Late checkout: Rabbi and family wait out pandemic 2,400 miles from home
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Late checkout: Rabbi and family wait out pandemic 2,400 miles from home

Unexpected exile

Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenblum and his family begin their journey from Caracas, Venezuela. Photo provided by Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenblum.
Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenblum and his family begin their journey from Caracas, Venezuela. Photo provided by Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenblum.

When Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenblum left his home on Thursday, March 12 to celebrate the wedding of a former community member, he never dreamt he was beginning a journey that would keep him, and his family, away from both their house and adopted country for months.

“I travel fairly often, going where the Jewish community has immigrated to around the world,” Rosenblum explained. “It’s a common thing. Usually, it is in and out. If I need to, I stay the weekend and am back on Monday, which is exactly what I was doing on this trip.”

Rosenblum is a Lubavitch rabbi originally from Pittsburgh and now living in Venezuela. While traveling from the country’s capital of Caracas to see former community members is not unusual, bringing his entire family is a rare occurrence.

Rosenblum, his wife and 10 children – four of whom live with the couple and six older children living in various spots across the globe – had been invited by the bride’s family to attend the wedding being held in Miami, Florida.

“At the time, it didn’t seem that profound, it just seemed like a very nice gesture on behalf of one of our community members who invited me and my whole family,” the rabbi said.

At first, he resisted the offer due to the tough logistics of attempting to travel with such a large throng of people.

“This individual persisted,” Rosenblum said. “He insisted that he wanted this to be a family reunion and he wanted to see us all together. He prevailed.”

As the Rosenblum clan prepared to leave for the wedding, the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to impact the Western hemisphere. In Venezuela, the first confirmed cases of the virus were not reported until the day after the family left for their trip.

“We were leaving on a Thursday for a wedding in Miami and would be back on Monday,” Rosenblum said. “A normal weekend, right?”

As the family checked the news on Saturday night after Shabbat, they found that the “the borders were closed. There were no flights going back to Venezuela,” Rosenblum recalled. “And when I say closed, I mean closed tight. There was no way back and that status quo has been maintained both ways.”

Had this been a typical trip, the rabbi said that he would have been separated from his wife and children as well as his community, which “would have included Pesach, and then who knows when I would have been able to get back.”

Given that the family made travel plans six months prior to their trip, before COVID-19 was a mitigating factor throughout the globe, Rosenblum can’t help but feel there was a bit of divine intervention.

“Sometimes God gives us a little window into his thinking,” he said.

With no way home and no plans for a prolonged stay in Miami, the rabbi and his family were forced to travel to his mothers-in-law’s home in Toronto, Canada. The addition of 12 house guests may seem like a lot, but that is not the final count.

“We also have three of my nephews staying with us, who are children of my sister-in-law and brother still in Venezuela,” Rosenblum pointed out. “My sister-in-law is also staying here, so there are 17 of us total.”

While the rabbi is isolated and removed from his South American community, his schedule remains full.

He explained that daily life has become “more and more defined as time goes on. I still have to deal with things in Venezuela and we have a school and teachers. We have other rabbis there, thank God, my father-in-law is the chief Chabad rabbi and he’s there.”

There are approximately between 7,000 and 7,500 Jews living in Caracas. Rosenblum said almost all are affiliated, making the community seem much larger.

If not for COVID-19, staying in touch with a community 2,400 miles away might have proved difficult. Because of the pandemic, though, he is able to use the same technology rabbis in Pittsburgh are using to stay engaged with members of their congregations that live down the street from them.

“Just today, I finished my first class on Zoom, I have another at 4:30 p.m. and still another at 9:30 p.m. I also teach bar mitzvah lessons and continue to do that while I’m here on Zoom,” he said.

Although the rabbi and his family reside in Venezuela, his Pittsburgh roots run deep. His parents live in Pittsburgh, as well as two of his brothers, one of whom, Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum of Chabad of the South Hills, is his twin.

Ironically, Rosenblum is trading information with a Venezuelan who now lives in New York that went home to visit his parents and is now likewise unable to travel back home.

“He lives in Brooklyn and we’re in touch every day, comparing notes – ‘What did you hear?’ ‘What did you find,’” Rosenblum said.

The ex-pat is working to remain upbeat during his time away from the community he loves.

“There’s a beauty to this time,” he said. “Despite the negative news, we are all together and bonding. God has given us this gift of time and togetherness.”

Regardless of the uncertainty of the pandemic, Rosenblum has been able to keep his sense of humor: “I joke with people because a lot of times they think a rabbi might have an answer to these types of questions. When they ask me, ‘When is this going to end?’ I tell them, ‘I was asked not to say anything.’” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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