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Aug222019

The Clear Waters of the Caribbean Are Now Clearer

When Rabbis Yariv Klein and Motti Cohen started their shlichus in the Panamanian island of Bocas del Toro right off the Caribbean shore, they never imagined that in less than 7 years they ‘d have a 4 floor center at the beach.

By Mendy Dickstein •

When I sat with the shliach, Rabbi Yariv Klein, and I heard from him the story of the special semicha institute he established in the location of his shlichus, the breathtaking islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama, I had a hard time believing it. As he continued to tell about the purchase of the land and the construction of the new Chabad House, I was stunned to discover that facts and pictures backed up these amazing and most unusual accounts, absolutely proving that the reality was beyond anything one could possibly imagine.

First, a little background information: Rabbi Yariv Klein was born in South Africa. His father, Amichai, a young Israeli man, left Eretz Yisrael for South Africa at the conclusion of his compulsory military service. The fact that he was a Jew influenced him to marry only a Jewish woman. He eventually met his future wife, a local South African girl whose family had escaped from Ponevezh, Lithuania due to the anti-Jewish pogroms that took place there in the early 1920’s.

A “Mivtza Tefillin” encounter that saved an entire family…

The young couple settled in to their new location, and after several years of investment, Amichai Klein was the owner of a number of restaurants catering to the Jewish community. At one of these restaurants, an event occurred that had a most profound effect upon his life. One Friday in 5757, the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach’s shliach to Johannesburg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kesselman, paid a visit to Mr. Klein’s kosher eatery as part of his weekly “Mivtza Tefillin” route, and by Divine Providence met the Jewish manager. This first meeting established a warm and firm connection between the two, resulting in the entire family undergoing a complete process of Teshuva.

In 5760, Amichai and his wife realized that if they wanted to continue a life of Torah and mitzvos while providing a proper Jewish education for their children, they simply could not stay in South Africa. Thus, despite the great difficulty, they decided to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, when their son Yariv was nine years old.

It would be appropriate to note that the mother, a South African native, had never been to Eretz Yisrael before, and the decision to make aliyah constituted a tremendous sacrifice on her part.

After emigrating to Eretz Yisrael, they settled in Even Yehuda, a moshav just south of Netanya. As soon as they arrived, they formed a very strong connection with the local shliach, Rabbi Menachem Noyman, who worked with great devotion to help the new olim. In addition to the physical and spiritual assistance, he also made certain that the family’s children were accepted to the Chabad learning institutions in nearby Netanya.

Yariv, who began his studies in the Chabad Talmud Torah in Netanya, continued in the yeshiva ketana there and then moved on to learn in the yeshiva gedola in the Holy City of Tzfas.

SO THE SHLICHUS WAS BORN

The chapter of shlichus in Yariv’s life story began in 5771-5772, when he went out on his first outreach mission – to Moscow, Russia. Together with his shlichus work, he completed his studies for rabbinical ordination and professional certification as a shochet at the “Ran Institute”, under the tutelage of Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan and institute director Rabbi Segev Friedman. At the time, it never crossed his mind whatsoever that his semicha and shechita studies would become a significant part of his life as a shliach.

After completing these studies, together with his shlichus experience, Yariv Klein went out to assist the Chabad House in Cozumel, Mexico, together with his friend and colleague on shlichus today, Rabbi Motti Cohen

During their tour of duty in Mexico, they heard that Panama has a location where numerous Israeli tourists come to visit, but it had no Chabad House, yet.

“Yet” is the right word. Soon enough, they decided that the time had come to open a permanent Chabad House on the location. When Rabbi Klein wrote to the Rebbe about the decision, he was privileged to receive an amazing answer via the Igros Kodesh. In the reply, the Rebbe wrote that he was pleased to hear that in recent months, he was dealing with the spreading of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus among Israeli youth. The Rebbe then added one more sentence: “I was shocked to hear that he is thinking about stopping his activities.”

“After such a clear answer, we realized that we had to go out on shlichus,” recalled Rabbi Klein. Rabbi Cohen also wrote a separate letter to the Rebbe and received a response addressed to a kohen, in which the Rebbe wrote that the job of a kohen is to illuminate Jewish souls. In addition, the Rebbe said that he should be particularly involved in spreading the wellsprings among Jewish youth, and his efforts should bring a double portion of blessing.

The two immediately got in touch with the shliach to Panama City, Rabbi Ari Laine, who had come to the Central American nation in mid-5754 after a lengthy period when Chabad activities there were conducted solely on a seasonal basis. Rabbi Laine was most happy to hear of their desire to open a Chabad House at this tourist location, and he promised to give them all the backing they needed.

Eventually, the two young bachurim got married, and they established Torah observant homes in the place of their shlichus. Thus, the joint shlichus that began at that time continues and thrives to this very day, as Rabbi Motti and Mrs. Sarit Cohen, alongside Rabbi Yariv and Mrs. Lital Klein, accepted the responsibility of preparing the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama to greet Moshiach.

SEMICHA Program and Shlichus Training

While the path to opening the Chabad House was fraught with numerous difficulties, there were also some amazing miracles, some of which were publicized a few years ago in an extensive Beis Moshiach article. However, the following piece comes specifically to tell the story of the development and momentum of the past year, in the form of the special “semicha institute” designed to train its students for rabbinical ordination. 

Why does someone have to come to Panama to get “semicha”, if it’s possible to learn and be tested on the relevant portions of Shulchan Aruch anywhere in the world?

“In addition to the study of ‘Issur V’Hetter’, which rabbinical students can learn at any semicha institute in the world, the program we developed also serves as a ‘shlichus training program.’”

Would you care to elaborate?

“The essential experience of shlichus in a Chabad House gives a bachur actual hands-on training in running a Chabad House in every aspect. As emissaries with considerable expertise in shlichus work, we have a desire to transmit the information we have acquired over the years to the next generation of shluchim. We provide these bachurim with the tools they need to be actual shluchim (and as we mentioned, in addition to their rabbinical studies).

“Running an independently operating Chabad House demands knowledge in fundraising, understanding the rules of administration, developing organization skills, and many other ‘tools of the trade’. All this must come together with the spiritual side to shlichus work, e.g., giving over an in-depth Torah class with great clarity, preparing a dvar Torah for a brief meeting, making a speech, and more. Similarly, there is a need to learn the material side to administrative and leadership roles, such as running a restaurant, operating a facility (cleaning, maintenance, etc.), hiring and managing a staff of employees. Each of these tasks is a whole subject unto itself, studied in colleges over a lengthy period. Our objective is for the bachurim learning with us to acquire the necessary knowledge and experience to go out on shlichus after their weddings.”

MAKING HISTORY IN PANAMA

Thus far, the combination of studies for rabbinical ordination and “shlichus studies”, if you can call it that, has proven itself beyond all measure. The tmimim have integrated quite well in the special program of learning and activities, dedicating the morning hours to their rabbinical ordination studies (after Chassidus and Shacharis), while the afternoon hours are devoted to outreach activities, together with the theoretical and practical study of shlichus work.

The shluchim themselves greatly enjoyed the institute’s activities. The arrival of the tmimim in Bocas del Toro breathed some fresh spirit and renewed vitality into the program. “Do you know what it means to daven three times a day with a minyan?” Rabbi Yariv Klein asks me with a gleam in his eye. It turns out that if you haven’t been “there”, you can’t really know how to appreciate something so simple that it’s a routine part of a chassid’s daily life. “For me, this is a dream come true,” Rabbi Klein added.

With deep satisfaction, the shluchim are marking the conclusion of the first cycle of the special semicha institute. Six bachurim studied in the program during the past year and were tested by the chief Sephardic rabbi of Panama, Rabbi David Peretz. The students passed with excellence, demonstrating their mastery and expertise in the learning material. 

Rabbi Peretz, authorized by the chief rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael to ordain rabbanim, was very pleased to discover that even in faraway Panama, there are yeshiva students who assiduously study Torah with great diligence while steadfastly fortifying the practical aspects to the Shulchan Aruch. Their vast knowledge was a source of much enthusiasm for Rabbi Peretz, particularly when he heard that the studies were done in tandem with outreach work, bringing Jews closer to their Father in Heaven. After completing his examination of the rabbinical students, he awarded each of them a “certificate of ordination” – an historic event for Jewish Panama in all respects.

During the recent period of the Three Weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, Chabad of Bocas del Toro was working hard for the second group of tmimim-shluchim to complete their rabbinical and shlichus studies, while running their outreach activities among the Jews visiting the islands.

THE SHLICHUS BEGAN TO BLOSSOM

History, history… It turns out that it’s possible to make history several times within a short period.

In addition to the semicha institute and the regular Chabad House activities, the shluchim are about to complete the establishment of an extensive complex as a large center for Judaism, providing a wide variety of Jewish services, including a mikvah and a kosher restaurant. The story of the establishment of the new Chabad center is filled with miracles and wonders seen by the shluchim with their own eyes. It started with receiving the land, continuing with the special and extraordinary permit to build a multi-floor structure on the premises, and concluding with financing the building project. This story deserves an article for itself and will be published separately, G-d willing.

The shluchos work very hard on the spiritual front in all matters connected with the Israeli women-tourists. This includes a weekly Hafrashas Challah ceremony held each Thursday evening, which is lots more than making challah… It continues until the wee hours of the morning, writing letters to the Rebbe via the ‘Igros Kodesh,’ and a midrasha program for learning about Yiddishkeit and Chassidus for women whose souls are thirsting for G-dliness.

An inseparable part of your shlichus work is preparing the island and its residents for the revelation of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. How do you achieve this?

“First of all, I can tell you that the strength possessed by the bachurim connected to the Rebbe and engrossed in their Torah study is an actual means to prepare Bocas del Toro for the Redemption. Their Chassidic energy is a fire of holiness grasping all those who come to the Chabad House, and it is the heart and secret to our success.

“In general, every tourist coming to the Chabad House knows about connecting to the Rebbe MH”M as leader of the generation with an emphasis placed upon writing letters to him. Furthermore, all the good resolutions they make here are not merely to create a better world or become a better person, rather to hasten the hisgalus,” says Rabbi Klein. “As soon as people come inside, they hear about the possibility of writing letters to the Rebbe and receiving his advice and a bracha. There are those who do this naturally, while others have heard about this in other Chabad Houses they had visited, understanding all too well what to do and how to do it.

“There are also tourists who give us a skeptical look. Instead of getting into an argument with them, we invite them for dinner in our house at eight o’clock in the evening. We tell them about the Rebbe, explaining everything about the eternal nature of the leader of the generation and the need to have a connection to him. During the meal, they raise numerous questions about Yiddishkeit, Chassidus, and even on the subject of Moshiach, and we answer all of them. People understand that our entire presence on the island, instead of living in a warm and comfortable community in Eretz Yisrael or New York, is for the purpose of preparing this place to greet Moshiach.”

Rabbi Klein also has a story to illustrate: “One day, I saw an Israeli couple walking near the Chabad House and I asked them to come in. They hesitated at first, but when I offered them some shakshouka, a favorite Israeli dish, they consented and joined us for dinner. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we realized that they were not a couple, rather a brother and sister who had come to the island to surf along its sunny beaches. I told them that we have a friend, an experienced surfer who practices his skills in the surrounding area, and I mentioned his name. ‘He’s a relative of ours,’ they said, amazed how I knew him. I proceeded to tell them that he had told me that thirty years ago, his sister had no children. She had gone to the best doctors, but they had been unable to help her. At a certain stage, she came to the Rebbe, and he gave her three dollars and a bracha. To her great surprise, a year after her visit to the Rebbe, she was blessed with the birth of triplets. The siblings listened to the story, smiled, and then confirmed that they were two of those three triplets (their brother lived then in Australia).

“Dozens of Israelis have heard this story. As a shliach, it’s easy to understand that after such an amazing story of Divine Providence, you no longer must tell or explain much more, because whatever you say – will be accepted without question.”

SHLUCHIM WITHOUT VACATION

My conversation with Rabbi Klein took place in Eretz Yisrael, after he had come to visit his family and recharge his batteries. However, it turns out that this trip wasn’t just to get some rest and relaxation; he also used the time to meet with people who had previously come to the Bocas del Toro Chabad House and continue the spiritual rejuvenation their visit has started.

As part of this program, he organized a Shabbaton for former Chabad House visitors in recent years to reawaken their desire to get closer to a life of Torah and mitzvos, even while in Eretz Yisrael.

At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Rabbi Klein what project they are planning to do after completing the construction of their new Chabad House. He proceeded to tell me that besides for the kosher restaurant they will run, G-d willing, in the new facility, they plan to launch a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen on the premises, capable of producing kosher meals at very high standards. It will cater to organized Jewish tour groups from the United States, not necessarily religious, coming to the island several times a year.

It’s hard to ignore the determination in his voice, and I am quite certain that even this dream will soon be transformed into reality, like his many others.

BOCAS DEL TORO

The Bocas del Toro island chain is a picturesque region in the Caribbean belonging to the nation of Panama, located along the border with Costa Rica.

Bocas del Toro is comprised of six large islands with about another three hundred and sixty smaller islands. We’re talking about a marvelous and beautiful archipelago, filled with abundant plant life, water, and a wide assortment of colorful sea creatures, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists there annually, including thousands of Jews. According to the estimate of the local shluchim, about five thousand Israelis come to the islands each year, and the numbers continue to grow.

These islands have numerous popular tourist attractions, including tropical rainforests and scenic landscapes, populated by local indigenous tribes who live there and continue to observe their ancient way of life. These islands are sun-drenched throughout most of the year with beautiful seashores for bathing, coral reefs, and a marine reserve park protecting the area’s natural resources. 

***

The Chabad House is situated in the heart of the main island, which has a population of about four thousand locals and an equal number of visitors and tourists. In addition to the thousands of Israeli backpackers frequenting the island, it is also a permanent place of residence to about fifteen Israeli families running hotels and other businesses. The principal of the island’s “American school” is an Israeli woman, who once lived on a kibbutz.

During this period, the island’s shluchim – Rabbi Motti Cohen, Rabbi Yariv Klein, and their families – are marking seven years of wide-ranging outreach activities, which began in a manner of “L’Chatchila Ariber” without almost any financial resources. These activities have served as a virtual magnet for many Jews. “People can’t believe how we managed to establish such a vast empire in so short a period of time,” the shluchim said, and they reply to everyone that all their success is thanks to the blessings of the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach.

The Chabad House activities are numerous and wide-ranged – on weekdays, Shabbos, and Jewish holidays. Experience shows that most of the Israeli tourists visiting the island will come to the Chabad House more than once during their stay.

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