Emissary in Exile


When Chani Gopin and her husband moved to Lugansk 15 years ago to open a Chabad center in the small Eastern Ukrainian city, she thought it would be hard. But she had no idea just how hard it would be.

Gopin and her husband, Rabbi Sholom Gopin, have worked as the movement’s emissaries in Lugansk, a small city in eastern Ukraine, for the past 15 years. But the conflict between Ukraine’s government and Russian-allied separatists engulfed the region last spring, reducing a city once populated by about 600,000 people to half that number and creating tens of thousands of refugees, some 2,500 of whom are Jews.

Among those are Gopin and her husband, Rabbi Sholom Gopin, who initially sent the oldest of their seven children to live in Israel, the couple’s native country, and later decided that they, too, had to flee Lugansk.

“We didn’t have any choice, the situation was getting worse,” Gopin told The Jewish Week last Sunday, while attending a dinner at the New York Hilton, the culmination of a five-day conference for nearly 3,000 of Chabad-Lubavitch’s female emissaries, or shluchot, as they’re referred to by the movement.

The Gopins have lived in 10 apartments since then, said the rebbetzin, having left behind their house, their car and nearly everything they own. But those personal circumstances aren’t their main concern. Rather, it’s the 250 Jews who now live in a refugee camp established by Chabad in western Ukraine, along with the hundreds of other displaced Jewish families who are scattered throughout Ukraine and the 4,600 Jews who remain in Lugansk.

The refugee camp — the first for displaced Jews in Europe since World War II, according to Chabad — is part of a massive humanitarian effort to aid the region’s Jewish population. In addition to Chabad’s efforts, the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is caring for 2,500 Jews who’ve fled the conflict zone, as well as those Jews still living in Lugansk, said Michael Geller, the JDC’s spokesman.

The organization runs 32 chesed social-welfare centers throughout Ukraine, facilities that provide food, clothing and medical supplies to poor and elderly Jews.

“Everybody on the ground is working together,” Geller said. The effort — which also involves dozens of other Chabad centers throughout Ukraine — receives funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.

Gopin and her husband, meanwhile, are essentially emissaries in exile, dividing their time between Kfar Chabad, the Israeli town in which her husband grew up, and Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city. From both those perches, Gopin said, they help run Chabad’s refugee camp while sending food and supplies to other Jews in the region, displaced and not.

The efforts have been complicated, of course, by war. Last week, for instance, two rockets hit a building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk housing one of the JDC’s social-welfare centers. But the rockets didn’t explode and no one was injured. Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, a teacher at Chabad’s preschool in Donetsk, a city near Lugansk, was killed this month when a rocket slammed into her apartment building.

Meanwhile, those who remain behind in Lugansk and surrounding towns are terrified and destitute, according to Gopin and Geller — a consequence of both the war and the region’s collapsing economy. In the past four months alone, Geller said, his own organization has added 2,000 new people to its aid rolls — members of the Jewish community who are middle class and have “never needed our help before.”

In better times, Gopin helped create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for local Jewish residents, organized Torah lectures for Jewish women and ran holiday activities.

Since coming to Lugansk 15 years ago, Gopin and her husband have opened a synagogue and a Jewish community center, as well as a Jewish school, an orphanage and a kosher food program.

Gopin also founded — and still edits — a monthly magazine for Russian-speaking Jewish women. She hasn’t missed a single issue in the 14 years since the magazine was created, said, even as conflict flared around her.

Gopin didn’t plan to become an emissary before she married her husband, Gopin said, and it was “hard” for her at first. “But I believe this is a mission for each Chassid,” she said, and she knew she would adjust and “find what to do.”

“What to do” includes attending Chabad’s annual conference in New York for most of the movement’s 4,200 female emissaries — an event that Gopin has attended more than once.

The conference begins with workshops on practical subjects, such as starting a day school or educational program, aimed at helping the emissaries. It also includes a visit to the gravesite of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Cambria Heights, Queens, and a “class picture” at Chabad’s Eastern Parkway headquarters in Crown Heights.

The final event is the dinner, a joyous occasion that includes speakers, a “roll-call” of all the countries and states represented at the event, and dancing.

This year’s speakers included Rhoda Dermer, the wife of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer as well as Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, respectively chairman and vice chairman of the movement’s educational arm.

Dermer referred not at all to the controversy involving her husband, a former Republican activist who worked with House Speaker John Boehner to arrange for the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. But Dermer, a Yeshiva University graduate with close ties to Chabad, mentioned Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as the “greatest threat” facing Israel — the subject of the prime minister’s speech if it takes place.

The gathering also heard from Goldie Atzvon, Chabad’s emissary in Hong Kong for the past 30 years, who delivered the evening’s keynote address.

The daughter of Chabad’s emissary in Pennsylvania, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Atzvon discussed some of the hardships of being an emissary, especially in a far-flung place like Hong Kong. Other emissaries are in such places as Laos, Cambodia and the Congo, as well as 78 other countries.

“Those early years were far from easy,” Atzvon said. “Living across the world, in a country where the closest established [Jewish] community was Australia, an eight-hour flight away, was a recipe for extreme loneliness. There was no Internet, which meant there was no Skype” and no online network for emissaries, and international calls were expensive.

“Truth be told,” she continued, “there were serious periods of doubt, periods of helplessness and extreme desperation” — feelings intensified by visitors who questioned the sense of sending emissaries to such remote places.

“Was it really worth it?” Atzvon asked rhetorically. “Was it fair to send a newlywed couple to such a spiritual desert?” But looking back, she said, the answer has to be affirmative, especially with 30 Chabad houses throughout Asia, including such places as China, Thailand and Japan, and with “hundreds of thousands” of Jewish visitors to those locations each year.

“Shlichus is not about theory,” Atzvon said at another point. “Shlichus is not about board meetings, agendas, or resolutions to meet again. It’s not just about long-term plans. It’s first and foremost about realistic action and making things happen here and now.”

It’s also about controversy, though no one at the conference spoke about that aspect. Turf warfare has often erupted between Chabad and others in the Jewish community, including leaders of Reform Judaism. Tension also flared in Ukraine last year, when leaders of one city’s Jewish community slammed a delegation of 16 Chabad rabbis for attending a Kremlin-sponsored Holocaust commemoration ceremony in Crimea, an area annexed last spring by Russia.

One person at the conference who spoke of being “recharged” by the event was Dini Freundlich, a native of South Africa who, with her husband, represents the movement in Beijing.

Freundlich told The Jewish Week that she and her husband felt a lot of trepidation at first — a “fear of the unknown,” of speaking a different language, of being “very far from anything we’re used to.” But she believes she and her husband, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, have achieved their main goal — creating a “warm home” for Jews in Beijing, including the 2,000 Jews who live there and the 20,000 Jews who travel through each year. She’s both principal of Chabad’s Jewish day school in Beijing and the founder of Beijing’s only kosher restaurant.

Of the conference, Freundlich said she finds it “humbling and empowering. You come here and realize you’re one among many,” a much different sensation than the one she often gets in Beijing, when it can feel like being “in a bubble.” The feeling of empowerment comes from being among “so many people from so many countries” who all doing the same sort of work she’s doing.

“You see that they can do it,” she said, “so you feel you can do it.”

Corrections, Feb. 18: A quote by Dini Freundlich, should have said she finds the conference "humbling and empowering," not "humiliating and empowering." We regret the error. In addition, JDC runs runs 32 chesed social-welfare centers throughout Ukraine, not 3,200.