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.
Ï 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
“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.
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.
you should excuse the expression, to let down their hair.
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
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
No one would dare suggest they are the little women behind their
“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.
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
Networking with colleagues takes place in both the conference
sessions and informal conversations.
Experienced mentors are available
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
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
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
NECHAMA SHEMTOV belongs to the five-woman executive committee, which 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.
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.
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
“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
Most of us have chosen a model of activism different from the
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
“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
“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.”
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.
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.
husband offers traveling holiday workshops, among them on how to make your own
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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 Richter, the emissary
from Howard Beach, Queens, Dini 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.
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
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
“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.”
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.
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.”