Beis Moshiach/Written by Nosson Avraham, Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry
Ever hear of the city of Ajaccio? If not, it would definitely be appropriate for you to familiarize yourself with the Isle of Corsica, where Rabbi Levi Pinson of France has spent the past several years working as the Rebbe MH”M’s shliach. Rabbi Pinson takes us on a unique journey among the ancient dwellings and cobblestone roads as he speaks about gathering lost Jewish souls, the Rebbe’s miracles, and the diligent and resolute activities to prepare Corsica to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Fasten your seatbelts…
While the Mediterranean Sea slopes along numerous beautiful seashore cities and exotic islands, Corsica remains a most unique example. It is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean and is part of the geographic territory of France. G-d graced this island with white strips of sandy shores and clear turquoise water alongside snowy mountains. Aside for these distinctive characteristics, what truly sets the island apart is its people. Corsicans faithfully guard their national treasures. The ancient houses, the cobblestone roads, the city squares, and the narrow lanes remain just as they have been for centuries.
The authenticity has been preserved together with the great honor and admiration expressed for generations by the local population towards the Jewish People. “I was never exposed to demonstrations of anti-Semitism here, similar to what I encountered, for example, in France,” says the shliach Rabbi Levi Pinson. “On the contrary, I constantly meet only with displays of appreciation.”
One of the island’s greatest national heroes is General Pasquale Paoli, who led Corsica’s struggle for autonomy two centuries ago. When he achieved victory, he decreed that Jews would receive equal rights, in contrast to the other nations of Europe at that time. This fact convinced many Jews to settle on the island and revitalize its economy. Even Corsica’s spiritual life began to prosper and flourish.
About a hundred years later, close to one thousand Jews from Teveria arrived to settle on the island after they had been expelled by the Turkish Ottoman authorities. The local Jewish community and its institutions were subsequently blessed and grew with an even greater intensity. How did these Jews from Teveria end up coming to Corsica, of all places? It turns out that through its consular representative in Tzfas, the French Third Republic had enabled this Jewish community to find refuge in Corsica.
While most of these families eventually returned to Eretz Yisroel, there still remained a small Jewish community on the island. “The community survived until the early nineties, however, it was specifically their good relations with local Gentiles that led to tremendous assimilation, and the community dwindled,” said Rabbi Pinson with sadness.
In recent years, the community has experienced a revival. Rabbi Pinson has been conducting activities on the island for nearly a decade. He first came as a young rabbinical student, sent at the request of his father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Pinson, the Rebbe’s shliach on the French Riviera. He worked with the remnants of the Jewish community during the summer months and prior to Jewish holidays. After their wedding, Rabbi Pinson and his wife Chaya Mushka moved to Corsica on a permanent basis. Together with their two children, the Pinsons established their residence in the island’s capital city – Ajaccio.
The rest is history.
HEAVEN-MADE CHANGES IN THE SHLIACH’S PLANS
Over the past several decades, the Isle of Corsica has known a wide variety of activities by the Rebbe’s shluchim, foremost among them Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Pinson. Although he is located primarily in the city of Nice, he has also been able to have a positive influence over the Jews of Corsica. In years past, he even printed a Tanya on the island and sent bachurim there for many years as part of the “Merkaz Shlichus” program.
“Since 5770, I have been doing outreach work in Corsica,” says Rabbi Levi Pinson. “The situation was that the community had only a few survivors. In the city of Bastia, while the synagogue still stood, until now they only opened it on Shabbos morning for three elderly men. Sadly, the synagogue was torn down because there weren’t enough Jews to come and daven there. Our mandate is to restore the glory of Yiddishkait.”
The mentality of the local population enabled the Jewish community to flourish. The Corsicans are known as being very friendly and caring towards Jews. In fact, the head of the island’s government is Jewish, and according to Rabbi Pinson, he was born on Yud-Alef Nissan.
Rabbi Pinson clearly recalls those early days: “When we arrived here, we were advised due to the island’s small Jewish population to conduct our activities at a low level of intensity. I remember that when I came here for the first time as a bachur, we didn’t care what people said. Together with my friends, we rented cars, mounted Chanukah menorahs on their hoods, and made a huge ‘shturem’ all over Corsica.
“In hindsight, people probably looked at our group as if we were crazy. However, as is customary among young people, we were not affected by this. When my wife and I came later as a married couple, we decided to work more discreetly. At that stage, it never entered our mind to organize a ‘public Chanukah menorah lighting’ as Chabad shluchim do everywhere else in the world.
“When we returned from the ‘International Shluchim Conference,’ I had an opportunity to speak with some Gentiles about the holiday of Chanukah and its symbols, among them the growing custom to light a large menorah in the center of every town and hamlet throughout the world. When I told them that I currently have no plans for such an event, the Gentiles reacted with replies of ‘Why should we be deprived?’ They pressured me to go to the mayor of Ajaccio and organize a central menorah lighting.
“Since Gentiles have no free choice in such matters, I realized that this was a push straight from Heaven and decided to countermand my previous plans. By Divine Providence, I had a good relationship with the mayor and requested that we have a meeting. The mayor agreed, and during our meeting, I spoke about the Chanukah holiday and the importance of publicizing miracles. I considered making the menorah lighting in one of the squares along the side streets and proposed this suggestion. However, the mayor surprised me with his own proposal: ‘Why don’t you make a menorah lighting in the square facing City Hall?’ I realized that the Hand of G-d was guiding the path towards a Chanukah program in the town’s central square.
“News of this exceptional event highlighted by the mayor’s personal participation spread quickly throughout the city. On the day of the lighting ceremony, hundreds of people attended, including journalists, religious leaders, and government leaders. It took place just a few yards away from the house where Napoleon was born. During those moments, I recalled the Rebbe’s sicha about how Napoleon and the Greeks were one and the same. I felt that this was the Alter Rebbe’s final revenge upon Napoleon… Since that event, a change began in all Chabad House activities, as all Corsicans, Jews and local Gentiles alike, quickly became aware of us.”
Rabbi Pinson says that he still receives reactions from that first public event (which has since become an annual tradition). “A few months ago, a man called me, introducing himself as Yaakov Shinkowicz – a Jew, of course. This Jew said that he lives in Ajaccio, and when he heard that there was a local Chabad House in operation, he wanted to join our programs. We set a time to get together, and I was fascinated to meet a middle-aged Jew, married to a Gentile woman, who spoke Yiddish fluently and had never put on tefillin in his life. He told me that his parents were Holocaust survivors who didn’t want him to have any connection to Judaism.
“It was interesting to hear how he came to us. He said that his ‘wife’ and his friends had pressured him to come with them to a Christian place of worship. However, he rejected the idea, claiming that he was a member of the Jewish People. They laughed at him because he didn’t act like a Jew, but he remained steadfast in his refusal. His place of residence was located over the City Hall square, and one night he opened the window to his room and saw a large crowd gathered around a Chanukah menorah. It had been decades since he had seen Jews or such Jewish pride. The sight aroused his heart and he decided to get closer to the path of his forefathers. His decision led him to call me that day, and he has since become a vital part of the Chabad House community.
“Since that Chanukah, every Chabad House activity went into high gear. The idea of operating modestly was soon replaced by programs accompanied by huge fanfare and publicity. We feel that G-d had given us a clear sign to function in this manner.
“Our community has grown and flourished with every Jew we discovered, joining each of them to the Chabad House family. In the summer months, numerous Jewish tourists come to the island, including traditional Jews who enjoy the full services of our Chabad House. During the winter, we focus primarily on the local residents. We have built a nice community here and each of its members is a story unto itself.”
A SURPRISING START
In the beginning, Rabbi Pinson and his wife considered establishing their residence in faraway Nice, a forty-five-minute flight from Corsica, and conduct their activities remotely. “We arrived in Corsica during the summer in a manner of ‘L’chat’chilla Aribber,’ and we rented a building in the center of Ajaccio for the Chabad House with the intention of returning to Nice. But after seeing how good it was there, we decided to establish our permanent residence on the island, as soon as we found a suitable place to live. According to French law, renting an apartment requires submitting salary slips proving that the renter earns a monthly income three times the amount of the monthly rent.”
Many people flout this law by forging salary slips, but Rabbi Pinson would not agree to do this. Thus, when he met with the owner of the apartment he wished to rent, he suggested that his father serve as a guarantor. “This Gentile was interested where my parents lived, and when I said in Nice, he asked at which address. After giving the address, he cried, ‘Do you know who your parents’ neighbors are directly across the hall?’ Before I had a chance to reply, he said: ‘My in-laws.’ Amazed by this discovery, he signed a contract with us, then and there, without asking for a single document.”
Just a few hours after signing the rental contract, Rabbi Pinson learned of the passing of a young Jew due to a terminal illness, and he now had to arrange for his burial. This was the first ‘tahara’ he had to do, and to his great sorrow, he’s done several dozen more since then. On such a remote island, such tasks are also his responsibility.
At the same time, Rabbi Pinson also began work on opening a kosher food store. “There was no place on the island where someone could buy kosher food products. It was clear to us that this was one of the first things we had to do, whether for the local Jewish community or the many Jewish tourists who come to the island each summer.
“Today, a fair share of Gentiles come to the store asking to purchase a ‘Jewish gift’ for a Jewish friend. There are also assimilated Jews r”l who come to the store before Pesach to buy kosher meat and other kosher products as they always did for the holiday. While they weren’t stringent about keeping kosher throughout the year, Pesach was a different story.”
The kosher store is also a meeting place for Jews from all around. “When people hear that there’s a kosher food store in town, it arouses their curiosity. A few months ago, a Jew came in and after he made his purchase, we suggested that he put on tefillin. When he adamantly refused, I replied quite forthrightly: ‘I don’t know who you are or what you do, but here in Corsica, Jews put on tefillin.’ Temporarily confused, he broke down and said that he had been raised as a Lubavitcher but had abandoned the Chabad path. He eventually rolled up his sleeve and put on tefillin with great emotion.”
BREAKTHROUGH TO BASTIA
Rabbi Levi Pinson is known among his friends and acquaintances as someone who does not rest on his laurels. After establishing some fine activities in Ajaccio, he began exploring how he could prepare other cities on the island to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu. “There’s another city named Bastia, which also has a small yet deeply historic Jewish community. Each summer and before the Jewish holiday seasons, I would send bachurim there for outreach activities. This year, I wanted to send them prior to the Pesach holiday as well, however, the head of the Jewish community there stubbornly decided for some reason that there would be no communal seder, rather the bachurim would come just to help make a minyan.
“Three days before Yom Tov, on Erev Yud-Alef Nissan, I sat with a group of T’mimim who had come to help us with our holiday preparations, including the koshering of a hotel with eight hundred Jewish tourists who had come to spend their vacation on the island. We farbrenged and said ‘L’chaim’ together in honor of the Rebbe’s birthday. During the farbrengen, a Jewish resident of Bastia called me and asked if there would be a Pesach seder in town. When I replied that there were no such plans at the present time, he was stunned. ‘How can I have a Pesach go by without matzos and wine?’ he said. His words touched my heart and I asked him to stay on the line.
“The farbrengen had given me a major spiritual boost. While I didn’t know how, I decided to give the Rebbe a birthday gift and do everything possible to arrange for a Pesach seder in Bastia. I raised my glass together with the bachurim and we said ‘L’chaim.’
“Then, just a few minutes (!) later, two bachurim staying in Paris called. They said that they had been planning to go on shlichus to Africa, but at the last minute, they received word that their trip had been cancelled. They asked if we had an alternative proposal for them, and if we did, they would make arrangements to pay for their travel expenses. I was delighted by this development and sent them to Bastia.”
In recent months since Bastia was added to the map, a young shluchim couple arrived in the city to run a wide range of Chabad activities. In another city, Porto-Vecchio, Rabbi Pinson makes certain that a number of T’mimim come there each summer to conduct outreach programs.
It’s quite amazing and exciting to see how within a few short years, a new shliach has managed to employ other shluchim under him and today he operates three active Chabad Houses on the Isle of Corsica.
STORIES OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE? JUST BEND OVER AND PICK THEM UP
According to Rabbi Pinson, miracles and cases of Divine Providence are daily occurrences in Corsica; all you have to do is bend over and pick them up. Every aspect to the shlichus crystallizes with the revealed help of Alm-ghty G-d, and the shluchim are merely the physical tool to carry out the task in practical terms.
“During the first year after our arrival, we rented a hall in a hotel for the High Holiday services. This was the first major activity that we did. While we publicized the event well in advance, we didn’t know how many Jews would eventually come. As it turned out, several dozen people came for services – and it was a most moving experience. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, just before T’kias Shofar, one of the T’mimim remembered that he had forgotten his shofar at home… He immediately dashed out to go and bring it. On his way back to the hall, a motorcycle rider stopped and asked him where he was going.
“‘What are you doing here?’ the motorcyclist asked in astonishment. The man was a Jew who had lived on the island for many years. He had been raised in a religious home and even learned in yeshivos, but he eventually left the path of Torah and mitzvos. He said that he woke up that morning with a fervent desire for Jewish tradition. He realized that it was Rosh Hashanah that day, and he was most sad that he had no way to fulfill this desire since there was no synagogue in town. Seeing how depressed he was, his friends convinced him to come out and play soccer. On his way to the field, he meets a Chabad bachur with a shofar in his hand.
“The bachur was just as astounded as the motorcyclist was. This was an incredible case of Divine Providence. Naturally, he brought him to the hotel for the prayer service. This Jew heard t’kios, davened with everyone, and he has become an integral part of the Chabad House community. We are in constant contact with one another; he stringently puts on tefillin and even has a weekly chavrusa for Torah study. Apparently, there was a very good reason why our bachur had to forget his shofar at home…”
Rabbi Pinson told me that there are countless Divine Providence stories such as this. “Three years ago, in early Elul, my wife and I arrived in the city. One of the first things we did was to make a large purchase of basic grocery items. I went to the local grocery, filled up my cart, and got in line to check out. As the cashier began to total my bill, all the lights suddenly went out – an electrical power outage. At first, they thought that power would be restored within five minutes, but when this didn’t happen, I decided that it would be preferable to leave the cart on the side, promising to return as soon as possible.
“When I came back that evening to check out the contents of my grocery cart, I heard that the power outage continued for another two hours. I was glad that I didn’t wait.
“About six weeks later, during Chol HaMoed Sukkos, a young man of Russian descent living on the island came to us. He said that he was Jewish and he wanted to join our community. After confirming that he was born of a Jewish mother, I invited him to come over. When I asked him how he had heard about us, he replied that he was married to an Arab woman r”l, and when she asked him about his Judaism, he said that there is no Judaism in Corsica.
“One day, his ‘wife’ returned home and said that she had been in the store at the time of the power outage, and she saw a rabbi standing there. Since then, he had been making inquiries about us until he finally found me. This Jew eventually became an important part of our community and he recently even bought his own pair of tefillin, which he stringently puts on each weekday.”
IN CORSICA, EVERY JEW IS A FIND
Every time the shluchim discover a Jew in their midst, they connect him to Chabad activities – a good reason for celebration. “This is not like finding a Jew in Paris,” the shliach says. “It’s interesting to note that even the local community members, many of whom are assimilated, sense the tremendous value to finding another Jew.
“Before the young shluchim couple arrived in Bastia, I had to travel there to find an appropriate house for them. I was preoccupied with various tasks and projects, and the trip to Bastia was delayed again and again, until it could be delayed no longer. I called several local realtors and asked them to find me a suitable dwelling for the new shluchim. Immediately afterwards, I made a late departure for my two-hour journey to Bastia from Ajaccio. The roads on the island are not always paved, and time passed quickly. All the realtors had already left their offices, except for one. I felt that I had made the trip for nothing and this saddened me very much, as I was seriously pressured for time in any case. Even the last realtor told me that if I didn’t come to his office by four o’clock that afternoon, he wouldn’t wait for me. As it turned out, I came half an hour late.
“I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to meet him by now, however, I did manage to find him outside his office with one foot literally inside the car. The realtor had thought that he was going to meet a typical French Gentile, and here he was standing before a Jew wearing a fedora, a suit, a beard, and tzitzis. Now, it was his turn to surprise me: ‘Are you Ashkenazic or Sephardic?’ he asked. From his question, I realized that he was Jewish.
“He was very excited to meet me. He said that he had been living in Bastia for five years and never imagined that he would meet another Jew there, not to mention one who was Torah observant. We drove together to the apartment that he wanted to show me, and it was most suitable in meeting our requirements. We signed a contract with conditions far more reasonable than I possibly could have imagined, including a substantial discount – but not before he put on tefillin.
“For me, this was another lesson in ‘Divine Providence.’ I had been annoyed over all the delays and obstacles, angry with myself that I had wasted a full day of work. However, it turns out that G-d is the One who ‘direct the steps of man,’ all in order for me to meet another Jew.”
GATHERING THE SOULS
One story follows another, and Rabbi Pinson recalls another story from the days when he came to Corsica as a bachur:
“One of the Jews we met on the island told us that there was a Jewish doctor living there called ‘Boscuotto.’ We checked this out and discovered that there were two people bearing this name – one in a small remote village on a hillside and another on Bastia’s main street. For some reason, we decided to take a gamble and made our way to the remote village.
“This is just one of thousands of hilltop villages on the island. Their concerned founders had hoped to use the location to ambush potential foreign invaders if they managed to reach the shoreline.
“We arrived in the center of the village, where we saw several elderly Gentiles sitting together. When we mentioned the name of the Jewish doctor, they claimed that there was no medical clinic anywhere in the vicinity nor was there anyone by that name. Since we had already come this far, we asked them if they knew of any Jews in the area. One of them mentioned a Jew who lived in an out-of-the-way house situated between two villages, where he ran a restaurant. We decided to go there, found the restaurant, and came up to its gate. When the owner, a Jew named Shukrun, saw us at the entrance, he was thunderstruck. He couldn’t understand where we had come from.
“He told us that he had been living there for many years, never leaving the place for anything. When his parents passed away, he brought them from France for burial near his home in the village. We sat with him for a good long while, and it was quite moving to see how we had discovered another Jew due to our navigational ‘error.'”
How do the local Gentiles react to your activities? We’re talking about a relatively small city with only about seventy thousand residents.
“There is a great fondness for our activities, and for Jews and Judaism in general. In Corsica, you don’t encounter the hate-filled looks as in France. There are many families on the island, full-fledged Catholics, who consider themselves Jewish because they regrettably have Jewish roots, e.g., a Jewish father or mother who had assimilated. In the annals of local Corsican history, there were strong Jewish communities that had simply assimilated out of existence.
“One of the greatest sources of local pride is the fact that during the Second World War, not a single Jew in Corsica was murdered by the Nazis, may their names be erased. There’s a story describing how the Germans had approached a Corsican government representative and asked him to give them the lists of all Jews living on the island. He replied to them that he didn’t know of any Jews in Corsica, and if he would meet one, he would be unable to hand him over because the local residents would exact retribution for such cruelty. Indeed, the Corsicans saved the Jews in their country from the horrors of the Holocaust.”
I realize that life here on the island is very isolated. Isn’t it rather difficult to live without friends or a community?
“The pasuk states that we are ‘a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations.’ We have been aware that we apparently must live alone since the dawn of our nationhood,” says Rabbi Pinson with a smile. “Sometimes it really is hard, especially for my wife. Without doubt, there’s an element of self-sacrifice here, but I apparently am already used to this. I was educated in the shadow of my paternal grandparents, who served as the Rebbe’s shluchim in Tunis for decades. You have to realize that communication and media services in the past were not as they are today. Telephone calls were quite expensive, and the authorities listened to their conversations due to fears of espionage. Nevertheless, they maintained their sense of Jewish pride. In my parents’ home I was taught that shlichus is life.
“I recall that before we left for Corsica in early Elul, we were staying with my parents in Nice. By Divine Providence, on our last Motzaei Shabbos there, I saw a video clip of the Rebbe speaking about the concept of ‘the king in the field.’ The Rebbe asks: The king comes to the field and all the people come out to greet him. But where does the king come from? The Rebbe replied that sometimes people come to the king’s palace to meet him, just in order to understand that the king is generally found in the person’s place of shlichus.
“We clearly feel this at every stage. The king is found in the place of shlichus; the Rebbe gives us strength, helping and accompanying us literally at every moment.”
How do you manage things economically when all of these activities cost as much as they do?
“The cost of these activities is indeed quite high, as is the cost of living on the island. As a result, we try to reduce our expenses as much as possible. For example, we try to keep air travel to a minimum. However, on those issues pertaining to the spreading of the wellsprings, we cut no corners. In fact, we are constantly in debt, especially with expanding activities related to the establishment of a Chabad House in Bastia.
“I’ll share with you a case of Divine Providence that I experienced in this matter. Some time ago we had some seriously nagging debts. However, I also had a strong desire to run a Tanya printing on the island. I had previously read a kuntres published on Tanya printings, where I saw a sicha from the Rebbe telling how the Rebbe Rayatz was always in debt. This was because whenever he had money, he used it for spreading Yiddishkait. I read this and felt that the Rebbe was dropping me a hint – a shliach must be in debt, because if he waits for money to come in first, what will happen to his activities?!”
What about the children? Do the activities also relate to them in some special way?
“From the very outset, our path has been clear: If we want to move our local Jewish community forward, we must invest in the city’s children, instilling them with those values designed to protect them from the scourge of assimilation. We founded a Talmud Torah, and children come to learn the Hebrew alphabet and basic concepts in Judaism. Only recently, we made history in Ajaccio with the celebration of a bar-mitzvah for a boy whose parents we knew for certain are both Jewish…”
How are you preparing the world in Corsica for the revelation of the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach? Do you speak about the subject?
“What do you mean? We’re Lubavitchers, aren’t we? Clearly, hastening the Rebbe’s hisgalus is the main thrust behind each of our activities. I was raised in Nice, where ‘Yechi Adoneinu’ and ‘Moshiach’ are mentioned without hesitation. Thus, your question seems a bit strange, as if you were asking whether we speak about the importance of putting on tefillin. For me, talking about Moshiach and putting on tefillin are one and the same. We would never entertain the thought of not speaking about Moshiach.
“I’ll tell you one more thing: With the passage of time, we have accustomed everyone to close all their SMS messages with ‘Moshiach Now.’ Even assimilated Jews, when they send us a communication or even among themselves, they sign off with the words ‘Moshiach Now’… The subject of Moshiach pervades each of the activities we conduct.”
What you have managed to achieve during the relatively short period of time you have been on the island is quite impressive. What are your future plans?
“As you have said, we are just at the very start of our work. I have a dream to find an appropriate building in the center of town and open a Jewish restaurant with a stringent level of kashrus. Today, we provide kosher supervision for a local catering company, as Jews come from France to prepare the food for local Jewish events and other celebrations. In addition, we have also set another objective: the construction of a mikveh. Apart from the current need, I believe that there will be a sizable demand for this as well in the near future B’ezras Hashem.”