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Mikvehs to be built in name of Meron victim

By Menachem Posner,

Everyone who encountered 
Yossi Kohn remembers his smile.

Even after he lost his father to a car crash at the age of seven, he continued to bring joy to others, greeting newcomers in his yeshiva, making others comfortable and putting their well being before his own, say family members.

Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn have purchased land in Wyoming to build a mikveh.

He smiled in the final moments of his life as well.

Minutes after the 22-year-old prayed at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag b’Omer one year ago, he found himself among the first of 45 victims to be knocked down by the crushing crowd. Laying face down with many more piled on his back, he summoned his strength to lift his body up so that young Shmuel Chayut, who was pinned under him, would be able to breathe and survive with minor injuries.

“We were under everyone,” recalled his father, Avigdor Chayut, in a letter to Kohn’s mother, Chaya Gitty Kohn. “. . . In those moments, he thought about the one beneath him. I shouted to Yossi, ‘Is everything OK?’ Yossi was smiling and he said, ‘OK, OK.’ It was because of that smile that Shmuel and I could recognize him among the pictures of the victims.”

Even in his passing, he is surely smiling with pride observing the broad and diverse group of Jews who have come together to build two mikvehs in his memory in the Rocky Mountain West — one in Boise, Idaho, and the other in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

A mikveh is the specially constructed pool of water that confers ritual purification used in several areas of Jewish life, monthly by married women following menstruation and once in the process of conversion.

Crucial to the function of the Jewish family, the mikveh is considered the bedrock of Jewish life, and its construction is deemed more important than that of a synagogue.

In 1975, the Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson — launched a campaign to educate people about the mitzvah of family purity.

In the ensuing decades, hundreds of mikvehs have been built — from Bogota to Budapest, from Pittsburgh to Johannesburg, from Santa Fe to Denver.

But the Jewish locals and visitors in Idaho and Wyoming traveled more than 300 miles, at times through blinding snow on winding mountain roads, to use the mikvehs in Salt Lake City and Bozeman, Mont. There is a mikveh in Cheyenne.

It is these two states that will now benefit from the mikvehs in Yossi’s memory.

At a recent fundraising event, Chaya Gitty Kohn, who is a middle-school principal at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, spoke with poise and faith about the pain of missing her son and receiving G-d’s will with love.

“The hardest part is accepting the loss of his potential,” she said.

“I eagerly awaited and looked forward to watching what he would accomplish — all the people he would touch, the family he would build, which is why this project is so meaningful to us. A mikveh represents potential. It symbolizes the future of the Jewish nation.”

As Kohn set about searching for potential mikvehs to sponsor in her son’s memory, she confided in a childhood friend, who also began researching communities in need of mikvehs.

As the pair became interested in Wyoming and Idaho they were surprised to learn that the childhood friend’s husband, who often donates anonymously, had already committed to become the lead donor toward the two mikvehs.

During this past year, they rallied friends and benefactors, held meetings and raised awareness.

When the friend passed away suddenly this winter, her three children picked up where their mother had left off, leaving no stone unturned in their effort to raise the funds to build the two mikvehs.

Rabbi Mendel and Esther Lifshitz founded Chabad in Idaho in 2004 and recently set up their Chabad House, which has ample room in which the mikveh will be built. Drawings and permits are in place.

Chabad’s presence in Wyoming came in 2007 when Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn moved there with their infant daughter. They have purchased land in a central location and are obtaining permits for the mikveh.

Speaking at the same fundraising event, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president emeritus of the Lakewood yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha, spoke about how he was personally inspired to become a member of the campaign’s executive committee — together with Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, publisher of Yated Ne’eman, and Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin — after observing the work of the Chabad emissary couples far from the centers of Jewish American life.

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