Manali Diary: Chabad Rabbinical Students Search For Missing Israeli


by Levi Pekar - Manali, India

July 26, 2009

An Israeli search team is expected to arrive in India on Monday, to search for an Israeli backpacker missing in the Parvati Valley area. Last Tuesday , 24 year-old Ami-Chai Shtainmitz and a friend set out on a one-day trek from the village of Khirganga. The two split up at some point, but when Shtainmitz did not return, his friend notified Israeli authorities. In the meantime, Chabad rabbinical students in Manali are leading local search teams.

Levi Pekar, 21, and Yehuda Kirsh, 23, are in Manali as part of Chabad’s worldwide summer visitation program. The rabbis are keeping a journal of their activities. The following is from Levi’s most recent entries, which he agreed to share with lubavitch.com.

Shabbos 4 of Av

After a beautiful Shabbos meal, Yehuda and I went to visit a severely sick Israeli girl who was staying at the peak of Old Manali. We trudged up the mountain greeting everyone we met with “Shabbat Shalom,” we bumped into Shai (the owner of Shaya’le restaurant). Shai asked us if someone by the name of Menachem Shtainmitz was in the Chabad House. We replied that we didn't know anybody of that name.

He then informed us that "Menachem" (whose name, in fact, as it turned out, was Ami-Chai) failed to contact friends in Khirganga and didn’t return from what was to be a one day trek to Bunbuny, on Tuesday. He also failed to claim his bags that he left at the Jewish center in Kasol. Even more worrisome, he would religiously call home every Friday, but did not do so this week, a custom he hasn’t missed in the last five months.

We told Shai that if there is any emergency he should know that we are here to help, even during Shabbos. He promised to stay in touch.

Just before havdalah, Yehuda made an announcement at the Chabad House asking for any information regarding “Menachem.” Two hikers, Yair and Nir informed us that they know a guy that matches this description but that his name is Ami-Chai Shtainmitz. As soon as havdalah was over, Yehuda ran to Shaya’le while I stayed and led the Melave Malkah [post-Shabbat meal].

Yehuda returned and told me that Shai confirmed with the Israeli consulate that the missing person’s name is Menachem. But at that same time, someone else walked in and asked us if we might know the whereabouts of Ami-Chai Shtainmitz, confirming our suspicion that the Consulate had the wrong name.

We immediately contacted the Israeli Consulate and everyone else involved, correcting the mistaken name, and spent the rest of the night posting missing persons signs with his photo. I put the ringer on my phone on the highest volume and went to sleep hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Sunday 5 of Av

At 8:27am Yehuda wakes me up. I see he’s shook-up. He tells me that he got a call from a frantic tourist that a corpse was found. I called Rabbi Lesches, a Chabad rabbinic authority in Monsey, NY, and asked how to proceed with identifying the body halakhically [according to Jewish law]. Yehuda called the Jewish center in Kasol to inform them of the news.

The rickshaw kept stalling along the way, so we helped it along with our feet. We were told that the corpse was in the Old Manali Post Office, but as we neared the office we noticed a crowd of Indians clogging the street (more than usual). We got off rickshaw and saw the body lying in the gutter on the side of the street. We could tell by the appearance that the dead man wasn’t Ami-Chai, but we were disturbed to see the corpse exposed in the gutter like that, so we asked the police to cover it out of respect for the deceased.

We presented the police with our missing persons sign. We told them and the crowd that we are still searching for a missing person, and asked them if they can continue to search and inform us if they have any new information. We decided to walk down back to the Chabad House to inform everybody that our search for Ami-Chai was still on.

By the time we returned to the Chabad House we had received dozens of offers to help us. After a disturbed shacharit [morning service] Yehuda contacted Rabbi Baruch Shinhav the Chabad representative of Manali who is currently in Israel, to inform him of the situation.

Rabbi Shinhav directed Yehuda to call Mrs. Irit at the consulate.. We called the consulate who asked us to start arranging search teams from local backpackers to be on the ready to go out and search in case help was needed. We were also notified that an elite search team would be landing tomorrow to start extensive searches.

I spent my afternoon running from guest house to guest house, from one store to the next, drafting volunteers for the search. The outpouring of love and concern among the backpackers and tourists, for this complete stranger were inspiring. People who had already made other plans either agreed to delay their trip or to take time to pray for Ami-Chai’s safe return, and spread the word. People who’d  never stepped into the Chabad House volunteered for this great mitzvah with lots of enthusiasm.

Yehuda spent his day posting more signs in other languages and spreading the news to surrounding villages and cities. Eventually, he was contacted by the Israeli media and an American reporter stationed in India who asked if he might join and report on the search.

I made my way to New Manali to visit the local hospital and jail in the hopes of finding any information regarding him; I asked them to contact other hospitals and jails in the area and left them my contact numbers.

At 11pm, knowing that we did everything in our physical power we turned to spiritual means by saying Psalms, writing to the Ohel, and contacting Merkos—Lubavitch Headquarters for further instructions.

With this we go to sleep, and hope and pray that tomorrow will be a better day. In the meantime, we’re asking everyone to recite Psalms 25 for Ami-Chai and pray for his safe return.

Click here to read part two of Levi's diary

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