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The #etnographquarantinedan, Episode 9: Shmuel Flinkenstein, 19, Chicago, USA

The conversation was held in English using the hotel room phone. 

Shmuel, like Rebecca (Episode 5) and Rafi (Episode 6), came to Israel as part of Garin Tzabar to serve in the army. "It was my dream to serve in the army, but I wasn't sure whether to serve in the IDF or the American Army. Eventually, I chose the Israeli Army mainly because the IDF is more practical when it comes to religious practices, which is very important for me." He is due to go to Kibbutz Alumim when the quarantine ends, where he will start Hebrew lessons and establish a community with other young people. 

Shmuel's parents are Chabad emissaries. Chabad is an ultra-orthodox Jewish Hasidic dynasty and one of the largest Hasidic groups. It's known mainly for its outreach activities run by emissaries who are sent out to promulgate Judaism and Hasidism in many locations around the world. There are currently approximately 4,900 Chabad emissary families in over 100 countries. 

 Shmuel's father is from France and his mother is from England, and they manage a Chabad house in northern Chicago, which holds large events comprising around 350 adults and 100 children. Last summer, he spent a few months in Israel studying in a yeshiva (a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts) and fell in love with Israel. "I loved the yeshiva because it was quite relaxed. The studies were not too intense, and it was a great joy. It was amazing."

I told Shmuel that during our stay in Leicester, we had a close relationship with the local Chabad emissaries, a family with 10 children. I was intrigued by what it was like to grow up as a child in a house like that. "Being shluches [Yiddish word for emissaries] is a unique experience because you are always busy with hospitality and planning and hosting events. You spend less time with your friends. There were not many children in the neighbourhood where I grew up because we lived a bit far from the community. I also don't have many siblings. Although my mother has 14 siblings, which is very common for these kinds of families, I only have one brother and one sister and I'm many years younger than them: my sister is 10 years older than me and my brother 8 years older than me."

How come a Chabad emissary's son is joining the army? "Today, it is much more common than in the past. The Chabad community is overgrowing, and there aren't enough Jewish communities or Chabad houses to support the number of young people wanting to be shluches. This has led to a growing number of community members who are looking for another path. For example, my brother went to law school and he's a lawyer; in my case, it's joining the army. As long as you are good at what you do and put your 110% into it, then it's okay. Besides, I can do shluches in the army as well."  Do you consider army service as your shluches? "No, I don't. It's not my priority, but if I can convince someone to put on tefillin [phylacteries strapped to the arm during morning prayer] or to pray more, then what is wrong with that?"

How did you experience COVID-19 in Chicago? "In our [Chabad] community, It was not that bad, but in the Chicago Jewish community overall, we had many losses – in fact, my grandmother died from the virus. She had a complex medical history, but this was the final straw".

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