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First PersonA mother died trying to save her child. Here’s how she will be remembered

Henya Federman’s brother-in-law writes how her influence and legacy will reverberate beyond her death

Last week, my dear sister-in-law Henya Federman passed away from a heartbreaking drowning incident that occurred in November. Despite her valiant efforts to save her baby Shterna in the chaos, both Henya and the baby tragically passed away. Shterna was taken from us instantly, and Henya, after fighting on life support for two months, succumbed to her injuries last week.

Words cannot encapsulate the magnitude of Henya’s life, memory, and awe-inspiring impact on this world. Her impact transcends language and cultural barriers so mere words will never do it justice but I will try to communicate as best I can.

As a devotee of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Henya quietly dedicated her life to being a Chabad emissary in the U.S. Virgin Islands, helping all people reconnect with their heritage and discover meaning.

This was demonstrated by her and my brother Asher’s bravery in risking their lives to provide aid to thousands of islanders both Jewish and non-Jewish, during major crises such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Her dedication to public service extended well beyond responding to natural disasters. It included weekly Shabbat candlelighting ceremonies to lift the spirits of the lonely, hosting spiritually uplifting meals during regular weekends, and offering comfort and support to those in moments of despair.

As I walked through the funeral procession for Henya at 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad, the sounds of the thousands of mourners’ raw and primal cries invoked memories of what I’ve read and heard about Rabbi Schneerson’s funeral. Henya’s had to be one of the largest and most emotional funerals in Chabad since the rebbe’s in 1994.

I recently watched an interview with Dr. Jon Lieff, who was hired to treat the rebbe after his stroke. The rebbe at that time could barely talk.

The interviewer asks Lieff what he thought about people thinking the rebbe may have been a messiah. I was expecting the secular, evidence-based and Harvard-educated physician to talk about the sociology of misguided messianic fervor. Instead, he said, with adulation, “maybe he was the messiah!” He continued, “even though he said he’s not.”

Even after suffering a stroke that greatly limited his ability to communicate, the rebbe continued to make an impact in people’s lives. Since his death, there have been thousands of new Chabad centers established worldwide and countless lives touched.

Similarly, Henya’s influence and legacy, as a representative of the rebbe, also continues to reverberate. Despite her inability to physically communicate from her deathbed, she achieved more in her final moments than many do in their entire lifetime, with over 54,800 published acts of kindness, generosity, and good deeds already dedicated in her honor. Many of those good deeds pledged by those Henya directly inspired.

Henya will continue to motivate. On the day of her passing, the parsha featured the daily chapter in which God instructs Moses to deliver the Ten Commandments to women first. Her funeral the next day coincided with, and was attended by, the international conference of female leaders in Chabad, an event where Henya had delivered a speech several years prior. It was fitting that she “spoke” again, this time from the heavens, conveying the teachings of the Torah to women everywhere.

But Henya’s impact goes well beyond the Jewish community. I took a Lyft from the mourning shiva house to LaGuardia Airport. The Muslim driver, Aamir, noticed I was Jewish and asked if I had heard about Henya. He was stunned and teary-eyed when I told him she was my sister-in-law. He offered heartfelt condolences and said how moved he was to hear about her selfless life.

Our conversation then turned to living for a greater purpose and the importance of charity. That interaction was just a tiny ray in the radiant sun of Henya’s posthumous impact.

The aforementioned doesn’t even begin to capture Henya’s unwavering love and devotion to her beautiful children and husband. Despite the demanding nature of her selfless public service, her commitment to her family only grew stronger as she viewed the wider community as an extension of her own family.

Similar to how a loving shepherd knows the individual needs of each sheep, Henya possessed a profound comprehension of the distinct needs of each member of her family and community. She tenderly offered them tailored guidance, comfort, security and encouragement, enabling them to flourish.

As I reflect on Henya’s values, I remember her reverence and meticulous adherence to upholding the sanctity of Shabbat and its detailed laws. She once told me that the best way to preserve the spirit of Shabbat if you also preserve its laws. The idea is that the psychological consistency of the behavior and belief signal our brain to also value the spirit.

I usually go to shul and of course make kiddush and spend time with family, but I haven’t been so scrupulous about observing all the intricacies of Shabbat’s laws. In her memory I will seek to enhance the spirit of Shabbat through more meticulous observance of all its laws.

After attending our son’s Bris, Henya texted us that “may Hashem continue to bentch [bless] us with nachas [parental joy], strength, and harchava [prosperity], and may the spirit that Adin Menachem Mendel’s name carries inspire, uplift, and infuse us all.” This text message remains indelible in my memory.

The Book of Job is about a righteous man who cries out at the injustice of his extreme suffering. It is a polemic on the nature of suffering and the relationship between humanity and the divine. Its teachings emphasize that we should not seek solace in our pain but, instead, strive to end it.

Emulating Henya’s examples of seeking to make the world a more benevolent place is one way to help ease the pain, but in the end, the loss I feel from her absence is beyond comprehension. The anguish caused by her departure will never fade.

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