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The Positive Side of Chmelnitzki

Chmelnitzki is a name that evokes horror among Jews who remember a bit of Eastern European Jewish history. During the infamous years of tach v'tat (1648-49), hordes of Cossacks led by Bogdan Chmelnitzki ravaged Eastern Europe, slaughtering thousands of Jews in their wake.

There is a town in the Ukraine that still bears the name of this notorious murderer, and in recent years it has become a bastion of authentic Jewish life, thanks to the efforts of the local Chabad emissary, Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin. A sweet revenge.

It was not easy for Rabbi Raskin and his wife to take up a post in that town. "The thought that I would be known as the rabbi of Chmelnitzki was not exactly heartwarming," Rabbi Raskin admits. "We hesitated a great deal before accepting this position."

Rabbi Raskin and his wife first flew from Israel to visit the place before deciding on a permanent move. Their first impression was positive, but they still could not get around the thought of living in a place by that name. Imagine living in a town called Hitler, may his name be obliterated!

What finally tipped the balance was the response they received to a letter they placed in a volume of Igrot Kodesh, the Rebbe's published letters. As is customary by many chassidim, they direct questions to the Rebbe by inserting a letter at random into one of the volumes of the Rebbe's published letters, and follow the advice written on that page.

On this occasion, the page they opened to contained a letter in which the Rebbe quoted from Ethics of Our Fathers: "In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man." In other words, if there is nobody to do the job, take it upon yourself to do it. The Rebbe then added that since he was the only one who could carry out the task in a pleasant manner, he should go there. "G-d has granted him the necessary talents, and if he will not do it nobody else will."

The letter concluded with the Rebbe's wish of mazel tov for the birth of a son. At that time, Rabbi Raskin and his wife had not yet been blessed with children. The message was clear: Take the job upon yourselves, and the blessing will come.

From the moment they accepted this mission upon themselves, the Raskins threw themselves energetically into the task. Within a month they had sold all their furniture in Israel and packed their remaining belongings for the move to Chmelnitzki. They still did not know exactly where they would live, how they would learn the local language, or how they would acclimate to life in a place where there was no readily available kosher food or established community with friends and relatives. But like all emissaries of the Rebbe, they believed that his blessings would stand them by and enable them to overcome all challenges.

What was especially difficult for them was that due to their move to Ukraine, they were forced to interrupt their treatments with fertility specialists, which they hoped would enable them to have a child. But Rabbi Raskin and his wife believed in the Rebbe's blessing more than in the treatment!

That summer, Rabbi Raskin and his wife visited Israel, after several months of intense work. After a short visit Rabbi Raskin returned to Chmelnitzki, leaving his wife in Israel for several more weeks, to undergo some treatments.

One evening, after speaking on the phone to his wife in Israel, Rabbi Raskin was overcome with despondent thoughts. Because of his duties in Chmelnitzki, he had been forced to leave his wife in Israel to undergo the difficult treatments alone... 

That night, Rabbi Raskin had a dream. He was in the Rebbe's synagogue attending a chassidic gathering, a farbrengen, with the Rebbe. Suddenly he found himself at the Rebbe's table, seated at the Rebbe's right side. The Rebbe appeared young, with a dark beard. "What is happening in your town?" the Rebbe asked.

"There are some problems," Rabbi Raskin answered. He hoped that the Rebbe would ask about his wife. But the Rebbe questioned him repeatedly about what was happening in Chmelnitzki. Rabbi Raskin burst into tears.

In his dream, the Rebbe hugged Rabbi Raskin, and he felt that the Rebbe was crying together with him.

When Rabbi Raskin awoke he remembered all the details of his dream, and felt as though the Rebbe had lifted the burden off his shoulders. Now he was sure that good news awaited them.

Several months after that wonderful dream, Rabbi Raskin and his wife visited Haditch, where the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, was buried. It was 20 degrees below zero that day, yet they remained there and read the entire book of Psalms. There they decided that when G-d would bless them with a son, they would name him Schneur Zalmen, after the Alter Rebbe.

Schneur Zalmen Raskin, the firstborn son of the Rebbe's emissaries to Chmelnitzki, was born later that year.


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