NEW YORK – It was a bit more colorfully clothed, a bit higher-heeled, and featured a few more pregnant bellies than the men’s conference in November, but the dinner on Sunday night for the annual kinus for Chabad shluhot, or female ambassadors, was equal in passion and feelings of common purpose as that of their husbands’.
Women living in 81 countries as codirectors of their Chabad houses, with their husbands, shared stories of inspiring little girls to bring toy Torahs to school in Russia for Show-and-Tell presentations, of arranging funerals back-to-back with brises and fund-raisers and working against the stereotype of the Orthodox Jewish woman as meek, oppressed, and subservient to her husband.
Dini Freundlich, who runs one of two Chabad houses in Beijing with her husband, said their duties are more or less evenly split, even though it may not appear that way from the outside.
“Other people assume that if you’re a religious woman, you’re somehow lesser,” Freundlich said.
“But I don’t think the growth of Chabad could have happened if it were only men or only women going out. It takes the team, and it takes the children as well. We always come together as a family.”
Freundlich’s sister, Mushkie Barber, a shluha who just moved with her family to Mauritius a little under two years ago, agreed that even though Chabad does not endorse women being ordained as rabbis, the idea of the submissive Chabad woman “is a stereotype.”
“It’s not about being a woman in a man’s world, or in a man’s role,” Barber said. “We’re not judged on the same scale as men. That’s almost belittling to the woman. It’s about finding your strengths. A woman has to shine in her own right, and your way to success is as a team.”
Even if they can’t be official rabbis, many women said they often have to fill the shoes of their husbands for major events.
Esty Greenberg of Anchorage, Alaska, one of the evening’s speakers, told the story of having to lead a funeral from behind the scenes, coaching the men while her husband was away to attend another funeral for his family.
“It’s not about doing the rabbi job,” Greenberg told the audience of 3,000 shluhot, saying she got some congratulations from friends for “filling to rabbi role.”
“It’s about going beyond traditional roles and filling a need at the time, because there is a need, not because there’s an agenda.”
Freundlich, Greenberg and Barber, like many women in the room, come from a whole family of schluchim, spread all over the world, from South Africa to Beijing to Boston.
The kinus is one of the only times of the year the sisters, mother and grandmother can see each other.
Whereas the men’s Chabad conference in November focused much on honoring the memory of the late rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and trying to spread the message of Chabad further, the women’s conference also focused much on talk of family and the importance of children, as well as the challenges of raising a family in a culture that might not be too welcoming to religions of any sort.
The keynote speaker of the evening, Chanie Lipskar of Bal Harbour, Florida, talked about how when she was assigned, by Schneerson, to go to Miami with her husband, all she new about Miami was it was a place of everything she had been taught to avoid in her life — materialism and greed.
Freundlich talked about the need to keep a strict tab on the rules while living in China, a place where the government knows everything and checks-in constantly.
As per Chinese law, Freundlich and her husband are only allowed to provide services to foreign passport holders; native Chinese people are not allowed to associate with Chabad, as Judaism is not a state-sanctioned religion.
“They checkup on us,” Freundlich said. “They’ll ask us if the rules have changed or if we’ve started proselytizing.
At first it was scary, so we constantly have to make sure we’re following the letter of the law.”
Sara Pewzner, a shluha in St.
Petersburg, Russia, arrived with her husband 20 years ago, just after the fall of communism. “It was a total culture shock,” Pewzner said, explaining that most Jews in Russia at the time didn’t associate at all with the religion. Now, Pewzner said, they have a database of 25,000 people who are engaged with her Chabad house.
The rapid expansion of Chabad has been one of the most stunning feats of Judaism in the last 50 years.
Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Krinsky, a former assistant to Schneerson, said in his address to the kinus on Sunday that between March and October of 2013, 85 shluhim couples were sent on their designated missions, and the continually increasing sizes of both the men’s and women’s conferences each year is a testament to Chabad’s growing reach.
In addition to Sunday night’s dinner, the weekend-long conference also featured 75 workshops for the shluhos on topics ranging from social media engagement to caring for older and more isolated members of their community.