The evolving role of Chabad women
By Cindy Mindell
During Chabad’s 2012 telethon, host Larry King presented some statistics on women leaders in the U.S.: three percent of corporate CEOs are women, 14 percent of federal leadership positions are held by women, and five percent of Hollywood films are directed by women. “One exception to the absence of women in American leadership is Chabad,” he said. “Of the hundreds of Chabad’s outreach, educational, and charitable programs, nearly 50 percent are directed by women. Many of Chabad’s leading organizations are headed by women.”
He interviewed three Los Angeles-area Chabad rebbetzins, asking Racheli Muchnik from Oxnard, Calif., “What do you do at Chabad?” The response: “What do we not do? We raise our families, we support our husbands first and foremost, and then we’re out there in the field – helping, counseling, crisis intervention, meals, whatever it may be.”
Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hasidic movement founded in 18th-century Russia by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. “Chabad” is an acronym for the Hebrew words, “chochmah,” “binah,” da’at,” – “wisdom,” “understanding,” “knowledge.” The Lubavitch branch of the movement takes its name from Lyubavichi, the Russian town where the group was based until the early 20th century. In 1940, the movement was salvaged from Holocaust-era Europe by its sixth leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Warsaw and resettled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. His son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, would become the seventh and last leader of the movement.
Schneerson and his wife, Chaya Mushka – known affectionately as “the Rebbe” and “the Rebbetzin” – would transform Chabad, sending “shluchim,” or “emissaries” out into the world to strengthen Jewish souls and community wherever they were.
The movement now maintains more than 3,500 centers in 70 countries, each co-directed by a rabbi-and-rebbetzin team. The rebbetzins are collectively known as “shluchos” (singular: shlucha). Each center offers a variety of programs, from Shabbat and Jewish holiday celebrations, to Torah study and Hebrew school, as well as men’s groups, women’s events, and preschool classes.
Chabad established its first center in Connecticut in 1977, when the Rebbe, who died in 1994, sent Rabbi Yosef and Rebbetzin Miriam Gopin to Hartford, where the rabbi had extended family. Now, there are 26 centers throughout the state.
As part of his vision, the Rebbe sent his emissaries into the world, not as part of an institution or organization, but as a model of family life. “The husband and wife go out into a new community and raise their family, and in the context of the Jewish home, as an outgrowth, they reach out to fellow Jews,” says Rochel Baila Yaffe, who has served as Chabad of Fairfield shlucha since 2000.
“A Chabad shlucha works together with her husband in all matters of programming and decision-making,” explains Miryam Piekarski, who has co-directed Chabad of Hamden since 1995. “The shlucha has a special role in organizing activities geared towards women and children in all matters of Torah learning and development. The shlucha uses her unique talents to reach out to her constituents to assist them in all matters.”
This mission is inspired by the life of the Rebbetzin, who died in 1988, and is admired by shlucos for her quiet strength. “She always seemed like a very behind-the-scenes, out-of-the-limelight kind of person,” says Miriam Landa, Chabad of Fairfield shlucha. “We know that she was 1000 percent devoted to the Rebbe, and helped make his work possible, but for the most part, she considered herself as a support to her husband. Whatever she did for the Rebbe was always done in an unassuming manner, not out in the public, not making headlines.”
Only after the Rebbetzin’s death did the public begin to learn about her, through stories. “Throughout her life, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka did what was necessary for the Jewish community,” says Mina Eisenbach, shlucha of Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County. “This was of foremost importance. I think Chabad shluchos have the same thought uppermost in their minds and operate accordingly. We do not live for ourselves. We belong to the Jewish people.”
While shluchos in different communities share the same goal – to enrich Jewish life wherever they can – “the role of the Chabad shlucha will vary in each community,” says Eisenbach. “The places where Chabad is located all over the globe differ radically so the services Chabad provides differ as well. I find that the common denominator between all Chabad shluchos – whether they cook for 400 people in a Third World country every week or live in Small Town USA – is to be an open, approachable woman who shows sensitivity and caring and someone who feels so passionate about her Judaism that she wants to share it with others. Whenever I meet someone who knows Chabad in their community, this is what strikes people the most: the love and care that come across. This is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s approach and is something we strive to emulate.”
The Rebbetzin’s life story is celebrated at an annual international women’s conference held in Crown Heights. Every year, thousands of women from around the world converge on Chabad’s world headquarters for an annual dose of motivation and encouragement, a necessary component of their tireless mission to strengthen Jewish communities in 70 countries around the globe.
Chabad hosts two international conferences every year for those involved in running and organizing Chabad centers and teaching in Chabad dayschools. The rabbis’ conference is held before the month of Kislev; the rebbetzins’ event is held on or near 22 Shevat, the yahrzeit of Chaya Mushka.
This year marked the 25th annual International Conference of Chabad Women, held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4. The event drew some 3,000 women, among them Chabad-Lubavitch shluchos, as well as lay leaders, many of them from communities across North America. For those who could not attend, the event was broadcast live. The five-day conference featured inspirational speakers and presentations, as well as workshops on a wide range of subjects including counseling, programming, and teaching techniques, and personal-growth and parenting seminars for the many conference participants who run Chabad Houses together with their husbands.
“We’re getting together to inspire each other and to stay involved in our communities on a 24/7 basis,” says Yehudis Wolvovsky, co-director of Chabad Jewish Center in Glastonbury, and one of 25 Connecticut conference participants. “In order to be available to people at all times and to meet all needs, the conference is a place where we remind ourselves why we’re here and reinvigorate ourselves. We boost and encourage each other.” The event is also an opportunity for far-flung friends and relatives to get together; Wolvovsky saw her sisters from Portugal and Arizona, and old friends from Italy and other distant locales.
An extensive networking event allowed participants to share ideas and discuss specific Chabad programs like Mommy and Me, Camp Gan Israel, and Friendship Circle for children and teens with special needs. The general sessions were presented in English with simultaneous translation in Hebrew, Russian, and French, and workshops were offered in those languages as well.
The conference culminated on Sunday night with a banquet at the Hilton New York, followed by smaller workshops on Monday.
“At times, it can be a challenge to maintain the spiritual and religious standards of our families, in communities that don’t have Jewish infrastructure and community support,” says Wolvovsky. “We have to be inspired so that we can go back into our communities and continue to remind fellow Jews of our beautiful heritage while retaining our standards.” Among the workshops are Torah-study sessions that relate to the work the women are doing and the reasons behind their mission.
Shluchos talk about the inspiration and example they take from the Rebbetzin’s life, even though she was known as a private person. “I have heard a story here, a snippet there, and every time I get a glimpse into her life, I draw a lesson for my own,” says Shayna Gopin of Chabad House of Greater Hartford. “A speaker at the conference talked about her visit to the Schneersons’ home, and the Rebbetzin was so ‘present’ with each and every guest. She remembered details about this young woman’s life and expressed genuine interest in her schoolwork and friends. She prepared foods and treats specifically for the kids that would make them feel special. What struck me was that it is so simple but so important to find a way to genuinely connect and express love and interest to every person we meet.”
Wolvovsky has helped organize conference workshops for several years. This year, she served as head of the banquet committee, creating the program for the culminating Sunday-night gala event and working with the speakers on their presentations. She coordinated technical logistics with the banquet producers and organized a group of representatives from the concurrent Chabad girls’ conference, who sang during the evening’s festivities.
While Chabad women maintain a year-round online network, with some 1,000 participants sharing ideas and discussion via email, “there is nothing as moving as being in a room full of incredibly powerful people,” Wolvovsky says, “people who are full of love for others and dedicated to changing the world one person at a time.”
For Wolvovsky, a highlight of the program was the roll call, the annual salute to every country where Chabad has an established presence. Five women each gave a short talk on the various communities they work in, then took turns reading the country names. “This is all the Rebbe’s vision of being available to fellow Jews across the globe,” she says. “People know that wherever you go, you’ll find Chabad.”
Rebbetzin Yaffe of Chabad of the Shoreline was struck by the mix of ages among the participants, a welcome break from secular culture, with its emphasis on youth. “I see women in their 20s, all the way up to their 80s, and all talking to each other and learning from each other,” she says. “The older women are venerated, and it’s so empowering to see them given even more respect and honor. They don’t fade away. Their wrinkles are celebrated as a testament to their experience.”
Wolvovsky was also moved by keynote speaker Chanie Baron, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Center of Howard County in Columbia, Md. “When she first moved to Maryland, she thought she would change the world, and illustrated that idea with a Venn diagram – two circles not connected,” Wolvovsky recalls. “But as she matured and grew with her community, she realized that, in this work, we inspire and help others grow, but we are also inspired and helped by our communities.”
Others echo the sentiment. “Over the years, I’ve changed perspective somewhat in valuing the individual relationships between people rather than the larger functions we run,” says Rebbetzin Piekarski of Hamden. “Although we try to cater to the general community with themed Shabbat dinners and fun holiday activities, a person can gain more and grow more with an intimate Torah class or discussion.”
“We all run a thousand things – Hebrew schools, community events, holidays,” says Rebbetzin Landa of Chabad of Fairfield. “At the end of the day, if all I did was make Shabbat dinner and visit with people and drop off a challah and go out for coffee, that would be enough, because that’s how you build community. The most effective thing I can do is just be a real mother, a real person, and a friend to people. Programs don’t make anything happen, but being available to people is what we’re here for: the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael – the love of fellow Jews, accepting them wherever they are in their lives and helping them with whatever they need.”
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