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Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky

20 October 2022

Every year, as a yeshivah student in 770, I would participate in the summer visitation program run by Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s education office. It was known as “Merkos Shlichus.”

In 1959, I was sent to the Caribbean Islands, together with my friend Yisroel Chaim Lazar. We started in Aruba, then went to Curacao, Trinidad, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and ended up in Jamaica.

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In Trinidad, two days before the fast on the 9th of Av, we mentioned to one of the local Jews that we were hoping to have enough people for the day’s communal prayers. “You know what?” he said, “you’re about to go to Barbados. There you’ll sooner be able to make a minyan.” Barbados only had twelve Jewish families, but he explained that it was a more close-knit community. Following his advice, we flew to Barbados the next day.

Back then, before arriving somewhere on Merkos Shlichus you didn’t know where to go, or whom to speak to. If you were lucky, you had a few names and addresses from someone who had been there before but, in this case, we didn’t even have that. We had, however, been interviewed by the Trinidad Guardian, which was like the New York Times of the Caribbean, so readers on Barbados knew that we were coming.

And so, when we landed in Barbados, a man greeted us at the airport with a message: “My master sent me here to see you. He said that I should take you to his house.”

We were very happy for the welcome and went to the house, where we waited for this fellow’s master to appear. After twenty minutes or so, in walked a Jewish man – you could see it on his face – who started speaking in Yiddish. “I read in the paper that you are emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and have come here to strengthen Judaism,” he began. “Let me tell you who I am.”

His name was Aryeh Leib Speisman, originally from Lublin. In 1936, he had smelled that Europe was no longer safe, and he left. Once in Barbados, he married a member of the Altman family, who had come a number of years earlier. Most Jews on the island were related to the Altmans in some way.

Then he went on, in these words: “I don’t put on tefillin. Sadly, I do not keep Shabbat, and I eat non-kosher. Please ask the Rebbe to pray for me,” he implored. “Der Rebbe ken mir aroisshlepin fun bloteh – the Rebbe can pull me out of the muck.”

We ended up making a minyan that night, and the entire community came. We sold many of the Jewish books we had brought along and spoke with them for some time – with Speisman in particular. He was a truly learned person, and had always enjoyed studying the stories of the Talmud. But he had totally dropped any Jewish observance.

After hearing his story, I said to him, “You must come to the Rebbe.”

A few months later, he did. He stayed in my parents’ house and I arranged an audience for him with the Rebbe. Afterwards, when he came to 770 for prayers one morning, the Rebbe instructed that he be honored during the reading of the Torah; being a Levi, he was called up for that reading.

He went back to Barbados, and continued to correspond with the Rebbe. Before the end of his life, he became more observant, although to what extent I don’t know.

The following summer, I went back to Barbados again, this time my partner was Chaim Sweid. We were actually going to South America for Merkos Shlichus, but I wanted to first stop by to see Speisman and the others. This time, we learned that there were a bunch of children there who had never had a proper brit milah. I had an idea: If we brought down a mohel to perform the procedure, along with Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin of Crown Heights to provide rabbinic supervision, we would be able to facilitate the circumcisions for all those children.

Everyone was very excited about this idea so I went ahead and called Rabbi Hodakov, the director of Merkos, who relayed the Rebbe’s approval. The Rebbe even gave Rabbi Dvorkin his personal, tiny Torah scroll to take along, so that they could read from it while he was in Barbados. The rabbi and mohel came, and we made the brit ceremony in Speisman’s house — for eighteen children in all.

Speisman sent a cable to the Rebbe, expressing his gratitude, and in reply, the Rebbe sent his blessings to “anash,” meaning “people of our community” – employing the same term he would use for any Chabad community.

After the brit, Chaim Sweid and I continued on to South America but, when we came to Chile, there was a telegram from Rabbi Hodakov: “Sweid returns to New York; Bogomilsky travels to Barbados.”

It turned out the community had sent a request to the Rebbe. “You made our children Jewish,” they wrote, “but we need someone here to educate them!” So, I went back to Barbados, and taught Torah to those children until Rosh Hashanah.

On my return, Speisman also sent a donation with me – a sum equivalent to the numerical value of the Rebbe’s name – “on condition that I personally hand it to the Rebbe.” The money was meant as a dedication for one of the verses in the Ata Hareita prayer, which are traditionally “sold off” and then recited on Simchat Torah.

Of course, Rabbi Hodakov refused to let me in to see the Rebbe just like that. Instead, I figured that if I appointed him to pass on the money, it would be as if I had done it myself.

But there weren’t any tricks with the Rebbe. Rabbi Hodakov went into the Rebbe’s room, and came back out several minutes later still holding the money – the Rebbe had refused to take it from him. “Give it to Shmuel Pesach,” he had said. “He will bring it himself.”

In a public address around this time, the Rebbe alluded to the Barbados community, when he suddenly began speaking about the concept of the brit; the people present wondered what the connection was to the rest of his talk. On Simchat Torah, though, he was more explicit.

During the reading of Ata Hareita, before leading the recital of one of the verses, the Rebbe turned to me and told me to make an announcement: “This next verse,” I was to say, “is dedicated to the eighteen children who had a brit in a faraway place.” He even told me to announce the names of the children, if I knew them all; I didn’t, but I submitted a list to the Rebbe’s office after the holiday.

This wasn’t the end of the story, either.

During the few weeks I spent as a teacher in Barbados, I stayed at the home of a man named Aharon Karp, a warm and passionate Jew. I encouraged his son to go to yeshivah in New York, which he would do the next year, and he also made direct contact with the Rebbe himself; they met a few times, and one Pesach the Rebbe asked me to send matzah to him. Even with all the people visiting the Rebbe to receive shmurah matzah each year, or asking for somebody else, he thought of Aharon Karp without me bringing him up. With the Rebbe, there’s no such thing as forgotten. Today, this Aharon Karp has grandchildren who are Chabad emissaries themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky is the author of numerous Halachic works who has served as rabbi of Mount Sinai Congregation in the Ivy Hill section of Newark, New Jersey, since 1964. He was interviewed in May of 2015.