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Wednesday
May302018

AS FAR AS ONE CAN GO, AS CLOSE AS ONE CAN GET

The visitors spent several long hours looking for a Jew, any Jew, who might be living in the suburban community of S. Pedro in Argentina’s Tucuman province. Local residents had assured them that there were no Jews anywhere in town, but the visitors continued their intensive and seemingly irrational search. Eventually, they found what they were looking for, something more incredible than even they could have possibly imagined. An amazing and thrilling story that sent shockwaves throughout the Chabad communities of Argentina, retold here for the very first time.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

The determined bachurim who visited the elderly Jewish woman and saved her from conversion. Avraham Shama (left) and Shammai Chein (right). It seems that everyone in the Chabad communities throughout Argentina has heard about the incredible and Heavenly inspired story that occurred this past Yud Shvat with the students of the central Chabad yeshiva in Buenos Aires. It took place at the vacation site where they were staying at the time – the suburban city of S. Pedro located in the Tucuman province, about a twenty-hour journey from the Argentine capital. This amazing story became the talk of the day – and it wasn’t for naught. It was a combination of tremendous faith and Chassidic determination, and the end of the story sounded like something straight out of ‘Shivchei HaBesht.’

 

“We and all the other yeshiva students came to the city of S. Pedro, about a week or two before Yud Shvat,” recalled HaTamim Menachem Mendel Shimonovitz, one of the shliach students learning in the Buenos Aires yeshiva. “While in Eretz Yisroel and the United States our program would be called a ‘yeshivas kayitz’ (summer yeshiva), the long vacation between academic years on the continent of South America is during the winter season. Thus, when all the educational institutions started their ‘summer’ vacation, the yeshiva students requested if they could continue the study program in a more pastoral environment.

“The yeshiva administration looked for a remote spot, far from the tumult of the city. After looking into several options, we learned that the governor of the Tucuman province, Mr. Juan Luis Manzur, a Gentile who is a loyal supporter of Chabad, agreed to subsidize the trip and accommodations in his provincial region.

“After a journey lasting about twenty hours, we reached our destination – a remote district in S. Pedro. We quickly discovered that in this tranquil location there lived about three thousand people. Yet, as far as anyone knew, none of the local residents were Jewish.

“There’s a very nice outreach project in Argentina: a ‘mitzvah tank’ that goes around to all regions of the country, but primarily to those distant and remote places where there are no permanent shluchim. When we asked the person in charge if he had ever come to this area, he replied that he had not. He explained that to the best of his knowledge, there were no Jews anywhere in this region.

“When the great day of Yud Shvat arrived, which came out this year on a Friday, several of the yeshiva bachurim stubbornly went out on ‘mivtzaim.’ The fact that there were apparently no Jews in the city did not deter them and they decided to go looking anyway. The first place they reached was the local park. They turned to passers-by and asked them if they knew of any Jews living in the city or the surrounding area.

“After searching for a long while without success, they returned to the complex where they were lodging. However, there were three T’mimim who would not give in. They were particularly determined as they continued to look around, investigate, and make inquiries. About an hour later, even they were prepared to accept the fact that there really were no Jews anywhere in this city. Their disappointment was obvious. Before returning to the yeshiva, they decided to ask one more person. They went into a local popcorn store, where they met a middle-aged Gentile and asked him if he knew of any Jews living in the city.

“The man said no, but then he added pleasantly that while he didn’t know her personally, there was an elderly woman sitting at a nearby restaurant who surely had some more reliable information on the presence of Jews in the region.”

THE FIRST LEAD

“The T’mimim went over to the restaurant, where they met the elderly woman and asked her if she knew of any Jews living in the city. While she said no at first, after thinking for a while, she recalled an old story from her youth, when she heard one of her friends laughing at a neighbor because she was Jewish. She remembered her name, but she didn’t know where she was living or what had happened to her.

“A quick calculation revealed that this woman was quite old. No one knew if she was even alive, and if she was, what was the state of her health.

“The first idea they had was to check the local telephone book. When they found her name, they called the number, but there was no reply. The recorded message stated that the number had been disconnected. One of the T’mimim then suggested that if anyone could help them, it would be the local cab drivers. The hope was that since this was a small town, everyone knew everyone else. They came to the local taxi stand, went around to all the cabbies, and asked whether any of them had heard of this woman.

“The hours passed and the bachurim would soon have to return to yeshiva and get ready for Shabbos. Just before they left the taxi stand, a cab driver came in who believed that he knew who this woman was, and he offered to take us to her. He drove us to the outskirts of town near a small wooden house surrounded by wild plant growth.

“With determination, the T’mimim knocked on the front door and rang the bell. A minute passed that seemed like an eternity, when suddenly they could hear the hinges creaking as the front door opened. At the threshold of the house appeared a very old woman who had difficulty standing up. Her face was creased with deep wrinkles, signs that she had already lived a very long life.

“The expression of surprise on her face was clearly visible as she invited us into her living room, where several idolatrous symbols were on display. Not waiting for the T’mimim to explain their reason for coming, this old woman immediately began firing questions at them: ‘What are you doing here? Where did you come from? How did you get here? Who brought you here?’ At first, the T’mimim were certain that they had come to the wrong person, and the Christian symbols in the living room were a convincing sign of that. However, when she burst into long and bitter sobs, they realized that they had arrived at the correct address. The woman asked the T’mimim to sit on the sofa, as she shared an amazing story with them, leaving them stunned.

“She said that she had just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. She was born and raised in Poland, and she survived the fires of the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. When the war ended, she discovered that her entire family had been murdered in the Holocaust. She had come alone to Buenos Aires, where she lived for many years. The horrors of war had convinced her to abandon the path of Torah and she decided to move to the most remote spot on the continent, where she would never meet any Jews.

“Over the years that passed, she had three children – two sons and a daughter. Her daughter had passed away after a terminal illness while one of her sons had fallen ill from the same disease.

“She said that her life was terribly lonely and she had only one neighbor – a very kindhearted Gentile woman who cared for her and in whose merit she managed to survive. In recent days, this Christian woman began efforts to persuade and pressure her to convert. ‘What good is it to you that you’re Jewish? All the anguish you have suffered came as a result of that,’ she told her again and again.

“The previous evening, a Thursday, the Christian neighbor went one step further: she brought the symbol of Christianity and placed it in the middle of her living room. Yet, none of this succeeded in convincing this elderly Jewish woman to change her religion, despite the fact that she hadn’t observed anything of her Jewish tradition for over half a century, even running as far away as possible from her Judaism. ‘I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew,’ she found herself saying proudly to her Gentile neighbor. Yet, that night, she dissolved into bitter sobs and asked G-d to give her a sign that she was following the right path.

“She felt that she wouldn’t be able to stand up to the powerful pressure that would undoubtedly continue and even intensify. Not more than a few hours passed when three young Jewish men dressed in traditional Chassidic attire, proud of their Jewish heritage, came knocking at her door…

“As she finished telling her story, she again burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears.

“‘I solemnly promise you that I will continue to be a Jew and will not convert, even if I’m forced to place my hands in a fire,’ she declared with resolve.

“Now, it was the turn of the T’mimim to shed tears of emotion.

“They spent considerable time encouraging her, speaking about the Divine Providence that accompanies every Jew, even those who try to run away as far as one can go.

“The sun was slowly setting, and the T’mimim had to get back to the yeshiva for Shabbos. On their way back, they recalled their incredible stubbornness in looking for Jews in such a place, despite the fact that everyone had told them that there were no Jews anywhere in town.”

AN ETERNAL PROMISE

As HaTamim Menachem Mendel Shimonovitz concluded his story, he brought two other T’mimim, who had also been eyewitnesses to this miraculous story, into the conversation.

“After we managed to calm the woman down and told her about the Rebbe, we got her to promise that she would light Shabbos candles every Friday before sundown as a segula for her health and her son’s health. In a safe corner in her kitchen, we placed the candlesticks that we had opportunely brought with us as we wrote out the bracha for her to recite after lighting.

“Before we left, she again felt the need to make us a solemn promise that she would never abandon her people.”

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