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Nov112014

CHABAD SEARCH  RESCUE

The involvement of shluchim in the two tragedies that recently befell Israeli backpackers stood out among the many reports in the Israeli and worldwide media. * Now, after the finding of the final body and the transport of all the injured and the return home of the search and rescue teams, Beis Moshiach spoke with the shluchim in the area and heard moving stories. * Material and spiritual rescue.

Tishrei is a busy month at Chabad houses around the world, especially at Chabad houses that target Israeli backpackers. There, aside from tfillos, the preparations include meals for dozens, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of people. If you take into account the three sets of two days of Yom Tov plus Shabbos that we had this Tishrei, and the conditions and distance, this was a gargantuan logistical challenge. And yet, dozens of shluchim navigated it successfully in the Far East, Central and South America.

Sadly though, the work of Chabad for tourists made it into the headlines again for less than happy reasons. The tragedy in which two Israelis were killed when their flimsy boat overturned in a river in Peru and the tragedy in Nepal in which four Israelis died in a blizzard (and most recently when two Israelis were killed in a bus accident) were the reason we heard about search and rescue teams, flying bodies and visiting the injured, instead of hearing about huge holiday meals and uplifting holiday experiences.

Shluchim in these areas are unfortunately already used to this. This is not the first time that they had to deal with tragic circumstances. The Chabad house is the home of the tourists in these areas and that is not a cliché. In the case of tragedy, the first reports reach the Chabad house where they know the procedure. Within minutes the Chabad house turns into a bustling command center. Teams formed by the Chabad house are sent to offer first aid and help to the injured until the local rescue teams or professional search and rescue teams from Israel show up, in the event of more serious situations.

This is the ideal season for treks,” says RChezki Lifshitz, shliach in Katmandu in interviews to the media, “because it follows the summer monsoons and is before the harsh winter, which is why this blizzard took us all by surprise.”

WHITEOUT

The Annapurna route is circuitous and goes around the mountain and has villages scattered along the length. The blizzard caught a large group of hundreds of tourists, including many Israelis, in the vicinity of the village of Muktinat at a height of 5400 meters. There were nine kilometers between the group of Israelis and the nearest village, a distance that would normally take a few hours to traverse under normal conditions. But the snow blanketed the paths completely so that someone who is not an expert in the route would be unable to find his way.

It looked like an enormous desert of white, as far as the eye could see,” said the tourists. “In addition, the air is thin which makes walking difficult even on ordinary days,” says RLifshitz. “The tourists formed small groups and encouraged one another to continue walking. The snow was a meter and a half high. If you sat down to rest, you froze.”

Testimony from those who were rescued demonstrates the pintele Yid hidden within every Jew. Moving stories were told about heroism and mesirus nefesh to save another. People helped one another and supported one another to the point of death.

News began to trickle into the Chabad house,” says RLifshitz. “At first we heard unclear reports about a large group of tourists stuck in a blizzard. We began having conversations with Israelis who asked for help, but at some point communications broke down and all attempts to reach them by phone failed. We realized there was a serious danger to their lives and got to work immediately.”

Following the accident on the Apurimac River in Peru, those who were rescued were taken directly to the Chabad house in Cusco, which is run by Ofer and Yael Kripor. The rafters were on one of the largest rivers in the world when their raft overturned and four Israelis fell into the water. Two were pulled back in by their friends on the raft while the other two were swept away by the current. The rescue teams which came from Israel searched for the two for days until their bodies were located.

Those who remained on the raft spent Yom Tov at the Chabad house where they had the meals, though the joy of the Yom Tov was marred following the tragedy.

FEELING AT HOME

Even after the professional search and rescue teams arrived, the Chabad house continued to be the focal point of events. In both cases, in Peru and Nepal, the search and rescue teams used the services of the local Chabad house. And in both locations, those who were rescued who did not need medical treatment were brought to the Chabad house.

The backpackers feel at home here,” say the shluchim. “It is natural, in these situations, for all of them to immediately come here, whoever is in the area, even if he wasnt at the site of the tragedy. People feel the need to come together, to give or receive support, or to offer help. Many of the backpackers know one another from back home or the trip and every such instance is traumatic for all those in the area.”

In these cases, the shluchim also become spokespeople. Among the flood of calls from parents and relatives and the intensive work, they respond to inquiries from journalists and repeat what happened over and over. They try to be reassuring and to provide as much information as possible to those back home.

Now, after the finding of the body of Gili Cherkasky, the last Israeli, and after the others killed in Peru and Nepal were sent back for burial and those who were rescued were flown for medical treatment back home, the shluchim are trying to get back to routine. The Chabad houses in Katmandu and Cusco are full of tourists who want to give and receive support, and conversations take place at the Chabad house with the shluchim and with professionals who are there to help the tourists deal with the tragedy.

In the midst of all this bedlam, we spoke to the shluchim who are involved in these search and rescue operations, to hear their thoughts about it and about the connections they maintain with the families and the tourists.

SPIRITUAL AND
MATERIAL RESCUE

Are shluchim whose function is to spread Judaism supposed to serve as rescue units too?

Its only naturalWe do what needs to be done,” says RDanny Winderbaum and RYoel Caplin of Kosul, India who have been involved in rescue missions of Israelis in their area. “Youre there and whether you want to or not, you are the ones they turn to, and you do what needs to be done.”

When we arrived, we did not think we would be so involved in this,” says Caplin, “but it comes your way and you have to respond. Besides, the job of a shliach is to rescue Jews spiritually as well as physically.”

The Chabad house in Kosul has been involved in many rescue operations, many of which were in the headlines. The mountainous area and the valley where the Chabad house is located is a challenging spot for tourists and serious accidents have occurred.

RWinderbaum tells how it happens:

There is always that first piece of news, sometimes its a phone call or someone comes to tell us that a tragedy occurred. We verify the information and immediately set up a situation room. At the Chabad house we have equipment for first aid and equipment for basic extrication and rescue. Among the tourists we usually find a medic and a rescue expert or a mountain climber and they go to the site, while one of the shluchim always remains at the Chabad house to be available to families who call and to be in touch with other rescue personnel and no less important, to arrange Chabad house activities and to provide spiritual support to our rescue efforts.”

BATTLING THE AUTHORITIES

The challenges we face are many. Its not just the rescue operation itself which is mostly done under difficult conditions,” says RYoel Caplin. “In India, they burn bodies and scatter the ashes in the river. When Israelis are killed we sometimes have to battle the authorities so that they treat the body with respect and release it for burial in Eretz Yisroel. There were times we guarded the body at the accident site under freezing conditions, for a long time, until the body was brought for burial with the proper respect.”

RWinderbaum also recalls stories in which the shluchim rescued the injured from greater injuries:

We received information about a woman who had fallen. We rushed over and realized it was quite likely that she had suffered a back injury. The Indian rescue team that came wanted to take her to the hospital in the most primitive fashion, but we intervened and wanted to move her as you move those with suspected back injuries. We tied her to a board and lifted her carefully with minimum jarring and brought her to the rescue vehicle. At the hospital they saw that indeed, she had broken two vertebra and according to the doctors, if she had been removed by the Indian rescue team it is almost certain that she would have remained crippled for the rest of her life.”

We asked the Kosul Chabad house staff to tell us about a special case.

Unfortunately, we have had many cases, each one unique,” they say. “Each incident is either a tragedy for the family and friends or sometimes, a big miracle, depending on the final outcome.” RWinderbaum remembers an incident concerning the Fuchs family which was prominently publicized in the Israeli media. It began as a terrible tragedy and ended with a thanksgiving meal at the Chabad house.

One summer evening, a local gentile on a motorcycle burst in and screamed, “An Israeli woman fell from a cliff in one of the villages!” It turned out to be a couple and their 24 year old son, the latter from an elite unit in the IDF, who had gone on a hike in the mountains at a height of 3000 meters about an hour away from the Chabad house. While hiking with a walking stick, the woman tripped on one of the narrow pathways and fell into the abyss at a depth of 150 meters.

Her husband Avrohom and son Oded did not know what to do. They ran down to the cab driver who had gone along with them and asked him to call for help. The cab driver called the manager of the taxi service and reported to him about the accident. The manager lost no time in reporting to us.

RWinderbaum rushed to write to the Rebbe. On the page that he opened to in the Igros Kodesh it said, “A person is not given a test that he cannot withstand.” From this answer we understood there was still hope.

We set out on motorcycles while RCaplin, who remained at the Chabad house, contacted the local rescue companies, but they all had the same answer: We dont endanger our people in the dark of night. We are only willing to send rescue people by light of day.

The Fuchs couple, it turned out, owns an Israeli fashion chain and is well connected in the financial and government sectors in Eretz Yisroel. They used all their connections through the Foreign Ministry and the consulate and reached the Indian Air Force commander who called the Chabad house to find out details of the incident.

I got the call,” says RCaplin, “but when he heard about the location and the topography of the mountains, he immediately declared that sending a helicopter into this area would endanger the pilot and he couldnt help. Everyone threw up their hands and we were left on our own.

The path was arduous and the rain made it very slippery. We groped our way along the path in a line formation taking small steps, heel to toe. We climbed for something like an hour and a half until we got there. All along the way we yelled to the woman and asked her to hang in there and remain conscious.

Finally, after intensive efforts, we reached her. She was semi-conscious and asked, ‘Who are you?’ We told her we were from Chabad, that she was in good hands and not to worry. We felt that we had reached her when she was at the end of her rope.”

A few days later, we went back to the spot to see it all by light of day. We stood there and looked and could not figure out how she had remained alive. Nothing but a big miracle can explain it,” said RWinderbaum.

A few months later, after she had recovered, the Fuchs couple returned to the Chabad house, this time to thank G-d in the place where they had experienced miracles. At the thanksgiving meal in the Chabad house the woman thanked the Rebbes shluchim for saving her life.

It was amazing to see the mesirus nefesh of the shluchim and the backpackers who were there,” she said. “They were ready tojump head firstoff a cliff to save a woman they had never met; there is nothing like this anywhere in the world.”

They are larger than life, and what they did is simply incredible,” she said in interviews to the media after the accident. “They are amazing. They are all fabulous, I have no words. In my case, they were exceptional. What can I say; Chabad maintains not only Judaism but also the Jews, wherever they are.”

LONG-TERM IMPACT

Theres no question that a rescue like this leaves an indelible impression on those who are rescued. What about those tourists who help in the rescue?

There is no question that it has a tremendous impact. Its a powerful experience of mesirus nefesh for another Jew. Whenever the yechida is revealed it generates a shift inside the soul. In the case of Mrs. Fuchs, for example, one of the tourists who helped extricate her was so affected that when he returned home he wanted to arrange a chavrusa to learn Tanya in one of the Chabad yeshivos.”

Not every rescue mission ends in a miracle. Do you keep in touch with families afterward?

Definitely,” says RCaplin. “We are in constant contact with all the families, whether we were able to save their loved ones or helped bring them to burial. We try to keep in touch, mainly in the beginning, to lend a hand, to be with them, and to help them get through it.

There are families who dont want to be reminded about the tragedy and we respect their wishes, but in other cases we have become friends and we are invited to their simchas and their private events just like family.”

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