Original Article in Chabad.org:

ST. THOMAS, V.I.—The questions, both halachic and practical, start early on this 32-square-mile island in the Caribbean Sea.

Rabbi Asher Federman, director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas, begins his daily routine of mustering up men well before the start of morning minyan at 7:30 a.m.

At 6:45, I am the first to be picked up at Sapphire Bay West Condos at Crystal Cove. Four of the rabbi’s sons are having a great time in the back of a black minivan. We pass through the Red Hook section of town on the east side of St. Thomas (named for the red-roofed homes and businesses along a rolling coastline), where boats depart for the nearby island of St. John. We stop for a New Jersey father and son outside their timeshare at the Ritz-Carlton. They are here during a vacation break from yeshivah and bring our minyan count to four.

Neil Sosland from Kansas City, Mo.—an elderly gentleman Rabbi Federman refers to as “Reb Neil,” a longtime seasonal resident—is waiting in front of his condo, tallis and tefillin in hand. He has been coming to St. Thomas since 1985. We’re up to five.

The conversation on the 30-minute hilly ride downtown is pleasant and educational. The New Jersey man asks if a shuttle that goes around the mountainous, windy island picking up people for davening would theoretically be possible on Shabbat. His 14-year-old son asks: “When can we pick up our challah for Shabbat?” The rabbi’s boys proudly tell of the time they walked seven miles on Rosh Hashanah from their home in the East End to the capital of Charlotte Amalie to blow shofar for various Jews along the way. “Remember, ‘Mr. P’ didn’t want to hear shofar at first?” one boy says. The rabbi good-naturedly corroborates the story.

At prayer on an average weekday

“Sometimes, his neshamah is hiding,” the rabbi tells Chabad.org (using the Hebrew word for “soul”). “He didn’t want to hear shofar, but when he heard that we walked three-and-a-half hours from the East End, he asked us in to blow shofar.”

Just another day in the life of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries serving the Jewish people.

As we arrive at the Chabad Welcome Center on Upper 4B Norre Gade, in comes Jonathon from Teaneck, N.J., increasing our total to six. Federman is all smiles, unfazed by the extensive pre-minyan routine every morning. He explains: “Main Street is the Fifth Avenue of St. Thomas; it’s near the businesses and the ships.”

We look up and spot a number of cruise ships in port. On Wednesday alone, six arrived. On Thursday and Friday, ships with such names as the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Royal Princess and the Grandeur of the Seal are in town. The steady flow of tourists on board makes congregants with livelihoods like selling cosmetics, T-shirts and jewelry very happy. Federman likes his current daily minyan location. While quite a trek from the Chabad House, proximity to businesses means that Jewish merchants can drop in. On Chanukah, the rabbi notes, “we give out menorahs right here in front of the post office.”

The Federman family: The rabbi and his wife, Henya, and their nine children

During my two weekday mornings in St. Thomas, Federman had complete faith that there would be a minyan. Little by little, an eclectic group of good-natured men finds their way up the steps to Chabad. A man in the jewelry business from Uruguay, who spent time in Miami before settling in St. Thomas 27 years ago, is number seven.

The rabbi personally greets, hugs and thanks each person. His boys have their jobs as well: leading the first part of morning prayers, serving as gabbais during the Torah reading and depositing tzedakah in the free-standing charity box, about 4 feet tall.

Federman is the master of the niggun. Some days, he simply needs to sing a little longer—to allow for the 10th man to find his way.

And sure enough, reliable men eventually wander in: Moshe and Yaniv, two young Israelis in the cosmetics business; Ernesto, a photographer from Brazil who arrived in St. Thomas via a long stint in Hawaii; an Israeli 20-something from Tzfat who studied at a yeshivah in Brooklyn, N.Y., and operates a business here; and various others. The rabbi takes pride in the fact that “the locals are all new tefillin,” explaining that most minyan attendees did not grow up observant and are new to wearing tefillin, having purchased them within the last eight years.

When minyan is over, Federman turns off the lights, gates the windows, locks the door, and everyone files down the steps back to the van for the return ride back. “I need to get the kinderlach to cheder,” he says, meaning back home, where they will study as part of an online school program for the children of Chabad emissaries around the world. And, of course, tourists will get busy as well, with days of tennis, swimming and snorkeling ahead; St. Thomas is world-famous for its beautiful beaches and sea life.

Kosher Meals, Torah, Sand and Sea

Like the other islands in the U.S. Territories (St. John and St. Croix), and the British Virgin Islands to the north and east, St. Thomas has a rich history, Jewish and otherwise.

The view from inside the Jewish Welcome Center

Christopher Columbus passed by St. Thomas, St. John and Tortola on his second voyage westward. These islands remained untouched by Europeans for nearly 150 years until certain countries placed their flags here—Denmark in St. Thomas, France on St. Croix and England in Tortola. The Danish later claimed St. John, bought St. Croix and built the Danish West Indies into a thriving sugarcane business and trading area.

Jews first settled in the Virgin Islands in 1655, when it was ruled by Denmark, mainly serving as traders in sugarcane, rum and molasses. They purchased a cemetery in 1750 and founded the first congregation in 1796. The synagogue was built in 1803 and burned down a year later. Following a long history that included additional fires and rebuilding, the present structure—on Synagogue Hill in downtown Charlotte Amalie—was dedicated in 1833. In 1917, the United States purchased the Danish West Indies. Residents of the Virgin Islands are American citizens, with the U.S. dollar its official currency.

Residents and tourists alike fill the sukkah each fall.

What’s the backstory behind Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman’s arrival in St. Thomas in 2005? After their wedding in June 2003, they Googled “Jewish communities with no Chabad Houses” and several popped up. They considered such countries as Luxembourg, Vietnam, even Bahrain and Cuba.

“We weren’t looking for comfort,” states Federman. “We were looking for a place no one wanted to go.” Then, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch—the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—suggested the Virgin Islands.

“When we got here,” relates Federman, “it was a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. We didn’t know the extent of Jewish life. We were told that there was a small Jewish community and a few tourists. And we were ready to do it. As it turns out, there were more Jews than we expected with deep-rooted connections to the island—timeshare-holders, vacationers, businesspeople and more.” He estimates between 400 and 500 full-time Jewish residents in St. Thomas, not to mention tourists year-round.

Coming to St. Thomas has mostly been a wonderful experience for the Federmans, though not without its challenges. “Living here has its difficulties, especially for a Torah-observant family. You take it in stride and make the best of it.” By now, they declare, more than a decade later, with four children born there and their oldest just a baby when they arrived, they feel like locals: “We consider ourselves St. Thomians.”

The rabbi happily takes weekday minyan-goers to and from their hotels. Once inside the synagogue, he personally greets, hugs and thanks each person.

The rabbi appreciates that life is much simpler here. “It is less materialistic than in other parts of the States. And the kids learn to be creative—to occupy themselves, enjoy nature and have a wholesome way of living.” One son, Itche, describes with excitement one of his favorite activities: night kayaking in a glass-bottomed boat. (“We can see fish and even pirate treasures!”)

Federman is constantly strengthened by the Rebbe’s “uncompromising and unrelenting call to reach out to every Jew, wherever they may be.” Even, and maybe especially, on islands in the middle of the sea.

In their manifold efforts to encourage Jewish life and practice, in addition to all the programming and activities, Henya prepares kosher meals that can be ordered online and delivered to all parts of the island. The rabbi teaches classes for short- or long-term periods, depending on a person’s stay. He himself learns regularly with Rabbi Michael Harvey of the historic St. Thomas Synagogue.

And then comes Shabbat.

Coming into the port in Red Hook, named for the red-roofed homes and businesses along a rolling coastline.

Time in the Federman home, with nine children, is a one-of-a-kind experience. On a typical Friday night, tourists and locals pray inside then proceed outside to the driveway for Shabbat dinner. There are not many Chabad Houses in places where the weather is a consistent 85 degrees, complete with spectacular views of harbored leisure boats.

On Shabbat morning, guests are greeted with refreshing cold water after their long walk to Chabad in the hot sun. Timeshare owners—from New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles—join local residents, the Federmans and two Argentinian female volunteers from Chabad. On my trip, everyone excitedly greeted a 14-year-old tourist who arrived alone, number nine in the minyan. So the rabbi began those niggunim as we awaited the arrival of number 10: John, a jeweler from Paris who lives nearby with his wife. After our prayers, Federman went right to Minchah—just to be sure we davened with a minyan.

After a delicious lunch of deli subs, schnitzel, Israel salads, kugel, cholent and more, in between words of Torah, the guests walked out the way they arrived.

“Reb Neil” sums up the work of the Federmans quite nicely: “Chabad provides important religious support for St. Thomas and the entire U.S. Virgin Islands. This includes traditional services, classes and programs, as well as kosher food. It merits significant support from the entire Jewish community involved in this location in any way.”

With more than 1.5 million passengers per year, Charlotte Amalie is the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean.

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Original Article on The Jerusalem Post

The happy boys danced, sang, cheered for their teachers and even jumped on tables when the head of school called their classroom by name. While the enthusiastic pupils have been learning together daily for three months, they were only seeing their teachers and fellow students in person for the first time – the boys, ages six to 14, spend up to six and a half hours a day together, where they participate in Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) Online School.

The young yeshiva students who came to Brooklyn on November 23 – Thanksgiving Day in America – to participate in a “Day of Celebration” were from Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, England, Sweden, Norway, and places in the United States such as Tennessee, Rhode Island, Iowa and Alaska. The boys were accompanying their fathers attending the 5,000-person International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries.

Their parents direct Chabad Houses around the world, and agree that the Online School, pioneered by Chabad, has helped make it possible to live and serve in communities without any Jewish day school. The Online School has made it possible for their children to receive a “proper Chabad education” without being home-schooled. The spreading of Jewish knowledge and observance were important core principles of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic dynasty and one of the most important Jewish leaders of the 20th century.

The fathers and sons were visibly excited as they entered the nicely decorated ballroom at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “I just saw my kid meet his classmates for the first time in his life – this is a very beautiful moment,” observes Rabbi Benny Hershkovich of Los Cabos, Mexico, here with his eightyear- old son Kovi, a third grader.

Rabbi Yossi Laufer of Warwick, Rhode Island, is pleased with both the learning and the camaraderie his 12-year-old son, Dov Beir – running around with his friends and teachers and enjoying the food and drinks – receives in the program.

Observing the room full of boys bantering and running, Hershkovich says: “I guess they are not really trained in the classroom to be quiet!” Malkie Gurkow, one of the program’s principals, a parent, and one of the few women on hand, notes, “You can feel the excitement. It is palpable. I have two boys in the school – they wait for this event all year!” According to Devora Leah Notik, associate director of the Nigri International Shluchim Online School, “a small group of parents approached the Shluchim Office about 10 years ago and said, ‘We don’t have the infrastructure where we live. And we want our kids to learn with others who understand the challenges of living far off, on shlihut.”

The Shluchim Office – the central addresses for anything an emissary might need – responded to the request which began as a telephone conference call before moving to Skype. “Then it grew and grew and grew…” reports Notik.

The Nigri International Shluchim Online School currently operates as four separate divisions, serving four geographic areas across the world: Western America, Eastern America, Euro/Asia (English Division) and Western Europe/Asia (Hebrew Division). Even though it’s online, the pupils are separated by gender. The academic year generally runs from early September through the end of June.

THE 380 pupils in the American division are supervised by two principals, Malkie Gurkow of Massachusetts and Rabbi Yaakov Ringo of Montreal. The program’s central offices are located in Brooklyn, which serves as the regional hub for the American divisions (359 children from 186 families), as well as for the English- speaking Euro/Asia division (37 children from 32 families).

An office in Israel provides administration, support and a teaching center for pupils attending the Hebrew division (279 children from 113 families), which caters to families currently living in Europe, Asia, Israel, Russia and Ukraine, where the children’s primary language is Hebrew.

The curriculum, teaching methods and special school-wide programming are unique to online learning.

The regularly updated curriculum needs to be formatted for posting in both Power Point and slideshow mediums. Pupils wear uniforms (a vest with the Chabad Online School logo), have webcams and microphones, raise their hands to participate, and take online quizzes and tests. They view their teachers and fellow pupils on half of the screen, and view white boards and slides on the other half. Teachers sometimes utilize breakout rooms where children learn and work in pairs or larger group, and teachers freely move between rooms.

Chabad families often have numerous children learning at the same time.

“In some families, the children are all lined up at a table in one room,” notes Notik. “In other families, they are spread out all over the house. It is fun to see.”

Four-year-olds sing, and learn about the weekly Torah portion and mitzvot for 60 to 90 minutes, while eighth-grade boys in the transition to yeshiva program learn for six and a half hours a day. Most of the boys will begin boarding at yeshivot in Israel or America at age 14. Teachers across the different age groups work to synchronize breaks – every 45 minutes – and lunchtimes to make it easier for families.

At the Chabad House in Copenhagen, two of the Lowenstein girls spend a lot of time at computers in different rooms of their fifth-floor apartment. “It functions as any ordinary school, only online,” observes Rochel Lowenthal, mother of nine. “Classes, extracurricular, school projects, color war, monthly themes, contests, production, PTA, etc. We have kids in the European division and two in the American division – which means we are on from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.”

Lowenthal, who was not in Brooklyn at the Thanksgiving conference, is pleased and relieved with all the Online School offers.

“We were, thank God, able to keep our older kids home till high school thanks to SOS [Shluchim Online School]. Four of our kids have graduated” – the graduation ceremony is online – “and have, thank God, fit right into high school.”

Her other children in school – 12-year-old Chana in seventh grade, nine-year-old Devorah Leah in fifth grade, and seven-year-old Sheina in second grade – got to finally see their fellow pupils face to face at the conference.

“There is always an SOS day of celebration, where the kids meet their classmates and teachers. It’s very special.”

Parents have a mostly typical school experience.

They attend online parent conferences, pay tuition (scholarships are available), and purchase uniforms and books, though children in faraway places sometimes receive materials in PDF format to cut down on wait time for shipping. The curriculum focuses on religious subjects of all kinds: prayer, Hassidic philosophy, Torah and Talmud, and others.

Children living in so many geographical regions do pose logistical issues.

“Australia and China are challenging – there is a 13- hour time difference!” says Notik, who hopes to one day open an Asia division. “In addition, we have to deal with changing clocks at various times in different places, we have to provide extra time to translate for non-native English speakers, and we don’t give homework during Hanukka since it is a busy time at Chabad Houses.”

However, not everything is rosy: Rabbi Zalman Lewis of Brighton, England, notes some additional challenges of online learning. “My wife never breathes!” he says. “With a normal school, kids leave in the morning, come home at a normal time, and there is time to clean the house. Here, the kids are always home.”

The computer itself can be a source of distraction.

Lewis points out the need to constantly monitor the children. “We parents play a huge role here – one son is a tech geek, so we face his computer to the door and monitor him on the computer.”

“We need to engage the students continuously,” adds Rabbi Shmuel Jacobson of Crown Heights, New York. “We have to be more entertaining than the computer.”

The program offers 24-hour tech support and constant attention to online security – with separate teams based in the US and Israel.

Pupils with diverse learning needs are also able to participate. “That was the rebbe’s mission – to provide a superior, well-rounded Jewish education for every child and to answer the needs of every child,” says Notik. “We are able to include students by offering shadows, homework helpers, tutoring services, paras and IEPs (individualized education plans). We cater to multiple learning styles and have lots of visuals.”

WHILE MANY ultra-Orthodox groups have historically held negative views regarding the use of Internet and technology, Chabad has a long history of embracing that technology. “The rebbe spoke about this early on – radio, TV, all of God’s creations are tools and the medium to spread good and knowledge,” Notik explains. “The rebbe appeared on the radio, and the farbrengens [hassidic gatherings] were on TV. And Hanukka parades and rallies were broadcast by satellite – people felt such Jewish pride. Even if they weren’t in the actual place, it was accessible. Now, we have the Internet, which has unlimited reach. This is an incomparable tool…”

Simon Jacobson, author, publisher of the Algemeiner Journal (a New York-based newspaper covering Jewish and Israel news) and a Lubavitcher hassid, adds, “The current technological revolution is in fact the hand of God at work – it is meant to help us make God a reality in our lives.”

As the Jewish educational world continues to seek ways to meaningfully incorporate computer technology and online learning into Jewish educational programs, Esther Feldman, director of Information Technology and Financial Services at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University, offers a keen observation and take-home message from the Chabad Online School. “It is the experience of learning that counts. Good online learning has to be about the experience – not just about the content.”

It is unlikely that any online learning program can match the experience and enthusiasm of the Shluchim Online School. The Day of Celebration ended with the International Roll Call. As director, Rabbi Yaakov Ringo called the name of each class, B2 through B7, and the boys erupted in cheers, shook glow sticks, and danced around the room.

In case you’re wondering where all the girls are, they are at home running the Chabad House while the dads are here running around with the boys, as boys and girls study separately. But in just a few months they will switch roles during the women’s conference.

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Original Article in Chabad.org

It is a common practice for middle- and high-school children to “do” community service. Through their work with people who are elderly, homeless or poor or who have disabilities, students learn empathy and compassion for those “less fortunate,” and they learn to better appreciate what they have. Bar- and bat-mitzvah age students are similarly encouraged to complete a “mitzvah project”. Now that they are becoming Jewish adults, they are expected to take greater responsibility for fellow humans. While helping others and showing lovingkindness is important, it may inadvertently come at cost. The “doer” of the kind act may come to view the “recipient” as being in a “lower,” perhaps even pitiable position. The following story suggests it may be time for a new approach to how we teach our children about chesed, “doing mitzvahs” and voluntarism.

Several years ago, I was asked to represent the Jewish disabilities inclusion camping program I direct at a “Mitzvah Fair” for a large synagogue religious school. I was to sit at a table with literature and slides on my computer, showing the children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other disabilities having fun at camp. The children would walk the aisles and learn about my program, as well as such fine US- and Israel-based programs, which help people “in need.” After the fair, children would decide which organizations they would elect to get more involved with in conjunction with their bar/bat mitzvah. They might decide to ask guests to donate money, or they might elect to work directly with the organization and its participants.

Something didn’t feel right about this approach. There was something uncomfortable about neurotypical students raising money for or “helping” children with disabilities. I was picturing well-intentioned 7th graders planning a Purim carnival for children with disabilities, or perhaps taking them on a special outing.

It didn’t sit right. I kept hearing in my head the title of an op-ed written by Jewish comedian and educator, Pamela Rae Schuller, who happens to have Tourette’s syndrome. Her article is entitled, “I’m Not Your Mitzvah Project.” Were the campers inadvertently becoming “Mitzvah Projects?”

I called a few parents of my campers for input. Was I overacting? Perhaps the students were simply doing a “good thing?” The parents also felt uncomfortable with the Hebrew school students doing something FOR their children. They suggested that, perhaps a better, more collaborative approach is for a group of children without disabilities (the Hebrew School children) and a group of children with disabilities (their children), get together to jointly “do good” for an organization that “does good.” Through their joint efforts they would get to know each other and form relationships. While members of the two groups would clearly have differences, they would also have a lot in common. Everyone would benefit from the experience.

This joint venture would replicate the approach and experience we have been having at camp for decades through various buddy and peer mentoring programs. While the older neurotypical campers, ages 14 to 16, have the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with campers with disabilities, it is not by “volunteering for;” rather, it is through “doing an activity with”—like swimming, sports, baking challah or making up rooms in the guest house. They work, play, laugh, and get to know each other—as people—with both strengths and weaknesses.

Volunteering together is a wonderful way for people of all abilities to get to know each other. And to do good TOGETHER!

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Original Article Published On The Chabad.ORG

Chabad House serves as a central address for Jews in Denmark

COPENHAGEN—Walk down the block-long Ole Suhrs Gade Street in Copenhagen—from the Botanical Gardens at one end to Sortedams Lake at the other—and there is a certain old-world charm. Neighbors engage in quiet conversation or sip coffee at corner cafes, with dozens of bicycles parked in racks or leaning against the long rows of similar-appearing, walk-up apartment buildings that line both sides of the street. It is therefore easy to walk right past #10 Ole Suhrs Gade without noticing anything special.

A careful observer may spot a green door with a mezuzah—and a gold sign overhead that reads: “Chabad Huset.” Welcome to the Chabad House of Denmark: home of Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children; and the central address for anyone in search of a Shabbat meal, Jewish-studies class, guide to Jewish sites and kosher products, a Chanukah menorah-lighting, a sympathetic ear or just a place to hang out with friends, old and new.

The Loewenthals have learned much about the country’s rich history since arriving in Copenhagen in 1996 to serve the Danish Jewish community, and they have gotten to know local Jews who can trace their history in Denmark back to the 1600s.

In their 20 years in Denmark, the England-born Rabbi Yitzi and United States-born Rochel have learned Danish (while still speaking to their children in English and Yiddish, and a little Hebrew). The rabbi proudly displays two pieces of local history on the wall of the main room of the Chabad House: a 400-year-old coin from King Christian the Fourth, bearing the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew; and a yellow Jewish star from the Holocaust.

Ferried to Safety

Jews came to Denmark at different periods of history and for various reasons. In the early 1600s, King Christian IV founded the town of Glückstadt and allowed Albert Dionis, a Jewish merchant, to settle in the city. He later extended this right to a few other Jews in 1628. Jews were offered protection, and the right to hold private religious services and maintain their own cemetery, which they founded in 1693. Since 1900, another Jewish cemetery has been used as the burial ground in Copenhagen for more than 6,000 Jewish people.

By 1780, approximately 1,600 Jews lived in Denmark. At this time, the king instituted a number of reforms that helped Jews integrate more fully in to Danish society; they were permitted to attend university, join guilds, build schools and own real estate. In 1814, Danish Jews were granted civic equality; they received full citizenship rights in 1849—one of the first countries in Europe to do so.

Nearly 3,000 Jews came to Denmark in the early 1900s as they escaped such events in Russia as the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

In 1940, Nazi Germany overran Europe and occupied Denmark. For three years, the Jews were left alone, but in October 1943 this changed, and the Nazis prepared to round them up. At this point, the Jewish community experienced what could be considered a Rosh Hashanah miracle. Rabbi Marcus Melchior—the great-grandfather of the current rabbi of the main synagogue, Jair Melchior—warned the community to go in to hiding immediately. He was tipped off to the upcoming (Oct. 1) arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews. With this advance warning, only 202 were arrested.

Approximately 7,000 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish spouses, fled to Sweden, ferried across the Øresund strait. Approximately 500 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, though most were freed about a month before the end of the war and driven in Swedish Red Cross white buses to Sweden. There are subtle reminders of the Holocaust throughout Copenhagen, including a law-firm building that once served as Nazi headquarters and was rebuilt after a bombing by the Allies. In fact, the Chabad House building was also used as a Nazi headquarters.

The Loewenthals have the important responsibility of helping to look after the Danish Jewish community, which now numbers approximately 7,000. While there is one kosher shop in Copenhagen, few kosher-certified products are available in local grocery stores, challah does not sit on the shelves, and kosher meat is hard to find and expensive, mainly because of Denmark’s anti-shechita (kosher slaughter) laws. Thus, all kosher meat must be imported.

The Loewenthals seem to take the complexities of daily Jewish life in Copenhagen in stride. Even during the busy holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the Chabad emissaries projected both a sense of calm and excitement.

On the quiet Thursday morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yitzi did what he does every morning: He goes to minyan. If enough men are lined up next door at Machzikei Hadas—the synagogue at Ole Suhrs Gate 12—then he davens (“prays”) there. On days when a minyan next door will not be possible, he walks 15 minutes through the Botanical Gardens or up Gothersgade Street, or even past the Rosenberg Slot (“castle”), the Danish National Gallery or Copenhagen University on his way to daven Selichot and Shacharit at the Copenhagen Synagogue. The beautiful shul, on Krystalgade 12, was built in 1833.

Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children.
Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children.

After prayer, the rabbi greets and has a private word with some of the 20 or so people in attendance, then heads off to do the many “ordinary,” behind-the-scenes duties a Chabad rabbi does to keep Judaism alive. Rabbi Yitzi may stop into shops, offices or homes of community members—or perhaps the hospital, senior-citizens home or even prison. He may stop by a local Danish school to teach about Judaism or lead a more advanced class at the Jewish school. He also visits companies where he oversees kosher supervision.

Back at the Chabad House, Rochel Loewenthal is finishing up baking brownies with two young children (whose faces are still covered in chocolate), supervising daughters in another room learning Torah and Hebrew online with the children of other Chabad shluchim from around the world, and fielding a call from a woman from New Jersey—due to arrive in Copenhagen in a few days from the United States for the 20,000 person European Society of Medical Oncology Conference—still in need of a place to stay.

With Shabbat dinner still a day away, the Chabad House is surprisingly quiet. Prayerbooks sit atop the piano in the large room lined with posters of beautiful destinations in Israel. Maps of Jewish Denmark, and flyers advertising classes and Sukkot events, sit neatly in racks. The kitchen will soon be churning out Shabbat dinner for more than 100 local residents and visitors, with foods such as fresh challah, Israeli salads, chicken soup, roasted chicken, rice and dessert.

When Shabbat arrives, many of the dinner guests pray at the shul next door, led by Rabbi Yitzi, who delivers a d’var Torah. Back at Chabad, the Loewenthals and a few visiting Lubavitcher yeshivah students put the finishing touches on dinner and table preparations. After Kiddush, hand-washing and hamotzi, the rabbi invites guests to share a thought or asks visitors what brought them to Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen, as in many Chabad centers around the world, children keep up with their studies and their peers around the world as part of an international online school.
In Copenhagen, as in many Chabad centers around the world, children keep up with their studies and their peers around the world as part of an international online school.

Guests With Stories to Tell

Each visitor has an interesting story. A group of religious female college students from France sits with a local Moroccan Jewish man, conversing in French. Another group of students from various universities in the United States and Canada discusses their semester abroad at the University of Copenhagen—and their plans for later in the evening. A particularly colorful graduate student in urban planning at Hebrew University in Jerusalem is here for Shabbat and Yom Kippur—on his way from Sweden to Berlin. From New Zealand, he is happy to answer questions about his kilt and special tartan pattern. Locals at dinner include a man who arrived in Copenhagen from Uruguay, via a long stint in Israel, and others who are becoming more observant. All speak with the cancer doctors and researchers in town for the oncology conference.

Rabbi Yitzi publicly acknowledges the six oncologists and researchers for the work they do, and he shares the story of his father-in-law’s amazing recovery from advanced cancer, thanks to the therapy he received. The rabbi then invites Israeli archaeologist Oren Gutfeld, spouse of an Israeli radiation oncologist, to speak and offer updates on Israeli archaeology. The audience becomes mesmerized as he describes his excavations at both the Tiferet Israel Synagogue and Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A number of the Friday-night guests prayed Shabbat morning at the Copenhagen Synagogue, where they experienced a Danish bat mitzvah and were treated to an outdoor kiddush. Many returned to Chabad for more delicious lunch food. Some of the Shabbat guests, including some from the oncology conference, even stayed in town for Yom Kippur a few days later. Following a relaxed seudah mafseket at Chabad on erev Yom Kippur, guests went off to the shul next door or the main synagogue.

The Copenhagen Synagogue still brings to mind safety issues, and visitors seem aware of that. A Danish police officer, after questioning those seeking to enter, uses a special key to open the shul gate. Flowers outside the synagogue serve as a reminder that in February 2015, Jewish security guard Dan Uzan, 38, was killed in a terrorist attack as he stood watch outside the synagogue, as inside people were celebrating a bat mitzvah.

Kol Nidre in Copenhagen is an extraordinary communal event; there is almost a festival-like, upbeat atmosphere. Some stay for a short time (just the Kol Nidre prayer or the rabbi’s speech), while others remain for the entire service. They’re overjoyed to see friends they likely haven’t seen the entire year.

After Musaf on Yom Kippur day, many people find their way to the Chabad House for an inspiring Minchah and Neilah service. The beautiful davening by the two young Lubavitcher yeshivah bochers was accompanied by user-friendly teaching and discussions led by the rabbi. Everyone enjoyed a “break fast” meal of bagels (baked by Rachel herself), lox, hummus, vegetables and cake.

As the guests prepared to leave the Chabad House after a long Yom Kippur day, many paused to acknowledge that Sukkot was around the corner, and that the Loewenthals would soon be at it again, serving the community during the eight-day holiday with the mitzvahs of lulav and etrogsukkah and hachnasat orchim (“welcoming guests”).

‘An Oasis of Judaism’

Dr. Marissa Dolled-Filhart of New Jersey, one of the oncology researchers in town for Shabbat, notes: “Chabad of Copenhagen was extremely warm and welcoming, despite it being a very hectic time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—whether it was via multiple emails back and forth in advance of my arrival [they responded at all hours] to suggestions on helping make my stay in Copenhagen comfortable during the conference. Their assistance ranged from invitations to join them for meals, recommendations of beautiful local gardens to walk through and nearby historic sites to visit if time permitted, contact information for a local taxi driver if needed, and even personally walking me to the Great Synagogue to experience davening at this unique and historic synagogue. They are a very selfless couple, caring the utmost about the safety, security and Jewish experience of their visitors any time of day or night in Copenhagen.”

Lucas Em, 36, a photographer and anthropologist originally from Colombia, South America, and now living in Copenhagen, echoes Dolled-Filhart’s words.

“Chabad has been an oasis of Judaism in a place where Jewish life is not lived much at all. Yitzi and Rochel have been some of the most open-hearted and welcoming people I have ever met,” he says. “They open their house to everyone; they open their ears to questions, doubts, stories, and they share their thoughts and words when necessary. The Chabad House is a meeting place for the Danish Jewish community. Each Friday night is a mix of locals, regulars, tourists, students and even non-Jews, who gather together under their hospitality for a night of great company, learning and food.

“For one of their daughter’s bat mitzvahs, there were—and I underestimate—about 400 people who either stayed or passed by to congratulate her and her family.

“I am not Orthodox (for those who prefer labels). There might be things I don’t understand about the ways of Chabad. But if there is something I have learned from the Loewenthals, it’s that everything starts with respect. Respect for each other and for what others believe. While you might not agree with all that’s said in the course of a conversation, you can still listen and be respectful. It is this model of respect that the Loewenthals contribute to the atmosphere of love and warmth that permeates this Chabad House.”

On Chanukah, a large menorah will be placed on Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen’s main square. There will be a large celebration when it is lit, with hundreds of people participating. Despite the fact that many local Jews prefer to keep their identity under wraps, the annual menorah-lighting and celebration of Jewish identity attracts a large and enthusiastic crowd—proud and excited to be able to celebrate Chanukah in this public fashion.

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