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Eighty-one African emissaries create jolt of electricity

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I stumbled upon the map of Africa while walking to shul one morning a couple of weeks ago. I was in the United States visiting my family, and was making my way to the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. There it was, on the pavement of Kingston Avenue, Crown Heights’ main drag. It had been placed there about six weeks earlier, when thousands of Chabad emissaries had converged on the suburb for the Kinus, the annual convention of shluchim (emissaries). Inside the outline of the continent, the words, “Welcome 81 shluchim” had been etched. Somehow, it had survived thousands of pairs of feet trampling over it and weeks of inclement weather. Africa is like that, hardy and able to withstand all forms of challenges.

On the way back from shacharit, I returned to photograph the illustration. It seems I got there in the nick of time, as a crew from Con Edison were about to start ripping open the paving. I had to engage the foreman in conversation to get his permission to move some of his barriers over for the photo session. After a jovial, typical New York style, “Sure, but this will cost you,” he sought to understand my interest in the large sticker on the ground. It was easy to explain. He pointed out that there were similar maps on other corners of the same intersection, albeit not nearly in such good condition, which wouldn’t necessitate moving poles. I insisted that Africa alone held a fascination for me, as I came from there. “No way, you’re from Africa!” was the incredulous reaction. Eventually, he accepted that perhaps people like me lived in South Africa.

I didn’t think electrical utility workers could appreciate my emotional investment in the number 81 in relation to our continent. It’s a long story, which begins back in 1951, in the nascent days of the Rebbe’s leadership of Chabad, when he appointed his first emissary to Africa. This came in the form of a letter, posted from the Eastern Parkway headquarters. It was addressed to a recent refugee who had fled with his family from Soviet Russia to post-war Paris. The missive was dated 20 Shevat, a mere 10 days after the passing of his predecessor, and the Rebbe referred to conversations the two of them had about expanding activities to Africa. The previous Rebbe had suggested the letter’s recipient as a potential candidate, and he was now asking him if he was willing to accept the challenge.

This is how Rabbi Michoel Lipsker, my maternal grandfather, ended up living in the city of Meknes in Morocco, then known as “Little Jerusalem”, and launching the movement in that country. He was later joined by more Chabad representatives across North Africa. The movement became entrenched in Tunisia and Algeria as well. One of those was my own father, Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, who crossed the ocean from New York in 1956 to open a Yeshiva in Agadir, a resort town in Morocco’s southwest. He and my mother were married that same year.

The next phase of Chabad in Africa came in 1971 with the arrival of Rabbi Mendel Lipskar to South Africa. He’s Rabbi Michoel Lipsker’s nephew – blame the different surname spellings on Ellis Island. Under his leadership, Chabad-Lubavitch grew across the subcontinent to a veritable army of dozens of emissaries, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and later Durban. When I was invited to join the “team” shortly after my marriage to South Africa-born Rivka (née Bacher) in 1985, I accepted with a great sense of history and responsibility.

In 1991, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila landed on the continent to establish Chabad in Kinshasa, in what was then known as Zaire. Over the next three decades, Chabad of Central Africa established a further 11 centres, first in Nigeria, and subsequently in Angola, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Only a couple of years ago, Zambia became the latest African country to be added to the list.

It was thus with powerful emotions, and a heavy sense of history and destiny that I stood on the corner of Kingston and President, staring at the number 81 inscribed on the pavement in the outline of the African continent. Zaida on high is surely very proud. But the Con Ed men would never have understood.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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