By Nosson Avrohom
Admit it; you’ve never heard of a family — parents and four children (today six) — who go off on Shlichus to a forsaken hole in the wall in southern Mexico on the border of Guatemala. This is precisely what R’ Oren and Einat Raz. Read their fascinating story about going on Shlichus to S Cristobol to prepare another part of the world to greet Moshiach.
Cristobal de las Casas, or Cristobol for short, is a city 2100 meters above sea level, located in the Chiapas Mountains in southern Mexico. Thousands of Israeli tourists and other Jews visit the resort city every year. It is a crossroads between different parts of Mexico and a border crossing to neighboring Guatemala. Many of the Israeli backpackers stay longer than they planned, both because of the many attractions and the convivial atmosphere.
Those in the know say that this city is one of the prettiest in Mexico and Central America. It is located in a mountainous region and the weather is cooler than many coastal cities of Mexico. The streets are paved with marble stone and it is very enjoyable to walk on them. There are numerous nature spots – waterfalls, nature preserves and endless jungle trails.
“Unlike other Chabad Houses that cater to seasonal tourists, our work is year round,” says Shliach, R’ Oren Raz. “The tropical climate brings tourists throughout the year, but the main season is Tishrei time when we have hundreds of people at our table.
“The uniqueness of the Chabad House in Cristobal is the personal connection that develops with visitors. In addition to the work with tourists, there is also a lot of work with Jews who live in the city, many of whom are, sadly, with non-Jews. We have to operate discreetly in the face of this painful situation and have had a number of successes.”
The Raz family, Oren, Einat and their six children, have been on Shlichus for five years. Oren was born in Petach Tikva to a family whose members are considered “solid citizens.”
“There was a lot of Israeli patriotism in the house but hardly any Judaism. When I went to the army I was in the Golani brigade, and I ended my army duty in a unit that trained officers in rescue and extraction methods in urban areas. Ever since I was a young kid I was opinionated and rebellious. I asked a lot of questions and did not accept things ‘just because.’
“When I finished my army service, those feelings intensified within me. I naively thought that traveling would dissipate this feeling and I worked for a moving company in the United States in order to save up money for a long trip. In the US, a relative took me into his diamond business and within a short time I made a lot of money. I lacked for nothing, but despite this, one day I quit my job and flew to South America.”
Those who knew him were shocked by his departure, but at this point he felt he wanted to see the world. He hoped that a trip to exotic locales would make him forget his search for meaning, the nature of which he could not express in words.
“I joined three Israelis including a pilot, someone in the field of high-tech, and an officer in the Nachal brigade who was later killed in the Sinai desert. The four of us went on an adventure tour in Rora Nabaka in northern Bolivia.”
The small group followed Yossi Ginsberg, a well-known tour guide, who wrote about a challenging route he took the length of the Tuichi River.
“It’s a very challenging hike, walking through an unmarked jungle swarming with wild animals and mosquitoes that carry malaria and other fatal diseases. The plan was to go for ten days. Two native guides joined us and we entered the jungle. Unfortunately, already on the second day we realized that our guides were irresponsible; they lost both our way and the food we brought.
“The idea of going on that trip was to experience danger from up close. We quickly realized that we were not only experiencing danger but would probably not return alive. The local guides constantly chewed on hallucinogenic leaves so we could not communicate normally and they themselves could not say where we were. Instead of helping they became a burden. There we were in the midst of the terrifying jungle without a guide and without food. From that point on we used our survival skills to remain alive. We drank from streams and ate whatever we could find. As the days passed we truly believed that we would not get out of the jungle alive.”
After walking for days, with their bodies beginning to send messages of exhaustion, the group reached the main river which crosses the jungle. With their remaining strength they built a raft out of logs and went out on the river.
“We figured that floating on the river would eventually bring us to some inhabited area. What actually happened was after a few hours the raft broke apart and we all fell into the water. It’s a river full with crocodiles and dangerous fish and it was miraculous that we managed to swim toward the shore.
“On the banks of the river we were able to put a raft together again and we continued floating on the river. Days passed until we reached an inhabited place, a small village, and from there we reported on our situation. Our stomachs were swollen and we felt like they would explode. When we got to a hospital in the capital of Bolivia, we were told we had malaria, typhus of the stomach, and some other serious diseases. After a month and a half in the hospital we were released. What an experience that was, but it did not diminish our appetite for adventure.”
Instead of ten days, the men were in the jungle for three weeks.
Despite what they went through, Oren was determined to continue traveling.
“The itch to travel and feel free was still strong. I loved the feeling of being a backpacker with everything I needed on my back. I was looking for more adventures. Today I know that my Neshama was crying out, but back then it was expressed in the desire to travel.
“Right after Bolivia I made a short visit to my parents in Eretz Yisroel and from there I flew back to Washington where I worked at a mall in Seattle. For days I sat in malls with pushcarts selling Israeli products. I had hardly any customers so I would sit and write. I filled entire notebooks in which I wrote my ‘insights on life.’ I really felt my mind opening up.
“The one who interrupted this ideal situation was my manager who was shocked by the pennies I had made. He asked me to set up my stand in the middle of the mall. ‘People need to see you,’ he said. When he left, a tall black guy who manned a stand near me came over to console me about the treatment I had gotten. ‘If the Creator wants, you will sell and it makes no difference where you stand,’ he said.
“He confused me. Until then I had believed that a person is responsible for his fate. This was the first time in my life that I heard such an idea and it got me thinking, for the first time, about the existence of a Creator and the creation.
“At just this time, I was exposed to a cult of Messianic Jews. Although in Eretz Yisroel I had never stepped foot in a shul and I did not even know the difference between them and true Judaism, I was excited when I saw Hebrew texts in their house of worship. When they spoke to me about my being a member of the chosen people, I did not accept that. I was raised on egalitarianism. Ironically, it was they who convinced me that a Jew is unlike all other people. I started regularly attending their meetings and became a member of their congregation.
“One night I woke up in a fright. I had had a dream in which I heard that I had to quickly return home. I am not a person who usually dreams and the next morning I told the congregation that I was leaving for Israel and would return in a few weeks. I was embarrassed to tell them the real reason I was leaving. In Eretz Yisroel I met a good friend and I told him about my joining the cult. He yelled at me, ‘What are you doing with them? Are you normal? You’re a Jew!’ I did not understand what he wanted from me and I shouted back, ‘You yourself are not religious!’ and I enumerated the sins we did together. But he did not give in. ‘There are red lines you don’t cross, and leaving the Jewish people, you and all your descendants to follow, is a line you don’t cross.’
“I was taken aback to hear my friend talking this way. He had seemed like a pluralistic guy to me and what he said caused me for the second time within a brief period to think about my Jewish identity.
“I cut off ties with the cult and when they did not stop pestering me by phone, I changed my phone number and started looking for spirituality. I did not yet dream of doing Teshuva or joining a group of people who kept Mitzvos; on the contrary, it was the religious people who I considered the antithesis to spirituality.”
THE SHLIACH AND THE MAN FROM THE SHIN BET
Oren began his search by studying natural healing. He starting doing meditation and yoga and at a certain point decided to fly to India. His first stop was Dharamsala where he met Israelis who spent days and weeks doing absolutely nothing other than smoking hallucinatory substances.
“I kept away from that and wanted to hike in nature. I found a partner, a high ranking intelligence officer. He was on vacation and was about to be promoted to an even more senior position. We traveled together and I enjoyed his company very much.
“One day, he invited me to join him on a visit to a Chabad House. I remember being angry. ‘What do you have to do with a place like that? Are you thinking of doing teshuva?’ He reassured me that it was just an encounter with other Israelis and Jews and I had nothing to worry about. I went along with him and we walked in in the middle of a Dvar Torah given by R’ Dror Shaul. The place was packed.
“The officer from Shin Bet listened to the Shliach and said to me thoughtfully, ‘His face is unfamiliar but his voice is very familiar.’ It turned out that the Shliach and the officer were friends who had served in the same paratrooper unit. The two of them waxed nostalgic about the years they had spent together, while I stood off on the side moved to tears.
“I started visiting the Chabad House every day. We learned a lot from the Shliach about our traditions. We started putting on Tefillin and for the first time in my life I understood that the way of the Torah that my fathers and grandfathers had trodden was the way of truth. For the first time in my life I felt how learning and doing Mitzvos were a balm for the feelings of emptiness I had. For the first time in my life the endless desire for adventure was exchanged for a strong desire to learn and know.”
After a few weeks in India, Oren committed to keeping Shabbos and putting on Tefillin. He parted ways with the guy from Shin Bet and continued traveling on his own to northern Thailand, to the Chiang Mai area where he met Einat, his future wife, at a Shabbos meal at the Chabad House. Einat belonged to the religious Zionist sector at the time.
“When we returned home, we married and lived on a hilltop in the Shomron. I studied classic homeopathy at Asaf HaRofeh hospital and my wife studied architecture. I even traveled to Yerushalayim to learn at the yeshiva Machon Meir.
“I became fully religious, but at a certain point I still felt that I had not reached the truth. Being someone who went till the end in everything I did, I felt I was compromising with myself. The turning point occurred on a trip my wife and I made to India. Our first stop was the Chabad House in Kasol. I was used to a blessing for the State after the Torah reading, but there, they proclaimed Yechi. When I asked the Shliach, R’ Winderbaum, about it, he said, ‘All indications point to the Rebbe being Moshiach.’
“Although I am usually philosophical and intellectual, this time, what he said so matter-of-factly and directly really spoke to me. Later on we visited other Chabad Houses in India and in all of them we heard the same ‘tune.’ We studied the behavior of the Shluchim, the seriousness and focus on the goal, and we realized that Chabad is the right path and we needed to study it.
“I returned home from India with a beard. That was a good Hachlata I made at a Farbrengen in Dharamsala. Erev Yom Kippur I committed to wearing woolen Tzitzis.”
With the guidance of the Shluchim in India, the couple moved to Tzfas where Oren went to yeshiva and Einat went to Machon Alte. They lived in Tzfas for a while and became Chassidim. They were “adopted” by the Neeman family.
“They taught us what hospitality is and really accompanied us every step of our journey.”
They returned to the Shomron where Oren worked on the Givat Olam farm in Itamar in marketing.
“It was clear to us from when we first started getting interested in Chabad that we wanted to dedicate ourselves to Shlichus like the Shluchim we met. The light of Chassidus we discovered is what we wanted to pass on to others.”
A BRACHA FROM THE REBBE FOR SHLICHUS IN MEXICO
After a long search for a place to go on Shlichus, Oren and Einat heard about Cristobal in Mexico and decided that was the place for them. They wrote to the Rebbe and received his blessing.
“When we first heard about Central America I refused because I suffer from the heat. All the tourist places with Israeli visitors are in coastal cities. Then we heard of this exception which is in a mountainous and jungle area with cool air, so we decided to check it out.
“R’ Dudi Caplan and R’ Shlomi Peleg who were already working as Shluchim in Cozumel, Mexico checked it out for us. They also rented a house for us. Before leaving we wrote to the Rebbe again and in the answer it referred directly to Mexico. In this letter, the Rebbe blessed the writer that he succeed in his activities with young people and transcend his selfish motives. With this answer all our doubts vanished and we boarded the plane to prepare another point on the globe for the Rebbe’s Hisgalus. We were even more excited when we found out that in the entire set of Igros Kodesh the word ‘Mexico’ appears just three times.
“The first months were very hard. The first house we lived in with our four children reminded me more of a stable than a house. We arrived on a very rainy day. The house had no locks and there was no electricity. Since I arrived with a Torah, it was always with me. I was afraid to leave it in an unlocked house.
“The first holiday we celebrated with tourists was Rosh HaShana. We rented a place and prepared for fifty people. A hundred and twenty people came and despite the simplicity of the place, it was very joyous. For Yom Kippur we were promised by ten people that they would come to make a minyan. When we gathered for Kol Nidrei, there were only nine. The tenth who promised to come was a local Jew who emigrated from the U.S. and was in his eighties. The Bochur who was there to help us, Avremi Zaks, went out to look for him. After a short search he found him. He was shocked to see him eating in a restaurant.
“Avremi gently reminded him that it was Yom Kippur. The man had made a mistaken calculation (I suppose because of his age) and he left the full plate, ran home, and brought a Tallis and siddur and came to complete the minyan. He became a close friend of ours.”
At first, not all the Israelis and Jews looked kindly on the arrival of the Shluchim. Some hoped for quiet in this out of the way city and weren’t pleased with the opening of a branch of Chabad which would remind them of their Judaism.
“Chanukah time, we planned a public menorah lighting. We advertised it all over town. There is an Israeli who runs a hostel who, unfortunately, lives with a non-Jew. When he heard about the menorah lighting, he was furious. He called me and screamed, ‘You are not in Eretz Yisroel! This is a Christian city!’ He wanted us to do things quietly, under the radar, but I calmly told him that we don’t hide our Judaism. I told him that the Rebbe said to publicize the miracle. He asked, ‘Where does the Rebbe write to do this?’ We arranged to meet and I showed him many references from the Rebbe and he was appeased. Not only that but he brought all the Israelis he knew to the menorah lighting. And since I hadn’t mastered Spanish yet, he translated what I said.”
THE FIGHT AGAINST ASSIMILATION
The Shluchim put in a lot of work in the fight against assimilation. There are a number of mixed families in the city and working with them isn’t easy.
“Until recently, there was a Jewish American woman living here who came here in the 1960’s. She got a scholarship to study art here and she met a local gentile and married him. They had three children who also married gentiles. We met this family as soon as we arrived in the city.
“When we looked for Jews, people told us about her. We invited her to the Chabad House for Rosh HaShana and to our surprise she came with her daughter who was also married to a gentile. We have become close with them. They also came for our Chanukah program. I suggested they put up Mezuzos in their homes and that was how Mivtza Mezuzah began. The impact the Mezuzah made was faster than I thought it would be. The grandmother left her gentile husband and made Aliya, and then the daughter left her gentile husband, became involved in Judaism, and moved to Mexico City.”
R’ Oren Raz describes his work with assimilated Jews – there is no compromising and he must act wisely in order to be successful.
“One day, an Israeli with long hair and dressed raggedly came to the Chabad House and stayed for the Shabbos meal. Our custom is for everyone to share some Hashgacha Pratis that happened to them or a story having to do with Jewish life. When it was this guy’s turn to talk, I realized he was not in a good situation. We took him under our care and he remained in the city for a while. He began putting on Tefillin and we arranged a weekly chavrusa in Chassidus. At one of our meetings he said that he had grown up in a religious family and he had abandoned that life. The learning and bond with us had gotten him back on track.
“One day, he passed by a restaurant run by an Israeli and he met a fellow there whom I knew, who was eating with a non-Jewish woman. Without thinking about it much, he went over to him and began chastising him for cutting himself off from the Jewish people. He did not relent until the man left.
“When he proudly told me what he had done, I explained to him that this wasn’t a good approach and he would not achieve anything this way. A while later we arranged to go together to an ecological farm in the middle of the jungle where this Israeli lives, in order to apologize and to talk to him nicely about the significance of his actions.
“He was happy to meet us and even agreed to put on Tefillin for the second time in his life. The high point of the visit was when we put a Mezuzah up on the door of the house in which he lives.
“A while later he came to visit us at the Chabad House. It was Rosh HaShana. We were looking forward to the day he would tell us he left the gentile woman. The one who had told him off, became a Chassid. He started with a Kippa, Tzitzis, and a beard and after opening to a letter from the Rebbe he stayed with us for a while and then returned to Eretz Yisroel where he married and has a Chassidic home.”
You have six children. What do you do about Chinuch when living in such a place?
“We put a tremendous amount into their Chinuch. Half a day they sit with my wife and Lubavitcher girls who come to us on Shlichus and learn various subjects. We try in every possible way to instill the Chabad experience.
“When we don’t have girls, the children learn on a new, independent online site that was started by Shternie Caplin of Kasol and Leah Brod of Playa del Carmen for children of Shluchim. It’s a project a few months old that was started due to the great demand by Shluchim around the world (they are looking for a donor to help them fund it).
“In addition, the children are an integral part of our Shlichus and sometimes their influence is greater than ours. One time, while we were walking with our children, they saw a couple who are religious Zionists, eating in a non-kosher restaurant. The couple was embarrassed and tried to excuse themselves by saying they were eating vegetarian, but the children said, ‘The food is cooked by gentiles and in the same pots in which they cook meat and milk.’ This encounter with our children made an enormous impression on them and they started visiting the Chabad House and became more involved in Torah and Chassidus.
“With children there is a strong element of candidness. They are active partners in all the Mivtzoim. They talk to tourists and tell them stories and many times I’ve seen how their influence is tremendous.”
What is unique about how you present Moshiach?
“Everything we do is connected with the Rebbe and Moshiach. We don’t hide this. A central aspect of our Shlichus is to connect people to the meshaleiach. We have never had problems in publicizing Moshiach. I told you that when I was becoming interested in Judaism, they spoke to me about Moshiach matter-of-factly and that is what I do with people who visit us. For those who ask questions and want to know more, we sit down and learn the halachic reasons that the Rebbe is Moshiach.
“People write to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh and see amazing things happen. It’s a means of connecting people to the Rebbe. We recently had a tourist who had a bad experience on one of her trips, and when she went to the Chabad House in Guatemala, to Avremi HaMeiri, she wrote to the Rebbe. She opened to an answer that infused her with hope and faith. She made a copy of the letter and would read it every day. One morning, she lost it. She came and told us about it and we contacted R’ HaMeiri. He did not remember where the answer was and I advised her to write again. She did, and when she read the answer she was stunned. It was the same answer she had opened to in Guatemala!”
The unique character of the Chabad House, according to Oren, is learning Chassidus on the banks of the river and deep conversations about Judaism.
“Here in Cristobal, you don’t have hundreds of Israelis at one time like you do in other coastal cities in Mexico. On holidays and special occasions more tourists come, but on a daily basis there are only a few dozen tourists, so there is time for deeper conversations.”
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Now that the Chabad House is established, the plan is to build a Mikvah. “The nearest Mikvah is in Mexico City, an hour and a half flight from Cristobal.
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WITH NO PRECONDITIONS
After five years on Shlichus, Oren and Einat Raz can look back and feel good about their accomplishments. They have an active Chabad House in a spacious building in the center of town; they run a kosher restaurant, a store for kosher products, have an array of Jewish programs, Shiurim, Tefillos, and many personal encounters.
But the beginning was very hard. “Until two years ago, we lived in a rickety wooden building. We ran the Chabad House from that small house. Our financial situation was also terrible and our programs ran on miracles.
“One morning, my wife woke up and told me about an amazing dream she had. In her dream she saw herself in 770 receiving a Bracha from the Rebbe for our finances. Later on, she went to a hall in Crown Heights with irreligious Jews going in, and following her was a Lubavitcher woman. The woman told my wife that she was from a very wealthy family and she would help our Chabad House.
“As Chassidim, we know that dreams are nonsense except dreams about the Rebbe. So we expected salvation. The unbelievable occurred. A good friend from Mexico City called us. He told me about a local, wealthy family that is close with the governor of the State of Mexico. This wealthy family was going to visit him and be his guest and the friend was calling to ask whether he could bring all of them to eat at the Chabad House.
“I told him where we live and what our financial situation is and we agreed that this would be a good opportunity to ask the family to support the Chabad House. On the afternoon of the second day of Chanukah, we got a phone call from the family’s secretary, saying they were on their way. He had a list of special requests regarding the food that the family wanted. We worked hard to prepare a meal fit for a king. They came three hours later, a convoy of expensive cars with security guards brandishing automatic weapons.
“The family entered our home, the grandparents, grandchildren, all Sephardic Jews, and the mother of the then newly elected governor and her husband (who were not Jewish). When the mother of the family walked in and saw the picture of the Rebbe, she smiled and said, ‘I belong to Lubavitch.’ I was happy to hear this and thought, my wife’s dream is coming true. After enjoying the meal, the father said he was going to donate a building to us that would be suitable for our activities and he would also help us open a kosher restaurant.
“I heard these promises and decided not to make any requests. During the meal we spoke about a Jewish center that we planned on opening in the center of town which would house a Chabad House and shul. The mother of the governor promised that the permits would be given. Before they returned to Mexico City, they promised to keep in touch. My wife and I were happy that things were beginning to fall into place.
“Ten days went by and I got a phone call from the family’s rabbi. He told me how enthusiastic they were about us and were going to do everything they promised. However, they had two conditions that horrified me. They were conditions that contradicted the very Shlichus we were there to do. Of course we said no thanks to their donation. That wasn’t an easy test and it felt really bad to have missed out, but I quickly encouraged myself by thinking this was a test and the Rebbe would help us.
“Indeed, the Rebbe came through for us and a few months later other wealthy Jews learned about our work and they donated generously. Thanks to them we opened a big Jewish center where we run a meat and vegetarian restaurant. We have a shul, an auditorium for events, a kosher store and a place to write to the Rebbe. Whatever that first family promised us, we got thanks to other wealthy Jews.”