Obituary: Shevy Piekarski, 46, Beloved Educator and Mentor in Colombia
by Menachem Posner – chabad.org
When Shevy Piekarski of Bogotá, Colombia, passed away on June 14 (Sivan 15), she left behind seven biological children, ranging in age from 5 to 24. And she also leaves behind countless spiritual offspring, Jewish children and adults whom she patiently and lovingly taught Jewish beliefs, traditions and observances.
“No one even knows how many she mentored and helped because that’s just who she was, so humble but fierce at the same time,” says Bogotá resident Dorita Mildenberg. “She was our teacher, friend and confidante.”
She was born on May 28, 1975, the youngest of five children born to Rabbi Chaim and Miriam Swued in Mexico City, where her father was a leading rabbi.
Known locally as Chacham Swued, her Argentinian-born father had been sent to Mexico by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to serve as a spiritual guide and teacher for the local Sephardic community.
At age 12, she traveled to New York, where she attended Associated Beth Rivkah Schools in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Despite not knowing English or Yiddish and being 2,000 miles away from her doting parents, she threw herself into life in Crown Heights. She would arrive early and relish every moment in the central Chabad synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, listening to the Rebbe’s public teachings and praying along with him.
Passionate about teaching Judaism, she took advantage of her summer vacations to serve as a camp counselor in Canada, where she shared Jewish teachings and inspiration with her young charges.
A Lifelong Educator
In 1997, she married Rabbi Chanoch Piekarski, and the couple settled in Crown Heights, where she served as a first-grade Judaic-studies teacher.
“She loved connecting to her students,” recalls her husband in a conversation with Chabad.org. “She threw herself into her teaching 100 percent, thinking of creative ways to bring the subjects alive.”
In December of 1998, the Piekarskis and their infant son, Mendel, relocated to Colombia to become part of Casa Lubavitch Bogotá, where they joined Rabbi Yehoshua and Rivka Rosenfeld, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to the country since 1980.
The couple’s mandate was wide-ranging, and they threw themselves into a variety of programs for children, teens and adults.
In time, they found their place in a community that numbers 2,500 souls. A mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, most had arrived during the first half of the 20th century, coalescing into a united and close-knit Jewish community.
Ever the teacher, Shevy took up the position of Judaic-studies instructor at Gan Lubavitch, the local Chabad-run preschool.
In an effort to make her teachings as impactful and memorable as possible, she translated Hebrew and English songs into Spanish, and was always on the lookout for innovative ways to bring freshness and excitement to her lessons.
As her children grew up and she found herself with a little more time, she volunteered as a Judaic-studies teacher for the younger grades at the local Jewish day school, Colegio Colombo Hebreo, continuing where she left off with many former preschoolers.
For girls who did not attend the Jewish school, she developed and ran a Bat Mitzvah Club, where they could explore and refine their identities as budding Jewish women.
Her educational programs continued for adult women as well. She led many educational programs, including the Machon, an academy of Jewish studies for women, monthly Rosh Chodesh get-togethers and regular lunch-and-learns.
A Personal Guide and Friend
She had an affinity for the mitzvah of mikvah, and taught many local women about the beauty and practical observances of Family Purity. Often, women would maintain their connection with her and come back years later for guidance.
She also served as the local mikvah attendant. “It did not matter if it was late at night or if she had something else going on,” said her husband. “She made the mikvah her absolute priority.”
Community members recall that she spoke with inner strength and conviction. Quietly, emphatically and empathetically, she stood up for what she knew to be true and right—and people took note.
“She was one of the best friends you could ever have,” says community member Lia Halstuch. “A great listener, always with the right advice and the right words, just when you needed to hear them.”
‘A Place of Comfort’
Together with her husband, she maintained an open home, through which a steady stream of Israeli backpackers poured, some stopping just for a kosher meal, while others remained to study, relax and enjoy the rich Jewish atmosphere before moving on.
The Sukkot meals she hosted were legendary, with dozens of people packing into her sukkah every night of the holiday.
“The Piekarskis’ was a place of comfort,” attests Mildenberg. “We always felt at home, always an open door, a kind word, always something to laugh about.”
Always up for another challenge, she also took a leading role in planning and catering for the Shabbatons she and her husband would host. They arranged weekend events geared specifically for young couples at exotic out-of-town locations. And for the wider community, they held Shabbat programs at a five-star hotel, which became a beloved and much-anticipated part of Colombian Jewish communal life.
“She was my full partner in everything,” he says. “We do not have the same resources as one may have in a larger community, but she organized, cooked, and she gave her heart and soul to every event and every program.”
Mildenberg concurs, calling her “an amazing event planner” whose attention to detail could be seen in her signature foods, the flowers, seating arrangements, her creative mishloach manot at Purim time and more.
Yet as busy as she was with her countless communal tasks, she remained fully dedicated to her own children, never allowing her role as a Jewish mother to be encroached upon by maids or nannies. In addition, she devoted time to each of her children’s studies, arranging her days around her tutoring sessions with them, ensuring that they were scholastically up to par with the yeshivah students their age.
“She was a very normal mom doing amazing things,” says Halstuch. “That’s what I loved the most about her. She taught us to always give of ourselves, to do more, to give to somebody else without expecting anything in return.”
Even as her illness progressed, she battled it fiercely and succeeded in continuing to nourish the bodies and souls of her children, her community and her friends.
“Even during her treatment during hard times, she would find something funny to say or giggle about,” observes Mildenberg. “She would give advice in the most subtle way, always right on, and what a great listener she was.”
In addition to her husband, Shevy Piekarski is survived by their children: Mendel, Chaim, Chana, Sheina, Yossi, Shua and Peretz.
She is also survived by her siblings: Rajel Levy (Buenos Aires), Rosa Cohen (Montreal), Rabbi Eliyahu Swued (Brooklyn, N.Y.), and Naomi Heber (Brooklyn, N.Y.).
Those wishing to support the Piakarski family may do so here.