By Rabbi Itzik Kupchik
We were supposed to have been back in Bolivia a long time ago, but the rate of Covid infections there at the moment is very high and it shows no signs of dropping. The hospitals are filled to capacity and the medical resources are almost collapsing under the load. There are no backpackers around at this time, that’s for sure, and even if we were here we would not be able to meet up with the people in the local Jewish Kehilla. This is because even though there is no lockdown (as the authorities did not want people dying of starvation) everyone stays in their houses as much as they can. We really had no choice but to stay in Eretz HaKodesh.
When it got close to Purim we realized that I had to get back to Bolivia. Who would read the Megilah? Who would give out Mishloach Manos? Who would remind them that Purim is a happy holiday?
And after Purim, Pesach will come. Everyone is locked in their houses but we have to get Matzah to them and everything they need for Yom Tov. There’s no way to send it as a package either by land or by sea.
The only way to get the Matzah to them is to go across the world to Bolivia!
All factors seem to be against us. Israel is in lockdown and one can only fly with special permission. Seven kids in a small apartment with no schools or nursery schools. winter, rain. They can’t even go out and play.
Chaya decides in spite of everything: “This is our Shlichus! This is our responsibility! You go and I will be fine!”
Just first she said she will write to the Rebbe in the Igros Kodesh to get a Bracha.
In the answer that we got from the Rebbe MH”M, the Rebbe is answering a doctor who is going on Shlichus. I also write to the Rebbe, and in my letter the Rebbe talks about the Inyan of awakening the Jews of his community with warmth and Chassidish light.
Clear and wonderful answers.
Finally on Friday we get the long awaited documents allowing me to fly. I immediately phone the travel agent. There is a flight either on Motzei Shabbos or on Monday night. Monday would be too late. The flight from Eretz Yisroel to Bolivia is not a simple one and goes via New York and Miami. There is no way that it is possible to leave Eretz Yisroel on Monday and make the Tuesday flight to Bolivia. Later than Tuesday would be too late. I would have to fly on Motzei Shabbos.
So then there was a packing marathon. 50 kilos of Matzah, a few kilos of chocolate for Mishloach Manos, and…I am on my way.
A 12 hour flight from Tel Aviv to New York. After that Miami, S. Cruz, and then Bolivia. Then a short local flight to La Paz, the city of my Shlichus.
It is here that the story begins.
Bolivian import laws allow for bringing in five kilos of foodstuffs. All suspected suitcases are checked by hand. I have no way to “hide ” anything this time because each and every one of my suitcases, including my hand luggage and my Tefillin bag are full of food and only food… Only food!
Throughout the long journey and all the flights I banish any negative thoughts and strengthen my Bitachon. There is no way in the world that after mine and my wife’s huge efforts that the Matzos will not get to Bolivia!
But the expected happens…When I land in S. Cruz, the customs officer motions me to stand in line for the hand check of my bags. And if I had the notion that I could somehow avoid him (and I had considered this) he told the police officer to keep an eye on me.
They open up the first box. Its all food. The same with the second one. All food. Even the hand luggage.
“Don’t you know that you can only bring in 5 kilos of food???”
My explanations get me nowhere.
That I came here specially from Eretz Yisroel. That we are the Chosen Nation. That I am a Shaliach of the Rebbe. That the Kehilla will not have food for Pesach…
They confiscate everything!
One minute. I am allowed my 5 kilos. Give me at least that!
The officer takes me into a nearby office where they have a scale and puts 3 boxes of Matzah on it. Okay. You have more than 5 kilos here. And I have another 24 boxes…
I quite simply beg as if my life depends on it. She softens a bit, but explains that everything is on video. She will lose her job if she doesn’t confiscate all this. And during the Covid crisis, getting a job is not easy.
She fills out a form and confiscates the Matzah. She sends me off to get a certificate from the department of health in the city which will only be open in two hours, and it will take an hour and a half to get there.
But I have a connecting flight… I manage to say.
“That’s not our problem”, she says. “Write a nice letter, an official one from the Jewish community and that should help you.” This was her advice.
Usually, once they have confiscated food, the Ministry of Health only releases another five kilos more than those five we are allowed.
And this too is a long and complex process.
1. I have to fill in three copies of a request in Spanish.
2. I have to go and pay import tax of $20 at the bank.
3. There is another $10 payment at another bank.
4. I have to go back to the Ministry of Health with all the receipts and have the official fill out another form.
5. Three business days later I would get the form approved.
6. I would then have to make an appointment with a health official who would come with me to the airport.
All this rushing around. As well as money for taxis and the form. Just not worth it for five kilos of food. Just five kilos?
But this time I have no choice!
I have to get the Matzah. The three Jewish Kehillos in Bolivia are waiting for the Matzah!
on the other hand, there is my next flight to La Paz leaving today. Tomorrow is Taanis Esther already. Then it’s Purim and then Shabbos. On Sunday everything is closed On Tuesday I am supposed to be leaving Bolivia on the way back…
By natural means I have no way of getting my Matzah back. In the past, they have confiscated shipments of Matzah that were meant for the community. In the past we had to smuggle them through the Peruvian border. This time there is no way to do that.
I leave all my considerations behind. I take the address of the office from her and go into the passengers area. I run to organize a SIM card so I can be in contact with the outside world. Later I would find out how necessary this was. I make sure that the driver of a taxi I call has air conditioning. We go into the crowded, humid city of S. Cruz with its traffic jams and traffic noise and an air conditioner that obviously didn’t work.
I am annoyed with the driver and say “but you said there was air conditioning”. “There is”, he answers. “But its just that it doesn’t work…”
I ask my wife to write to the Rebbe urgently and am encouraged. In the answer, the Rebbe talks about “Pada Besholom Nafshi” and about the influence of the light of Chassidus on all those who are still “on the outside”. During the ride, I need to prepare a letter from the Jewish Community for the Ministry of Health. It will take time for the secretary to get to her office, for her to type it out, until the president of the Kehilla will sign..
We need a letter that will bring redemption. Something beyond the natural order. That even someone who isn’t Jewish will realize he has to release the Matzos immediately!
I am lucky that there is internet access. I write to my Spanish translator in Israel who does wonderful work for us and she understands the situation.
“We just got back from a Purim event. I will just let the kids out of the car and I will write the letter.”
At the same time I called the head of the community and he immediately tries to help me. He writes to the secretary telling her to mail to me the Kehilla’s official stationary and a photo of his signature. During the ride I get the text of the letter and send all three things to a friend who can put all three together. Then I send the finished letter to the head of the Kehilla so he can approve it. Baruch Hashem he does. I stop at the local university where there is a store from where I can print out the letter. I print out pictures of his passport and ID documents, and continue on my way.
These days when Hashem has organized that we would have Google Maps where every journey can be examined, three streets before we get there… Boom we have a car accident.
The driver turned right without indicating and another car hit us from the side. Luckily it was at low speed and so it was only a dent. The drivers start arguing and I stand there sweating and wondering to myself “why am I being delayed like this? I have no time…” Fifteen minutes later the driver got back in, very upset, and we went on. We got to the Ministry of health. It didn’t look like it was living up to its name. A huge courtyard, mostly bare earth. sand and dust. Two big dusty old dirty buildings. Inside completely full of people. Many doors into offices. Each office with a few clerks and mounds of papers.
Who am I supposed to approach? I go back to the entrance thinking perhaps a security guard can advise me. At that moment the official from the airport suddenly walks out of the building. The very one who had confiscated my Matzos!
She had finished a night shift at the airport and had come to give in her paperwork and was on her way home. During the time they were arguing after the crash, she had been finishing up her work. I had not had the slightest chance of meeting her. Hashem took care of the timing. She waved to me and I told her I was a bit lost. I don’t know who to turn to and I don’t know the language too well and I really need her help. She said: “No problem, follow me. We will go and talk to my supervisor” and off we went. He was not in his office. She takes me to an employee entry and we enter the ‘high offices’ where she meets her manager, who is with HIS manager. She explains the urgency to them. And we all go to the general manager together…
Just miracles. The general manager looks at the letter and decides to release the Matzah!
They call some junior clerk to travel with me to the field and there he will fill out the required paperwork.
I do not really believe what is happening!
The Jews of La Paz, with whom I have been in contact all the time and who know the reality well, also do not believe it.
It has already happened twice that the delivery of their Matzos with all the permits got stuck in customs for several months. And here I am, with no acquaintance, no language, no money. Succeeds in this way to release the Matzah… and immediately!
No words. I am without… and without… but the Rebbe Melech Moshiach is with me!
Returning to the airport. This time the trip is no longer cumbersome. Not the heat. Not the humidity. And not even blocking the roads by a demonstration by doctors and nurses… After such visible miracles, the immateriality takes up less space…
On Monday there is still room for the next flight and towards evening I am already in La Paz. I doze off. When I wake up it’s already Taanis Esther. A Shliach of the Rebbe should know how to do everything. I quickly knead dough and make hamantaschen, I pack dozens of Mishloach Manos and cartons of Matzah.
I invite everyone to the Shul for Megilah in an open space due to Covid. Unfortunately, people here are really, really scared. Barely twelve people came to hear the Megilah. Everyone else is watching us live.
The synagogue has been closed for a year!
After the Megilah they stay a long time. Just to hear more and more.
The rest of Purim passes with me visiting one house after another. At the entrance to each house, there is a disinfection stand. I am sprayed with alcohol from head to toe. Including shoe soles.
One of the local Jews explains to me: “This is how it is with the virus raging and no medical services.” Everything here has collapsed. They don’t admit people over the age of sixty to a hospital. We have already lost quite a few friends. This is no joke. Even my sister, who is less than one street away from me, I will not visit.
From the early hours of the morning and right up until the beginning of Shabbos, I go from house to house, from Jew to Jew.
I meant one woman who arrived in Bolivia even before the Holocaust. She has a passport with a swastika which she received as a child, after the Nazis came to power. Unfortunately she has a fourth generation of intermarriage but she is so happy to hear anything about Judaism. She barely let’s me move on…
The uncle of an older Jew… Over a year ago we celebrated a bar mitzvah for his sister’s grandson. So he agreed to put on tefillin for the first time in his life. This Purim was the second time. “I knew you would come back here,” he tells me.
Then there’s an elderly Jewish lady from Istanbul. She still remembers how in her childhood they had beaten every name of the ten sons of Haman for a long time. “I do not have much time, I have to finish everything before Saturday. On Saturday I do nothing” she says proudly.
Mr.… he does not want to disturb his sick wife. G-d should give her complete recovery, so we go out to read the Megilah on a busy street.
There’s a local Jewish lawyer who never agreed to put on tefillin. Although he visits a Shul from time to time. This time, he could not refuse. When I visited his house I told him: “This time it is impossible to refuse. I came especially from Israel to you. You can not say no.” He rolled up his sleeve and put on Tefillin.
We remember the miracle of the Matzah distribution last year. At the height of the closure here, we really could not leave the house. It is forbidden to go out with a car. No taxis or public transport. I did not know how to distribute the Matzah?
I set off. A TV car stopped me. And when I explained to him about Matzah and Pesach he said: “Yes, I know what Passover is, my grandmother was Jewish.”
“You are also a Jew!” I said excitedly.
His name is Louis Nematla. His grandmother married a Lebanese Christian people, and he is the son of a daughter, a Jew. He later took me and helped me for many hours with the distribution. This year I tried with all my might to meet him in Bolivia. But I did not succeed. literally on the morning of the flight, he said he would arrive at 9:30. At 9:00 I had an appointment with a Jewish pediatrician. So the times suited me. The problem is that Lewis came early. When the doctor comes in Lewis calls me and says “I’m here outside”.
I have a bit of a problem getting him into the community. Although his grandmother is Jewish, his father is a pro-Palestinian Arab. And the community will not give him an entry permit. I designated a street to meet him nearby. But now, what should I do? Put Tefillin on the doctor and miss Lewis, or apologize and ask the doctor to wait? Having no choice I choose the second option. I ran out to a street corner. Lewis is waiting for me in a luxury jeep.
He’s all excitement due to the Matzos, as well as from the meeting itself. I get in the car. After a few polite words, I ask him if he knows what Tefillin is. “No,” he replies. A short explanation of the Mitzvah, and to my great joy he is willing to put it on. For the first time in his life! He stops the vehicle, gets out, rolls up his left sleeve and I put Tefillin on him. “Shema Yisroel…” he says.
Finally, I wish him good luck on his bar mitzvah. “What? I did a bar mitzvah today?” He says admiringly “Right today I need it. I need a special connection with G-d”. We decided to start learning more about Judaism. And immediately I run back to the doctor who was waiting to put on Tefillin for more than a quarter of an hour…
It’s not so nice, but Boruch Hashem another Jew ceased being a “Karkafta…”.
And this is how one by one, I collect stories of souls and tears…
People are excited.
I meet them, one after the other, with tears in my eyes. They explain to me how happy I made them, and how I came to them as an angel from heaven. And I explain to them that “no, not an angel from heaven, but a Shliach from the Rebbe, who thinks and cares for every Jew. Even if you have to go through 4-5 flights and 90 hours on the road”.
I asked multiple members of the community if they can invite me for Shabbos (of course I would bring my own dishes), but unfortunately they are so scared of corona, especially since they already lost some people to the virus, and no one agreed. So I ended up eating the Purim meal as well as the Shabbos meal alone.
I, who is accustomed to tens and hundreds of Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, and to the constant bustle of children, suddenly find myself alone at the table. The house is empty. The Shul complex, where we live, is completely deserted.
If Hashem is happy to gather Jews “L’achad Echad” then for me it’s for sure okay.
If you stayed with me so far, what do I have left to ask of you?
To return to my home and family, I need a special permit, which requires “Rachamei Shamayim”. So like the Rebbetzin of the Tzemach Tzedek, it would be good if you can say a Kapitel of Tehillim for my success in the mission.
And you know what? Whoever really wants to participate by helping to cover my expenses – it will surely not hurt, in fact it would really help.
Click here to donate to the Chabad House of Bolivia.
Itzik Kupchik. On the Rebbe’s Shlichas.
La Paz, Bolivia.