Hassidic women going beyond the comfort zone
Feb. 24, 2013
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
1,700 women global emissaries of the Chabad movement congregate at the Crown Heights Lubavitch World Headquarters for the once-a-year Shluchos conference where they share stories of struggle and success
The biting winter wind is blowing black hats off the hassidim along Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn. Legions of women hurry up the stairs of Oholei Torah Center, hands on heads to secure their pretty wigs. One thousand seven hundred women global emissaries of the Chabad movement are congregating at the Crown Heights Lubavitch World Headquarters for a once-a-year conference. The gathering is called International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchos, or just "the Kinus," Hebrew for conference. Merchants have hung welcome banners offering free coffee and discounts to lure the visitors into their shops to purchase toddlers' velveteen dresses, kosher Swiss cheese and bargain wigs. From their early 20s through their 80s, the emissaries – they're called shluchos – have arrived from Melbourne and Moscow, Miami and Mombai, Metulla and Monsey.
For a long weekend in February, these industrious women take a break from their 24/7 responsibilities as teachers, school principals, hoteliers, chefs, accountants, social workers, counselors and mothers to return to the Chabad mother ship.
I didn't cook ahead for Shabbat. My husband said, 'Don't back, just go,'" says Henya Federman, a mother of six who has lived for the past seven years in St. Thomas, where she serves as co-director of activities of Chabad of the Virgin Islands with her husband, Asher Federman. About to leave for the airport, Sara Pewzner, a veteran emissary in St. Petersburg, Russia, found all her children awake and begging her not to go. She came anyway. "They're doing just fine," Pewzner says, smiling.
Pewzner would have worried two decades ago, she says, when she and her husband were putting down stakes in the post-glasnost Russian city, scrambling for food and lodgings, with a toddler in tow. Compensation for the hardscrabble days was their satisfaction in teaching Jews hungry for the religious education they'd been denied under Communism.
"Today, we get to teach more advanced courses, too," says Pewzner. She's currently leading a seminar in Jewish history. A number of Russian-born graduates of the early courses have gone on to become emissaries of Judaism and of Chabad Hassidic teachings.
Indeed, in the corridor near the coat check, emissaries are conversing in Russian. Others speak with animation in French. In the ladies' lounge, three Hebrew-speaking emissaries from Israel are commiserating with a fourth who can't kick the jet lag headache and drowsiness. Parallel sessions are offered in English and Hebrew.
At a lavish welcome breakfast buffet – no worries about running out of kosher supplies in Crown Heights – tables are loaded with fresh fruit salad, French toast, porridge, home fries and creamy yogurts. The women reconnect with distant friends and schmooze with far-flung colleagues. They can refill cups from the giant urns of brewed coffee without having to separate brawling twins, rescue a stoned backpacker or reassure an anxious kindergarten parent. (Babysitting is available for those who have brought their infants with them.) They don't have to stir a humongous cholent for ravenous college students nor demonstrate how to recite the blessing over French toast. Everyone at these tables knows the blessings and the immensity of the trials they must overcome.
It's time, you should excuse the expression, to let down their hair.
NECHAMA KANTOR went off to Thailand 20 years ago when her husband noticed an unanswered ad on the Chabad bulletin board. Today, over 150,000 Israelis visit Thailand every year. Her husband sleeps with a phone in his bed because so many emergencies happen. Says Brighton, Massachusetts, emissary Sara Rodkin, a teacher who is also involved in the Boston's Russian Chabad Shaloh House school, "Even in the age of Internet, there's no substitute for the energy of face-to-face contact."
Every woman at the Kinus has made a commitment, come what may, to serve the Jewish people, wherever they may be. When they're asked how long they'll be staying at their post, the standard answer is "until the Messiah comes."
No one would dare suggest they are the little women behind their husband's success.
"At the side every successful shlucha [woman emissary] walks her husband the shaliach [man emissary]" says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries and Vice-Chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which sponsors the conference.
Each emissary pays a token $36 to attend and has to come up with the money for transportation. In Crown Heights, the community provides home hospitality. Some shluchos, like Kantor, bring their daughters to take part in or run the day camp, where they get an opportunity to interact with girls their own age who live similarly isolated lives without religious peers. Many of the girls are home schooled and take classes over the Internet, and have never met their fellow classmates.
Networking with colleagues takes place in both the conference sessions and informal conversations.
Experienced mentors are available for consultations.
Workshops include practical matters like home schooling and coping with a child who needs special education where it isn't available. At closed-door sister-to-sister sessions, problems are shared. How do you deal with a difficult relationship within your family when your household is so often inundated with guests? How do you cope with disappointment when no one shows up for your programs? Says one, "You get to admit your husband isn't perfect or that one of your kids isn't religious... It's a relief to learn how others are coping or not coping.
Yes – we're trying to model positive relationships and family joy, but the idea isn't that everything is perfect with us. Just the opposite. The idea is that problems inevitably come up for everyone. So deal with them."
There are numerous sessions on improving marital harmony when you are working together 24/7. Emissaries are urged not to neglect their marriages while attending to the many needs of their community.
Miriam Moskovitz from Kharkov, Ukraine, attended this study session, even though she says she has a wonderful marriage. She and her husband take an hour's walk together every day before their children – they have 11 – come home from school.
"Our kids have never seen us kiss, but they know we have love and affection for each other," she says.
She tries to attend the Conference every year, explaining that "sometimes just hearing the stories or others' struggles and successes gives you context for what you are doing."
Private sessions with experts are available for those suffering from infertility and secondary infertility. One session deals with modern questions such as restrictions – if any – on teaching a group of men or becoming friends with community members on Facebook. A popular workshop offers "Important Answers to Difficult Questions." Among the questions were queries about homosexuality and Torah-science conflicts. Two representatives told me the answers were not rigorous enough to deal with the challenges they field, and will need to continue their search privately.
The Kinus is scheduled around the Hebrew date of the anniversary of the death of Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the wife of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. After she died 25 years ago, Chabad emissaries and women from Crown Heights began gathering informally to honor her memory. At the suggestion of the Rebbe the event was formalized and tailored to address the needs of the shluchos.
NECHAMA SHEMTOV belongs to the five-woman executive committee, hones the program and runs the Kinus.
"With the advent of technology and numerous list serves and websites geared specifically for shluchos, we no longer have to focus as much on programming and can deal more with the myriad of other issues – personal, emotional and spiritual – that shluchos the world over face. We survey the participants in the previous year's Kinus and see what women want more or less of. We try to accommodate them."
Shemtov was recruited for the 24-woman Coordinating Committee for the Conference about 20 years ago. She and a few of the other activists rose to leadership among the organizers and were formally appointed as the Executive Committee by Rabbi Kotlarsky. Like most jobs in Chabad, it's likely to be a lifetime appointment and one of considerable power in shaping the organization.
Workshops and discussion groups are balanced with sessions featuring inspirational messages by women in the field. For instance, Gothenburg emissary Leah Namdar shared her experience in fighting the Swedish government in court to allow her and her husband Rabbi Alexander Namdar to home school their children. They were charged with refusing to send their children to public school. The court ruled in their favor, deciding that they were proficient educators and were providing their children with a satisfactory alternative. In addition to schooling her own children, Namdar heads the Jewish day schools and nursery schools. She runs adult education classes and the ritual bath.
Conspicuously absent from the main lectures is a moralistic harangue on modesty or piety. Instead, both rabbinical figures and women leaders urge women to step forward, to be on the front lines, to speak up. If you don't feel comfortable talking to women about the mikve, holding the hand of a dying congregant, delivering the keynote speech at a community dinner – do it anyway. Go beyond your comfort zone. Overcome your inhibition and take on leadership. That's what your rebbe would expect of you.
A prominent poster of the rebbetzin – a comely woman wearing a smart hat – adorns the convention halls. By all accounts, Mrs. Schneerson of President Street was an intelligent and sophisticated woman who chose to live a private life, surrounded by her friends from Europe. One emissary remembers that the rebbetzin had a fixed date every week to go museums and that she worked in the library. And while everyone else nodded at what the rebbe said, she often disagreed and engaged him in lively dialogue.
She provided the support and freedom for him to work long hours and devote himself to the Jewish people. They had no children. At the Kinus banquet, an emissary from England warmly recounts her personal relationship with the rebbetzin. But for all their admiration of the rebbetzin – and many of the emissaries have named daughters for her – it's their connection with the rebbe that the emissaries speak of with affection and wonder.
They were so inspired by his passion to serve the Jewish people that they, too, have dedicated their lives to it. They tell personal stories of his uncanny ability to know what was right for each of them and his prescience in foreseeing the needs of the Jewish people.
"The rebbe's speaking of his love for the Jewish people burned itself into the souls of his Hassidim," says veteran Swedish emissary Namdar, who had audiences with the rebbe.
"Even at the rebbetzin's funeral," says Miriam Moscovitz, "we saw the pale rebbe, and thought more about his suffering than the loss of the rebbetzin.
Most of us have chosen a model of activism different from the rebbetzin."
Not one of the many emissaries I interviewed suggested that the rebbe was still alive. The Kinus reflects the position of mainstream Chabad, which doesn't endorse the claim of the extremist Chabad messianic branch that the rebbe is in hiding, soon to return as the Messiah. According to my interviewees, Chabad Messianism is more prevalent in Israel, where the movement has also taken on gender restricting practices not found in mainstream Chabad.
The rebbe's message to women? According to BarIlan University professor Susan Handelman who knew the Rebbe and has written seminal papers on Chabad and feminism, Rabbi Schneerson believed that each generation further away from Sinai is also closer to the final Redemption and Messianic Era.
"And so, we could say we have merited the increase in Torah study for women precisely because of that proximity: it is part of the preparation for – and already a taste of – redemption," says Handelman.
This perspective, she says, paralleled his reinterpretation of the halachic obligations of women in the mitzvah of Torah study. Within Chabad, his encouragement has dramatically increased women's public participation in Chabad outreach activities.
Shifra Aviva "Vivi" Deren worked on New England campuses in the ‘70s when "feminism was at a rolling boil." During her years on campus, it hit her that the problem with feminism was that it was not radical enough. "Basically the premise was ‘anything you can do, we can do better,' but did not challenge what society respects and why. Our society typically measures success by the yardsticks of career achievement, money, power etc. Feminism challenged that women were not getting a fair shake. But as Jewish educators (the essence of being a parent) we believe that what we do for the next generation is the only real measure of who we are. They are all our children, and we are all parents. That needs to be everyone's yardstick, men and women alike."
Deren is a teacher, lecturer and founder of the award-winning Gan Yaledim preschool in Stamford, Connecticut. In December, she and her husband were called to Newtown to comfort the family of Noah Pozner, who was killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.
"I knew why we had been called," says Deren. "It wasn't only because my husband is a compassionate and caring rabbi, who has brought comfort to so many hurting people. We were being asked to help because as bereaved parents ourselves several times over, perhaps we had something more to offer... if only to be evidence that it is possible to breathe after the breath has literally been knocked out of you."
Four of the Derens' eight children were diagnosed with Bloom syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by short stature and predisposition to the development of cancer. Three have died, and their daughter recently received a successful lung transplant.
"Facing tragedy is where your role as an emissary is a lifeline," Deren says, recalling the day when they returned from the funeral of their own six-year old. "I might have drowned in sorrow. We were facing a roomful of friends from our community, dear people who had come to comfort us, but no one could utter a word. And so my husband and I found ourselves in the familiar mode of reaching out to others, of reaching beyond questions and pain to try and explore the real core values of Torah. Although my head knew those ideas, I don't think my heart would have been open to them, if not for the need to share with others. I was really the one to benefit."
In 1955, the rebbe spoke about the importance of women learning Torah and becoming well-versed in Judaism, particularly the areas that impacted their lives.
"I'd heard about the speech," says Rivka Sharfstein, now aged 81, "but a Lubavitch rabbi, visiting from London, repeated the rebbe's teaching to me. He wanted to know what I was doing about it. I'd only been in Cincinnati a short time, but he sat by the phone while I called five acquaintances and suggested we start a study group. I studied first with my husband, and kept one chapter ahead. There were very few advanced women teachers back then."
In addition to her personal study and teaching, Sharfstein and her husband ran a school, created a preschool with progressive ideas from the child-oriented Montessori system, and worked with students on the Cincinnati campuses, including a group of Reform rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College, who met at their home, with the encouragement of the rebbe.
Attending the Kinus with Sharfstein was her granddaughter Freida Raskin, 24, an emissary in Aspen Hill, Maryland. One of the great successes of Chabad is the ability to create the next generation of Jewish leadership within their own families. The fifth of six children, Raskin said she always wanted to serve the Jewish people. But unlike many of the outgoing and charismatic emissaries, Raskin is shy.
"I could never see myself speaking at one of these sessions or running a campus Chabad house. I'm glad there are different models of service," she says.
Her husband offers traveling holiday workshops, among them on how to make your own shofar.
Raskin handles the logistics, including jobs like ordering stuffed sheep heads on eBay.
When he spoke at the Chabad men's Convention in November 2011, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said of the Lubavitch Rebbe: "A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders."
While women are doing the lioness's share of the childrearing, no one I spoke to was able to distill the method by which these Chabad women are so successful at passing down not just Judaism, but the guts and enthusiasm to serve the Jewish people. How many other movements have more candidates than jobs available for those ready to sacrifice comfort and prosperity for lifelong service? THE FINAL event of the Kinus is the Sunday afternoon Grand Banquet at the New York Hilton attended by more than 2,700 emissaries and their women guests.
The theme was Women at the Forefront. Emissaries who have died during the year are honored. Security has been boosted around the world to help cope with rising threats to the emissaries and their families.
This year's keynote address is delivered by Chanie Baron, an emissary of Columbia, Maryland, who arrived there as a "a cute, bubbly and fashionable 18- year old," according to a former congregation member who introduced her. Baron's secret to success, she says, the "kugel, chaos and unconditional love" at her Shabbat table. But Baron ascribes her inspiration to a visit to the rebbe when she was five years old. The rebbe asked Baron's mother if all her daughters lit Shabbat candles. Only the older ones, her mother had said.
"And this one?" asked the rebbe, nodding to Baron.
"She's not a kleine, a little one; she's a groyse, a big one."
Today a grandmother, Baron still recalls the Rebbe's pronouncement when she runs into seemingly impossible hurdles.
The Kinus traditionally ends with the roll call of Chabad venues. The five emissaries who read the long list of Chabad outposts serve in Montreal, Canada; Johannesburg, South Africa; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Melbourne, Australia, and Pau, France.
A guest at the Hilton wondered about the thousands of ebullient women entering the banquet hall.
"I had a hard job explaining what a rebbetzin is," said Rabbi Kotlorsky. When he'd finished the man looked at him with wonder. "Is that all you have to do on Superbowl Sunday?"
Many of the emissaries talk about the feeling of sisterhood they get at the Kinus, but for Sonia Hershcovich, the emissary from Los Cabos, Mexico, Sorele Brownstein, the emissary from Davis, California, Zeldi Richler, the emissary from Howard Beach, Queens, Deni Polichenco, the emissary from Tijuana, Mexico, and Haya Mushka Silverstein from Monsey, New York, they mean sisterhood literally. These five petite, pretty sisters enjoy a rare reunion at the Kinus, Born in Milan, Italy, they hardly ever see each other, or nine of their other siblings posted around the world.
"Our parents, emissaries themselves, never pushed us to follow in their footsteps," says Brownstein.
"We had a stable and loving home... 16 children in all with the usual fighting, problems, interests of youngsters."
Their parents, Rabbi Shmuel and Devora Rodal, are longtime emissaries in Italy, coming from Montreal where their grandparents, Rabbi Yosef and Faige Rodel, were emissaries. A great-grandfather was one of the Chabad hassidim saved by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.
For Brownstein, the trip to New York is both a chance to recharge her energy and enthusiasm and an opportunity to see her sisters.
"When I decided to be a shlucha [emissary] I thought it was making a sacrifice for the good of the Jewish people. Only later did I realize that the job offered me both flexibility and an opportunity to develop myself in ways I might not in a traditional job."
In addition to the Jewish education she and her husband offer, she takes part in a writers' group through Chabad and is writing a novel based on the life of Queen Esther.
Dini Polichenco commutes from California to Tijuana and runs a program called Chabad Without Borders, providing youth programs, adult education, and community services.
Sonia Hershcovich in Los Cabos has it the hardest, Brownstein and Polichenco agree. "She's so isolated," says Polichenco.
Hershcovich has three small children whom she home schools in the morning. She teaches Hebrew school and offers women's classes to Mexican Jewish women in the afternoon. And she's become a caterer, providing kosher food for travelers and those who dock in the Mexican port.
"I didn't know how to cook at first, so I sent to one of my sisters who is a great cook for recipes and was coached over the phone."
Since the murder of Gabriel and Rivky Holtzberg in Mumbai in 2008, Hershcovich has been more concerned about security.
"I could have been her; she could have been me," says Hershcovich. There's no ritual bath, so she immerses in the ocean. There's also no like-minded buddy, girlfriend or support. When she's busiest, paradoxically, it's easiest to cope, says Hershcovich.
"When there's a low time, no tourists, few students, I have moments when I'm wondering what I'm doing here."
The Kinus helps, she says. The workshops were empowering and she got important tips for the home schooling. At the final banquet, Hershcovich said she'd come to the realization that "it's all in me to make the success of my mission. I feel renewed and confident that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and there's no point kvetching."