Virgin Islands Shliach Makes First Visit Home After Shlucha’s Passing

Photo: Aisha-Zakiya Boyd

After having been away from his makom hashlichus for almost 6 months following the passing of his wife Henya Federman a”h, shliach Rabbi Asher Federman returns to the Virgin Islands and shares his emotions.

By Rabbi Asher Federman

Last week, accompanied by my brother Eli, I visited home in the Virgin Islands for the first time since November 30th.

I did not reach out to our island friends as I was unsure where I would be emotionally during the visit. Some days are so painful and difficult it is a challenge to just put one foot in front of the other.

I came to ground myself and touch home base after five months of separation. I came to feel closer to Henya and the Chabad House we built together.

Boarding the plane my memory carried me back to the first time Henya, myself and little Moussia’le flew from JFK, as emissaries of the Rebbe, to settle in our new island home until the coming of Moshiach.

We were both in our early twenties, young and green, yet energized and inspired to create a loving Jewish island family and community. We were oblivious to the realities and challenges of island life as well as its perks. And it didn’t matter, we were charged with purpose, infused with love of our fellow brothers and sisters and we were going to make it work no matter what… We had each other… we were going to create a “lighthouse of Yiddishkeit” in the middle of the Caribbean sea.

The Hebrew date was the 8th of Iyar 2005. As the plane took off Henya and I opened a small meaningful book with daily teachings (Hayom Yom) to learn the message of that day. It read:

“An emissary is one with his sender. This concept is similar to that of an angel acting as a Divine emissary. If this is so with an angel it is certainly true of the human soul; in fact with the soul the quality of this oneness is of a higher order… Now chassidim are emissaries of the Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe. So if the chassid actively discharges his mission, he is bound up with his Rebbe, bound up in his entire being…”

This relatable message resonated deeply with us and our journey… We frequently reminded each other of this passage when the going got tough and when we needed motivation or direction… We felt empowered… We are bound with our Rebbe and with G-d on a meaningful mission and we will succeed…

And here I am, exactly 18 (chai) years and one day later heading to our island home on what feels like a new journey… so lonely, so different, so unimaginable, so painful… Longing for Henya and Shterna and the beautiful life we built together…

While sitting on the plane, desperate for some solace, guidance, reasons or answers (in my constant unsatiable grief-stricken search) I opened that same book to learn the message of the 9th of Iyar. It is a small portion of a lengthy letter written by the previous Rebbe:

“Our master the Baal Shem Tov taught: Whatever a person sees or hears is a lesson in his service of G-d. This is what Divine service consists of – understanding and deducing a way to serve G-d from everything.”

I know this teaching well and for years I’ve shared it with others and consoled friends in difficult situations sharing with them the belief in Divine Providence and how everything happens for a reason…

But now I am faced with the challenge of practicing what I have preached. When it comes to personally facing pain and loss it is completely different, one needs to re-asses, internalize and bring into their consciousness everything we believe in the abstract.

I thought to myself, how in the world am I suppose to find meaning and purpose in everything that occurs? How can I bring redemption to my loss and pain. It’s not fair to Henya, to little Shterna’le, to our children… to Henya’s family and friends, to our island community and to the world… What can G-d possibly want?

I feel that I need to apologize to the many people I’ve counseled over the years for perhaps not empathizing enough with the depth of their pain.

Could my new Shlichus (purpose in this world) be finding some semblance of meaning and purpose in all the pain?

Did G-d choose Henya because she was too Holy and perfect? Did Henya complete her mission on this earth? Was the original contract with her soul that she would come down to earth for 40 years and I am the luckiest man alive to have shared those years with her?

Can a person’s destiny be changed and cut short? Why do pure children pass away young? Are they a reincarnation of a previous life that needed to come back for a short period of time to fulfill some purpose?

Did G-d need a spiritual resurgence and immediate huge collection of Mitzvos to tip some larger scale or avoid a larger catastrophe and chose Henya and Shterna to be the sacrifice?

Is there a need every so often to jolt and shock our nation to bring out vulnerability and create an awakening? To have certain people appreciate what’s important in life and come together?

Yes. Maybe. I wish I had the answers. I wish I was able to see things from the world of truth. The reality of the soul…

I was landing in a few minutes to the place where every road, sign, person, beach, store and smell remind me of Henya and the inseparable life we built together as one whole.

Where we welcomed thousands of visitors to our Shabbos table, where we raised our thirteen beautiful children, where we forged the most cherished friendships, where we built a most loving, beautiful, welcoming Chabad House together with our community, where we celebrated Holidays and events…

Where we drove endlessly together on the dark hilly roads at night and basked in the luscious greenery and ocean views by day.

Where we survived and thrived through hurricanes, challenges and loneliness. Where we celebrated milestones, births, Bar/bat Mitzvah’s and tremendous growth…

Where our dreams together were just begining to take shape. Where we would eventually marry off our children and welcome our grandchildren with nachas and love. Where we spent our lives as emissaries of the Rebbe to bring holiness and kindness…

Walking into our home was heartbreaking and deeply painful yet at the same time there was an overwhelming sense of comfort and peace as I could feel Henya’s touch and presence throughout the house…

The Torah tells us that Holy actions remain vibrant in the place they were performed. They don’t depart.

As such all of Henya’s self sacrifice, Torah study, Mitzvos and giving of herself are forever present in our Chabad House. Together with her absence I was able to find her presence.

Several days before the accident in November, Henya placed an order for the kids. It had crocks for Nechama, pants for Yudel and Meir and books for Chana, Feigel and Rochel. Henya’s care for our children is more than ever, and they were so happy to receive the packages from Mommy yesterday.

Henya had also bought a baby clip-on high-chair for Shterna’le which will G-d willing be a gift to our first future grandchild.

Some of the children asked me to bring back a garment from mommy and onesie of Shterna they can hold onto to feel closer to them.

I did end up seeing a few of our local friends and put Tefillin with them. It was heartwarming and gave me great comfort. I am looking forward to seeing everyone the next time I return to the island.

The island is forever our home and its residents are forever our family. Henya’s legacy and presence will forever remain with us as she continues to look out and guide us from on high…

How will we find meaning and solace in the face of such crushing pain and darkness? How will the above teaching of the Baal Shem Tov resonate with us? I’m not sure yet… I don’t know…

In fact it seems that the Previous Rebbe and his father were also grappling with this question… the Previous Rebbe relates that once, when he was strolling with his father, the Rebbe Rashab, he asked him the meaning of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching.

He answered: “To be able to learn how to serve G‑d from everything one sees or hears is the alef-beis, [the very basis, of our Divine service]. It is not an easy task. It may even be quite a difficult foundation.”

He continued walking for a while, rapt in thought. His son accompanied him in silence, reluctant to disturb his father’s reflections.

After a short while, the Rebbe Rashab stopped and said: “The Baal Shem Tov taught it. So that is a fact.”

Then I hear what Henya would always say…

“Ush, the purpose of our creation is to serve Hashem. This is why we are in this world, it makes sense that it should encompass every aspect of our lives. Everything that happens to a person is directed by hashgachah peratis — Divine Providence — down to the smallest detail, everything that we see, hear or experience should contribute to our ultimate purpose of serving the Creator.”

“Grow from the pain. Be there for the kids. I am with you. G-d has a plan even when it seems like the greatest nightmare… And as we read together on the plane heading to the islands 18 years ago, Hashem is with you in your pain and in your struggles… You are still His emissary”.

Am I that strong? Does G-d believe in me that much?

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  1. Thank you for posting.
    You’re vulnerability is refreshing and powerful.
    May you and your children only have revealed Brachos.
    Moshiach Now!

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