“You see this river?” the man asked the young Peace Corps volunteer. She had just arrived to offer her enthusiastic help in teaching reading to the illiterate villagers of the area. They were standing on a high bridge overlooking the tumultuous waters of a large river below.
“Yes!” she answered, “I see it. Why do you ask?”
“This is where your body is going to end up if you dare to come here and interfere with our way of life! That’s what happened to the last one like you who came here. We have no need for your crazy ideas about education or democracy, or anything!”
Stunned, traumatized and crying, Chanah the volunteer could barely drag herself to the bus heading back to Petropoulos, Brazil. She felt she was going to die. She was a bright young student, well educated, with high ideals and a strong desire to help people. She had applied with the Peace Corps and had spent a whole year preparing herself and learning to speak fluent Portuguese so as to assist with a program in which people would be taught how to grow various types of food. A few days before, she had arrived in the large city of Petropoulos with seven other Peace Corps volunteers. Soon they were met with strong resistance from the bureaucracy. The politicians in charge didn’t want to see their own people becoming independent or taking their own initiatives. Land owners wanted to keep their ignorant slave laborers.
Chanah had heard of a village in the area where its large population was completely illiterate. She traveled by bus for a few hours and upon arrival asked to meet with the Mayor of that village. The Mayor listened to her loving offer to teach his people the basics of reading for free. “Let me show you the area,” he proposed. He took her for a walk until they reached a high bridge overlooking turbulent waters. The waters were red with blood, as they were used as a sewer for a slaughterhouse. And this is where Chanah was confronted with his sinister threat.
Returning to Petropoulos, Chanah wandered in its streets, crying. For hours she continued aimlessly walking, feeling alone in those endless crowds of people. At one point, toward evening, she lifted her eyes and suddenly saw a Star of David inscribed over a door post. This felt like a life saving rescue from Heaven. “There are some Jews living here!” she realized. The door had been left open. Chanah entered. She found an empty dimly lit room with some benches and she collapsed there, still crying. A man appeared and walked over to her:
“You seem so distraught. Is there anything I could do for you?” Chanah could feel the compassion in his voice and she poured out some of her story to him. He listened silently, with full attention and then said:
“I cannot believe a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn like you traveled all the way here to help people she never met. You do not need to feel alone. The Jewish community here will help you.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You are sitting in a synagogue and I am its rabbi, an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe”, was his answer. Healing words! The rabbi asked her more questions and after some thought he offered: “I will see what I can do to help you with your dream of helping. I happen to have some connections with the Minister of Education here.”
A few days later, Chanah stood in wonder, gratefully receiving a new assignment: teaching hundreds of educators how to teach. And this was for all the schools in the area! The rabbi also raised funds to help the other volunteers. Among other things, 15 sewing machines were also provided, allowing many women to learn and teach the art of sewing and tailoring. For them this meant a lifelong livelihood.
Petropoulos is a city of many millions. What was it that guided Chanah in the midst of her emotional upheaval to direct her steps to the very person who could help her the most, in every way, and on every level? For then, she connected not only with the Jewish Community but also with a life transforming gift: her spiritual roots, faith and prayer. She is now happily married to a most gifted, kindly, beloved rabbi and educator endowed with a great sense of humor, and this he masterfully communicates. Together they raise their children and grandchildren with great love She acquired a degree in Social Work and runs a clinic for family therapy in Sharon, Massachusetts. We have been blessed, Joshua and I, to be part of their life and their family of freinds for the past 35 years.
There are times when our worst experiences can turn out to be the open door to our most blessed turning points in our lives.
More than six thousands of places of rescue like these have been created all over the world. These are like embassies of support and inspiration created with faith and courage by devoted students of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. All these were initiated through his extraordinary power of miracles, ever reaching out further.