Finding Judaism in Nepal, Celebrating in Israel

by R. Wineberg - RECHOVOT, ISRAEL

August 6, 2002

It was meant to be a small reunion of Israeli backpackers who had spent time with Rabbi Chezky and Chani Lifshitz at the Chabad House in Katmandu, Nepal.

Planned for some 200 participants at a party hall in Rechovot, in central Israel, 750 Israelis, “alumni” of the Chabad House in Nepal, came last week from all parts of Israel in an outpouring of affection and gratitude.

“Chezky and Chani Lifshitz work nights and days for the sake of fellow Jews,” says Ehud Barnai, a popular Israeli singer who counts himself as a close friend of the Lifshitzs and Chabad after spending several months in Nepal.

Chabad in Katmandu has been a presence since 1988, when traveling Yeshiva students first began organizing Pesach seders and holiday services at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the local Israeli embassy. The students would arrive twice yearly, and the Jewish tourists, consisting almost entirely of young Israelis on leave from the army, began planning their trips to coincide with what had become known as the world’s largest –and liveliest—Pesach seder.

The crowds grew each year, from 300 to 500 to 1500, and ultimately, the need was realized for a permanent Chabad Rabbi to establish a center. Rabbi Chezky and Chani Lifshitz, both native Israelis, agreed to take up the challenge. Idealistic and full of optimism, they moved to Katmandu in late 1999, setting up house in a primitive country where electricity shortages are a twice daily occurrence and running water is never a given.

Undaunted, the Lifshitzs established a Chabad House and kosher restaurant that doubles as a large dining hall where they hold open Shabbos meals for tourists. There is no established Jewish community in Nepal, says Rabbi Lifshitz. Only crowds of Israeli backpackers traveling the world and searching for spirituality in the religions of the east.

But like Ehud Barnai, their encounter with Chabad often directs their search to the root of their own souls and a depth of spirituality in their own religion that they never knew existed.

“Secular Israelis can be far more secular and ignorant of the basics of Judaism than their American counterparts,” says Chani. “Unfortunately, they also come from a society where tremendous tensions exist between religious and secular Jews.”

The Lifshitz’s natural warmth and their familiarity with Israeli life create an atmosphere in the Chabad House that obliterates entirely any prejudices towards religion previously held by the Israelis. “Our biggest success has been in breaking down barriers and giving people the opportunity to seriously examine Judaism without any bias,” says Rabbi Lifshitz, whose experiences in the army contribute to the excellent rapport he has with other army veterans.

“Hundreds of Israelis leave Katmandu each year with a new enthusiasm for their religion and a respect for religious people.” But the average Israeli stays in Katmandu only several weeks and then moves on.

The Lifshitzs, spending their summer in Israel due to seasonal monsoon rains in Katmandu that shut down the city deterring tourist activity, hit upon the idea of a “reunion” in Israel to continue their connection with their former constituents.

Word spread and hundreds of former backpackers arrived to an event that surpassed the Lifshitz’s highest hopes for the evening. “There was so much love and sense of tradition in that room,” recalls Rabbi Lifshitz, “It was so inspiring for us to see how far these people have come in terms of their Jewish commitment, as a result of their experiences in Nepal.” A favorite moment for him, he says, was seeing the many new Kippas sported that night.

Another highlight was the musical performances by Ehud Barnai and a band of drummers, all “alumni” who dedicated their songs to the Lifshitzs’ hard work and devotion.

“There were people there who would have nothing to do with religion just one year ago,” marvels Chani Lifshitz. “It is uplifting for us to see how these barriers have really come down."

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