It felt like a family reunion. Thousands of women were hugging, waving to friends and snapping pictures in every part of the newly renovated Pier 12 Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at the Sunday-night gala banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos).
The annual dinner event, which featured speakers, live music, a children’s performance and inspirational stories from women serving Jewish communities worldwide, wrapped up four days of learning, socializing, praying and recharging in Brooklyn, N.Y., for emissaries, lay leaders and guests.
Chani Shemtov, co-director of Chabad at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the past nine years with her husband, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, served as the evening’s MC. “Standing here, taking in this awe-inspiring crowd, the thought that comes to mind is that the entire world is represented right here,” said the child of emissaries from Johannesburg, South Africa. “And you, you are the women who hold up our world. There’s a spot in the world to which you dedicate your heart and soul. Your waking moments—and many of your should-be sleeping ones—are filled with thoughts of how to infuse your corner of the world and your community with the light and warmth of Yiddishkeit.”
Each time a speaker talked about their victories and struggles, heads around the room nodded in agreement. Woman after woman took the stage to address the challenges of being far from people with shared experiences, and also to describe tools they use for staying connected and bringing new ideas to the communities they are building and supporting in 91 countries around the globe.
Growth and outreach were emphasized by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. While he praised the shluchos for their tremendous work, he noted that “there are so many more people to reach. You can’t leave out even one person.”
He urged the women to “go back with strength and purpose,” encouraging them to take their newfound energy to “reach each and every Jew.”
Kotlarsky recognized not only the spiritual work of the emissaries in an evening dedicated to “Permeating the World With Sanctity,” but the nitty-gritty as well. On one hand, he said, “shlichus is about spreading holiness and making the world a dwelling place for G‑d. But at the same time, it comes down to the mundane—the day-to-day life, the cooking and the cleaning and the preparing and making programs, worrying about the bank, worrying about challah-baking, raising children . . . everything that goes into your lives.”
The conference brings it all together. “This Kinus,” he stated, “is about living up to what the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] wants from us.”
After her talk, Kallman was joined on stage by seven of her children and grandchildren, representing three generations. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
Later in the program, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, noted that the entire event honors the 29th yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson. He told story after story of the Rebbetzin’s kindness, generosity and regal bearing.
As longtime secretary to the Rebbe, he often served as driver for the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin. “There are many, many times I went riding with the Rebbetzin in different places for different lengths of time for different purposes,” he related, “and each time, it was very special. I recall her wit, her wisdom; conversations were very, very enlightening, very brilliant. It was just a pleasure to spend time with her.”
And while “she is what sustained her husband,” he affirmed—looking directly at the crowd and getting emotional as he said the words—“she adored you. She loved you.”
Chani Shemtov, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, and now co-director of Chabad at the University of Illinois, served as the evening’s MC. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
‘A Different Kind of Connection’
Dalia Coleman got involved with Chabad of the coastal city of Milford, Conn., five years ago on a friend’s recommendation. On Sunday night, she sat at a table with Chanie Wilhelm, co-director of Chabad of Milford with her husband, Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm, as they dined alongside members of Wilhelm’s family. (Wilhelm and three of her sisters, who serve as emissaries in Scotland, Vietnam and the Netherlands Antilles, read the International Roll Call this year.)
Coleman said she was impressed to see multiple generations of families involved in the same pursuit, noting that “this is so important to them.”
Chanie Wilhelm, right, co-director of Chabad of Milford, Conn., with community member Dalia Coleman (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
In today’s turbulent times, she continued, it’s meaningful to see such positivity, with a focus on Yiddishkeit. She sees it play out locally at the Wilhelms, where everybody is welcome. And on Shabbat, they put daily matters aside to share in the beauty their tradition offers. “It’s a sanctuary on Friday night and Saturday from all the mundane things,” said Coleman. “It’s a different kind of connection to the world.”
Wilhelm noted that the Kinus is an event people look forward to all year. “It serves to boost Jewish unity,” she said, “and feelings of unity among all the shluchos.”
For Sara Rosenfeld, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, Rabbi Yisrael Rosenfeld, and who heads the curriculum at Beth Rivkah Primary School, the conference is a place to become inspired and rejuvenated. Growing up in Houston in an emissary family, she has now lived and worked in Australia for 28 years. “The world is smaller,” she said, citing technology that makes it easier for emissaries to stay connected, “but it’s not the same as sitting down in a room with sisters.”
Rachel Druk, left, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Cancun, Mexico, with community member Vardit Sefchovich (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
Rachel Druk, who co-directs the Chabad Jewish Center of Cancun in Mexico with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Druk, brought a guest with her this year. “It’s an incredible experience to see it through someone else’s eyes,” says Druk, who has served Jewish residents and tourists in the resort city for a decade.
Druk appreciated how the programming continues to evolve, addressing current issues that emissaries face. “Every year, there are different topics—whether it’s technology, education, outreach. They address what’s most crucial, the topics of the day.”
One issue foremost in her mind right now is her children’s education. On a personal level, the Kinus gave Druk the chance to seek advice from her peers and discuss options with others—children of Chabad emissaries often leave their hometowns to attend yeshivahs and seminaries—and get tips that will help her make decisions for her kids, ages 2, 5, 8 and 10. “I’m entering a new stage of life,” she said of her older ones.
Vardit Sefchovich, who lives in Cancun and got involved with Chabad about two years ago, took part in a simultaneous guest-learning program over the past four days, joining Druk at the dinner banquet. She said as part of the experience, she developed a clearer picture of the importance and role of women in the Jewish family.
The guests (and mothers) snap photos of a performance by the younger set of Chabad emissaries (and daughters), representing the next generation. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
‘What Gives Us Hope’
Two of the main speakers centered their presentations on family.
Holocaust survivor Judith Alter Kallman of Greenwich, Conn.—author of “A Candle in the Heart”—had all eyes on her as she told her survival story from her native Czechoslovakia. Her parents and two of her siblings perished, but she managed to make her way to England, Israel, and eventually, the United States.
A mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she speaks to schools and organizations about bullying, hate, racism and anti-Semitism. She also notes how Chabad has played a vital role in her life and the lives of her children.
To the crowd of shluchos, she said: “When I witness your commitment . . . I am inspired to do my job as diligently as you all do. And I’m depending on you to keep faith alive, to better the world, now and in the future, because it is what gives us hope. You, the Chabad women, spread your warmth and love in friendship and understanding. You empower women; your compassion eases others’ suffering; your wisdom brings strength; and your moral fibers offer hope and faith. The message you carry from the Rebbe unites the candle in your heart, brightly and eternally. It is G‑d himself who counts on us to keep faith vibrant, to foster hope, to believe and to finally, finally repair this world to become the place it was meant to be.”
She was then joined on stage by seven Kallman women representing three generations.
Growth and outreach were emphasized by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
Guest speaker Esther Wilhelm, who became an emissary in 1994 to Zhitomir, Ukraine, with her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, acknowledged the many challenges that went along with the job. She didn’t even think she could go at first to an area that was once rich with Chassidim, but at the time consisted of those who knew little to nothing about Judaism.
“How,” she posed rhetorically, “can a young couple in their early 20s, who grew up in Chassidishe communities where they had everything available, come to a place where they don’t know the language and they’re unfamiliar with the local mentality, how can they hope to create real change in such a place?”
And she answered: “Only by knowing that we were coming not with our own talents and capabilities, but with the strength and the inspiration of the Rebbe.”
The Jews of Zhitomir, she quickly discovered, “had grown up with the notion that being Jewish was something to be ashamed of, was an embarrassment, something to hide. That’s when we realized that our first step in restoring Yiddishkeit in this part of the world would be to restore a feeling of Jewish pride, to know that being Jewish is not an embarrassment; rather, it is something in which we can rejoice in, something in which to take pride.”
Twenty-three years and 12 children later, the Wilhelms and other shluchim who have joined them have reversed a trend. “The city of Zhitomir has now become a center of Jewish life,” she said, “serving Jews throughout western Ukraine. No longer are Jews embarrassed to openly walk down the streets in the center of town.”
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, noted that the event honors the 29th yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
‘Change the World’
Miriam Tenenbaum, who co-directs Chabad at the University of California, Irvine, with her husband, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, said the Kinus always leaves her hopeful: “I enjoy the sisterhood, the inspiration, just recharging.”
She came away with ideas for how to help give the students she encounters the means for affecting change in the world. “You have the ability to influence your surroundings for the good,” stressed Tenenbaum. “Day-to-day mitzvahs add light and change the world for the better.”
The International Roll Call was read by four sisters: Chanie Wilhelm of Connecticut, Gitty Weinman of Scotland, Sarale Chanowitz of the Netherlands Antilles and Mushky Laine of Vietnam. It recognizes shluchos serving Jewish communities in 91 countries around the world. (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
Esther Elbaz came to the Kinus as part of a delegation from Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and home to an estimated 2,500 Jews. She credits Chabad’s weekly classes with drawing in participants who now send their kids to Jewish schools. Because she often travels with her husband, she visits other Chabad Houses and feels instantly like family. “I feel connected to them,” she said, “like a sister or a cousin.”
Sheindel Tiechtel, who lives in Brooklyn and serves as principal of Beth Rivkah, the girls’ high school that many of the emissaries attended, smiled proudly as she looked around the elegantly decorated ballroom. By her estimate, about 60 percent of the women gathered had attended the school where she currently works. She herself has nine children serving as emissaries.
Henya Laine smiled as she remembered when the annual conference brought together hundreds of women. Now, it has grown to thousands, she said, looking around the rows and rows of circular tables filling the room.
Laine, who has seven daughters and a son, all of them emissaries, said she was impressed by how many people Chabad reaches every year. “Judaism is alive and getting better, growing and more beautiful,” she declared. “People love being connected together and to G‑d.”
Henya Laine, right, has seven daughters and a son, all of them emissaries, including her daughter, Mushkie Hazan of Chabad-Lubavitch in Milan, Italy (Photo: Chavi Konikov)
Looking at individual portraits of the Chabad emissary group photo before the start of the banquet. (Group photo taken by Chaim Perl)
Join more than 3,000 Chabad-Lubavitch women emissaries and their guests as they celebrate at the gala banquet, the culmination of the 2017 international conference.
The International Roll Call of women emissaries around the world will be read by sisters Chanie Wilhelm (Connecticut), Gitty Weinman (Scotland), Sarale Chanowitz (Netherlands Antilles) and Mushky Laine (Vietnam).
Sisters prep to take center stage as friends, family and colleagues amass for the annual conference.
Esther Wilhelm, left, with some of her children and a woman outside of Zhitomir’s historic synagogue. It was one of the sites of Chabad’s underground Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in the 1930s until it was shut down by authorities during an early-morning raid. The synagogue is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation.
Esther Wilhelm, who has called Zhitomir home since 1994, was the keynote speaker at the women’s Kinus.