Photos: Itzik Roytman
As 5,384 Chabad-Lubavitch women leaders gathered on six continents for a weekend of reflection, camaraderie and educational workshops—all held virtually with optional in-person attendance in Brooklyn, N.Y. – they united on Sunday, Jan. 23, for an evening of tribute to Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, and a global celebration of Jewish life.
“I’m so glad to be back in person,” said Rochel Lowenthal, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Denmark, who flew in from Copenhagen. “For me, the Kinus is a place to reconnect and recharge and to feel the true nature of shevet achim gam yachad (‘gathering together as one’). Sitting around the table surrounded by friends and family is so special and rewarding,” she told Chabad.org, gesturing to her daughter, Mushkie Krinsky, who has recently embarked on a shlichus of her own in Kovno, Lithuania. “Zoom is nice, but there’s nothing like being face to face.”
Dini Hefer, who serves at the Chabad center in Dusseldorf, Germany, said that experiencing the unique and holy energy of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—in Crown Heights—the epicenter of the Chabad worldwide activities—gives her strength and clarity. “The fact that you see so many women, all going through different challenges, all supporting one another, is so special,” she said. Being wined and dined at the conference with delicious kosher food that is frequently unavailable back home is also a nice perk, she added with a smile.
Although a limited number of women attended the event in Brooklyn this year, thousands of their colleagues joined them virtually. In New York, it was evening; in Paris, the dead of night; and in Melbourne, early afternoon. The women, who serve diverse communities in more than 100 countries and territories, gather annually in New York though with Covid realities, this year offered a hybrid event, culminating in a farbrengen-style celebration, a smaller alternative to the usual gala banquet attended by thousands.
Addressing both the live crowd and those watching online, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch—the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—underscored the unusual structure of this year’s event. He also highlighted Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s life of devotion and self-sacrifice as a lesson in leadership, and shared personal recollections of conversations he had with the Rebbetzin.
Lauding the way the emissaries rose to the challenge of the pandemic and within days had completely reimagined Jewish communal engagement, Kotlarsky noted how Chabad was not only resilient but continued to expand: More than $100 million in capital campaigns was raised by emissaries in the United States alone since March 2020, underscoring Chabad’s interpersonal engagement with what the Pew Research Center’s 2021 study of Jewish American life found to be at least two in five Jewish adults in the U.S.. It’s a trend reflected on a local level as well: A 2014 Miami study found that 50 percent of Jews under 36 participate in Chabad activities.
120 New Emissary Couples, 120 New Mikvahs
Urging the emissaries not to suffice with these accomplishments, Kotlarsky recalled a pledge he’d made just three months earlier at the parallel men’s conference. “It’s not enough to double our efforts, we must triple our efforts,” he implored then, as he announced sweeping new initiatives to bring Chabad’s reach even further and even as he faced health challenges of his own.
The string of new projects included seed money for 120 new emissary couples; a new fund to build 120 new mikvahs; 36 Torah scrolls for emissaries who don’t yet have one; and 360 new Jewish libraries. He also announced the opening of a new Israeli desk to assist Chabad centers catering in particular to that demographic and that 1,200 pairs of rabbinical students would be sent to reinvigorate far-flung Jewish communities around the world.
At the women’s conference, Kotlarsky announced the first 20 new couples who are receiving the seed funding: young men and women who will serve a broad range of demographics and locales, from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Hamilton, Bermuda, to Marrakesh, Morocco. But it’s not only exotic locations, tropical vistas and sand dunes; new emissaries were also announced for places such as West Hartford, Conn., where the couple will focus on hospital chaplaincy, and Pittsburgh, Pa., where the couple will open a new chapter of Chabad Young Professionals.
Kotlarsky pointed out that the number 120 was chosen to mark the 120th anniversary since the Rebbe’s birth. “There’s no better gift for the Rebbe than bringing down a new shliach,” he remarked.
The first round of grants for new mikvahs have also begun, the first 12 going to communities that had none, including Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Ajaccio on the French island of Corsica; Brest, Belarus; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; Girne, North Cyprus; and Manchester, N.H., among other locations around the world.
The recipients of twelve of the 36 new Torah scrolls were announced, as the scrolls will be awarded to Jewish communities in need, in places like Barbados, Uganda and Seattle.
At the men’s conference, Kotlarsky had also announced a new simchah fund for emissaries making weddings, bar or bat mitzvahs, or celebrating births, and a holiday fund to help them with their family’s expenses. At the women’s event, he was able to report that—amid what remains challenging times—happy occasions are not in short supply. The new simchah fund has so far assisted emissaries with more than $1 million to go towards 350 births, 290 bar mitzvahs and 280 weddings, sharing the financial burden of the emissaries’ personal celebrations.
A Renewed Sense of Purpose
A feeling of renewed purpose on the part of the emissaries was not limited to the news they heard at Sunday evening’s event. Hindy Rosenberg from Miami Beach, Fla., said that the energy of the weekend-long retreat filled her with pride and a sense of focus. “Knowing that all these women are working towards the same mission, all part of the ‘Rebbe’s army,’ gives me the strength to move forward despite any obstacles.”
Faigy Shechter from Chicago explained that the Kinus empowers her to be more present in her life. “Being surrounded with so many incredible people and so much wisdom gives me the strength to be more mindful and productive once I return home. It helps me find meaning in the day-to-day.”
Chaya Mushka Hecht from Queens, N.Y., said that seeing old friends and fellow emissaries from around the world gives her life. She said that her husband encouraged her to attend the weekend event in person.
“It’s an opportunity to connect after being isolated for so long. I gained so much strength,” she said. As their Chabad center is currently undergoing growing pains, she felt that the clarity and inspiration she’s gained from speaking to friends and acquaintances will give her the fortitude needed to move forward.
Chaya Mushka Teboul, originally from Paris, has been an emissary in Bastia, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, since 2020. “I feel extremely grateful to be part of this incredible family of women, all of whom are literally changing the world every single second. It’s a dream come true,” she said.