In the week following the disastrous earthquake in Nepal, the Chabad House in Kathmandu has become a “home away from home” for hundreds of soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who have come to help in many ways, along with relief workers from Israel and around the world.
More than 250 first-responders and aid workers from Israel flew to Nepal after the 7.8 magnitude quake, including 170 IDF troops and officers who immediately jumped into search-and-rescue missions and set up field hospitals for the injured. Medics and doctors from Magen David Adom, Israel’s ambulance service, and rescue workers from Zaka and United Hatzalah—all of which are internationally known for crisis and disaster-recovery efforts in Israel and around the world—are well-represented in areas of devastation throughout the South Asian country.
Some but not all of the soldiers and relief workers were able to take a small break during the Jewish Sabbath, which turned out to be an especially meaningful one at the Chabad House, according to Rabbi Chezky Liftshitz, co-director of Chabad of Nepal with his wife, Chani.
Hundreds of stranded Israelis and others joined with those assisting them for all or part of the holy day.
Soon after Shabbat ended, reports began to come in that the body of 22-year-old Israeli backpacker Or Asraf had been discovered by 20 of his comrades from the elite Egoz IDF unit who had braved treacherous terrain to find him and were bringing his body to the nearest village.
Some of the hikers now at the Chabad center were part of Asraf’s group, and had been rescued earlier this week and brought to the center. Asraf had moved ahead of his group and was buried in a landslide when the earthquake struck.
“At the moment we are sitting with his friends, talking and sharing,” said the rabbi late Sunday night. “Tomorrow, G d willing, we will take part in bringing him here. It is sad, yet comforting for us to know that his soul now knows serenity, and he is no longer lying under the debris of the jagged rocks.”
The mission to bring back the soldiers will itself be a treacherous one.
“His friends—all 20 men—are walking through a very dangerous area. It’s dark, and the danger is very great; rocks are flying, and the life of every person there is at risk,” Asraf’s father, Patrick Asraf, told Israeli media.
Additional rescue teams are rushing to the remote village with the assistance of Chabad’s high-tech equipment and expertise. The soldiers and their former comrade will then return to Kathmandu.
The rabbi also spoke of some of the daunting tasks ahead:
“Hundreds of bodies of residents, Europeans and Americans are lying on the ground,” he said. “Our complex task is now is to find bodies of missing Jews and bring them for Jewish burial. Many Jewish families from around the world are turning to us for assistance on the matter. And, of course, we are helping to identify and bring back the bodies of all foreign nationals as well.”
A Week of Assistance
On Friday, Chabad House staff and volunteers baked challahs and prepared hot food for soldiers, and other rescue and aid teams to take back to their bases of operations. IDF soldiers and officers stopped by throughout the day before the onset of Shabbat, some for their first hot meal and shower in days.
Throughout the Friday-night meal and the Shabbat day, aid workers stationed nearby in Kathmandu walked into the center, and spent time eating, resting, and wishing staff, volunteers and survivors well. They also shared stories of a harrowing week of tireless relief-and-rescue efforts, gaining strength and inspiration for the difficult week to come.
“It was a uniquely moving Shabbat,” said Lifshitz. “Hundreds of friends, old and new, sat together around the Shabbat table. Everyone spoke of his and her challenging week, and gave thanks to G d for the miracles and wonders they had experienced.”
“We prayed together for speedily finding all who are still missing, and for the safety and welfare of everyone in Nepal,” the rabbi continued. He noted that on Sunday, he would again fly by helicopter on a mission to search for and aid those still stuck in hard-to-reach areas.
Many backpackers, hikers and tourists rescued during the week were at the Chabad center during Shabbat awaiting transport home. Also on hand was a team of mental-health professionals from Israel, there to counsel those who needed special support. A core group of backpackers has chosen to stay behind and help, along with some volunteers from around the world who flew into Nepal to offer assistance.
To help with the earthquake relief effort, visit the special relief fund page: www.Chabad.org/Nepal.