Paris,” she said.
Not so for Chana Banon, who came to Casablanca as an emissary in 2009. In a country that is “99 percent Muslim,” she said, the Banons feel they need to keep a low profile. “For security reasons we don’t have a website and we don’t publicize our address,” she said. “Anyone who comes to eat here has to come with a passport and a recommendation letter from a rabbi,” she said. Although it’s long “been a policy of the royal family to support the Jews. … At the end of the day it is a Muslim country so we try to avoid any issues.”
“You don’t have that support network of sisters and parents and grandparents.”
As does the government, apparently. “As soon as a Jewish tour group comes to Morocco, the police follow them around to make them feel safe,” she said.
Of all the challenges shluchot described, the biggest — and most universal — is raising their children far from their families, communities — and Lubavitch schools.
“I’ve had to send my kids away for high school; that’s definitely my biggest challenge,” said Freundlich. “Another challenge is that you’re far from family. You don’t have that support network of sisters and parents and grandparents,” she said.
But all of the shluchot interviewed agreed that: one, it gets easier, and two, it’s worth it.
As Freundlich put it, Beijing is “not the easiest place to live … but for all that being said, it is a unique community that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”
Or as Majesky put it, more pragmatically: “I know I’m staying there. I have to make it work.”