Mrs. Risya Posner, who with her husband Rabbi Zalman Posner established the first Chabad-Lubavitch presence in Nashville, Tenn., died Tuesday at the age 80. An inimitable force behind Lubavitch outreach operations and techniques across the world, she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Lubavitch parents who had immigrated from Russia. She and her husband pioneered the field of campus-based outreach, almost immediately inviting Vanderbilt University students to their home after their arrival in Nashville.
From when she was a baby until her last day in the hospital, she elicited love from those who were mere acquaintances as easily as from those who had known her for decades.
During her final moments, she was surrounded by all of her children, who sang the melody of her grandfather, Reb Osher of Nikolayev. (Click here to listen to the melody.)
In the article that follows, writer Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe's Army, traces the reach and impact of Mrs. Posner's family. Originally intended as the book's final chapter, this story never made it into the final work because of space considerations. Parts of it were incorporated into other chapters, and parts simply went unpublished. This is the first time the work has been made available to the public.
Mrs. Posner passed away just four hours after her brother, Rabbi Moshe Kazarnovsky, who died in New York. Brother and sister passed away four days after the 25th yartzeit of their father, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky, a pivotal figure of the Lubavitch movement in America.
All In The Family: Three Generations of Deren-Posner Shluchim
It's Saturday night in Crown Heights, a crisp November evening around 7:30 pm. Three stars have come out in the night sky, indicating the end of Shabbat, and the streets have burst into life again after a 28-hour hiatus. Shops are opening their doors along Kingston Avenue, the pizza joint has turned its lights on, and car engines are revving up. Inside a rambling brick home on Union Street, three dozen people are jostling for space. Children scamper underfoot, young mothers and fathers burp babies, knots of three and four people stand close together along the walls and in the kitchen, their voices rising to be heard over the din as dishes of food are brought out and set down on the long dining room table still covered with its white linen Shabbat tablecloth. Noodle kugel, potato latkes, blintzes, quiche, mushroom soup--steam rises from the platters, giving off an aroma of unbearable sweetness.
Around the heavily laden table, a dozen men and women are seated in high-backed wooden chairs. The men all wear the dark suits, white shirts and black hats of the Lubavitch movement. A few are young, with smooth cheeks and still-straggly beards, but most of the men's long gray and white beards proclaim them as movement elders. One begins to make introductions; "Hi, I'm Rabbi Deren." Pointing to the man on his right he continues down the table, like some madcap host of a hassidic "To Tell the Truth" game show. "And this is Rabbi Deren. Next to him is Rabbi Deren. That's Rabbi Posner, and next to him is…" The interlocutor pauses, his eyes twinkling with glee. "--Rabbi Deren." Everyone chuckles. It's not a new trick to pull on an outsider, but it's still good for a laugh.
Four generations of Derens, Posners, and the people who married them have come together this weekend in the Crown Heights home of Chava Altein (nee Deren) because of the annual Chabad shluchim convention taking place a few blocks away. In Chabad today, it's quite usual for the sons and daughters of shluchim to become shluchim themselves. But it's rare to find a family whose emissary roots go back this far.
At the head of the table sits Rabbi Zalman Posner, sent by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe as Chabad emissary to Nashville, Tennessee in 1949. He and his wife Risya, seated on his left, recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as rabbi and rebbetzin of Nashville's Congregation Sherith Israel. They both still work full time, Zalman as an author, lecturer and pulpit rabbi, Risya as principal of the Akiva day school they founded in 1954. Across the table sits the Posners' eldest daughter Vivi, who runs Chabad of Fairfield County, Connecticut with her husband Rabbi Yisroel Deren. To Vivi and Yisroel's right sits their eldest son, Rabbi Yossi Deren, who opened the Chabad Center of Greenwich, Connecticut four years earlier with his wife Maryashi. And under the table, giggling wildly, are Yossi and Maryashi's two oldest toddlers, the newest generation in a line of Chabad shluchim stretching from their parents through their grandparents through their great-grandparents, back to Zalman Posner's parents Sholom and Chaya who were sent to Pittsburgh by the sixth Rebbe to open a Jewish day school in 1942.
Rabbi Zalman Posner (left) together with grandson Rabbi Yossi Deren
The Posner-Deren family is well connected politically, both inside and outside Chabad. Zalman Posner and Yisroel Deren sit on the national boards of central Chabad organizations, playing major roles in determining policy for the worldwide movement. And although Lubavitchers usually vote Republican, this family has personal ties to key Democrats. Senator Joe Lieberman's mother Marcia, who lives in Stamford, has been close to the Derens for more than a decade. Yisroel goes to her home almost every Saturday evening to perform havdalah
, the ceremony marking the formal end of Shabbat. And both the elder Derens and the Posners spent election night 2000 with Al Gore in Nashville.
The shluchim at this dinner table all grew up in Lubavitch homes, yet each faced a different set of challenges when they set out on their life's work. The Posners knew they could depend on a steady salary from the very beginning, since Zalman was hired as a pulpit rabbi. But in terms of their Lubavitch outreach work, they had no models to draw from; they were movement pioneers. Yisroel and Vivi Deren had no financial assurances when they took on a college campus in 1974, the year the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent them to establish a Chabad House at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But they also faced no local Jewish competition. Fourteen years later they moved to Stamford, a Connecticut town with a strong Orthodox community and several existing Orthodox congregations--a Jewish community with a strong identity, but plenty of other venues in which to express it.
By the time Vivi and Yisroel's son Yossi was ready to marry and set out on his own shlichus in the late '90s, Chabad had extended its operational arms into many small towns with little or no Jewish organizational life. Yossi and Maryashi ended up a few miles away from his parents in Greenwich, a wealthy bedroom community for Manhattan professionals. In contrast to Yossi's parents, who had to wave flags and blow shofars to attract the attention of 1970s-era college students, he and his new bride faced a financially established but largely assimilated community where social decorum was more appropriate than street masquerades and mitzva tanks.
Risya Posner, a diminutive, well-spoken and immaculately groomed woman in her 70s, is a lady of great elegance and refinement. She is very much in demand during this Chabad convention, and when she finally is able to sit down for a few hours to tell her story, it is already 11 o'clock Sunday night. Of course, she insists she's not tired.
"It's so important to have background," she begins. "If you don't have a perspective on where things come from, you don't know what you're looking at." Risya's parents, like her husband's parents, were born in Russia to Lubavitch families. Her father and her husband's father went to the same yeshiva in the Russian town of Lubavitch. Her grandfather, a shochet, was appointed by the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe to travel from village to village, collecting all existing versions of the Tanya in order to compile one authoritative edition, which Lubavitch published in 1900. That's the version Chabadniks use today. During his travels, he fasted every week from Monday to Thursday out of respect for the awesome nature of his assignment. Zalman Posner's family was also prominent in the movement while still in Russia. One of his uncles was exiled to Siberia for holding services in his home on Sukkot, and died on the forced march east from Moscow. The memories of descendants like that, who endured incredible hardships for their Judaism, are constant motivating factors in Lubavitchers' lives today, Risya says.
In 1926 Risya's parents immigrated to Rochester, New York, but moved on quickly to the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, home to many Jews but few Lubavitchers. The only Lubavitch families in New York at the time lived in Brownsville and Boro Park in Brooklyn, or on Manhattan's East Side, seemingly a world away. Risya says that although many American Jews identified with Lubavitch, the actual number of Lubavitch activists living in New York in 1940 could be counted on two hands. Even in 1948, she estimates the total Lubavitch population in the city at less than 100 families. "As far as I knew as a girl, we were the only Lubavitch family [in the world]," Risya says. "The only place I heard Lubavitch niggunim (melodies) was at our Shabbos table."
When the sixth Rebbe sailed into New York harbor in March 1940, little Risya went along at dawn to greet him at the pier, dressed in her camel coat with brown buttons and a brown broad-brimmed hat. When she heard hundreds of men singing what she'd always thought of as "her" Lubavitch songs, she was filled with an overwhelming sense of belonging. "This was mine," she recalls. "What it showed me years later is that you can create a sense of belonging to something without it actually being there in front of you."
It was Rabbi Schneersohn's second visit to the U.S. He was here for ten months in 1929 just after his release from Soviet prison, on a trip to drum up financial support for the Jews of Eastern Europe and to decide whether to move Lubavitch headquarters from Europe to New York, an action he ended up delaying for 11 years. That earlier visit was covered extensively by the Jewish and secular press, neither of which quite knew what to make of this austere Russian hassidic leader in the fur hat and long caftan who drew such tremendous crowds in his wake. The New York Times of Sept. 18, 1929 called him "one of the most influential world leaders of Jewry," and reported that 500 hassidim waited for hours in the rain at Battery Park to greet him. Along with trips to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston and St. Louis, all cities with sizeable Lubavitch populations, Schneersohn also visited the White House, where he held a meeting with President Herbert Hoover.
Sometimes it was difficult to separate hyperbole from fact in the news reports surrounding his visit. The Day, a New York Jewish paper, reported in September 1929 that 5,000 Lubavitchers lived in New York, and 40,000 throughout the United States, both of them unlikely numbers. The Detroit Free Press claimed that 10,000 people escorted Schneersohn to Emanuel Synagogue for a meeting with that city's Orthodox leaders, and the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote that he had more than three million followers in Russia and Poland. What is certainly true is that much of the country's Orthodox population at the time were either themselves hassidic, or had hassidic roots, although not card-carrying Lubavitchers. It's also true that even non-hassidic American Jews were eager to see this legendary figure who narrowly escaped execution at Soviet hands, a man whom some of the secular papers referred to as "a saint."
Upon his final move to New York in 1940, the sixth Rebbe lived at the now-defunct Hotel Greystone on East 91 St. in Manhattan until the property at 770 Eastern Parkway was purchased for his use by some movement activists, including Risya's father. Because the movement was still so small Lubavitchers in New York felt more like a family than they do today. But the sixth Rebbe was less accessible than his successor. He was paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair after Soviet torture, and in the ten years before his death in 1950 he only left Brooklyn a few times. He held just three or four farbrengens a year in a small upstairs rooms at 770, usually on Purim, Simhat Torah, and Lubavitch holidays, a far cry from his successor's large and frequent public gatherings. His wife would entertain key Lubavitch women downstairs while the men were upstairs with their rebbe, and Risya remembers "being privileged" to stand in the open door outside the room, watching the men sing and dance with the Torah inside.
Bride Maryashie Deren, now co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greenwich, Conn., celebrates with Risya Posner on the day of her wedding.
"I was very conscious of my good fortune," she says. "The Rebbe's smile was like the brightness of ten suns. It's something that has stayed with me for well over 50 years. It was a privilege to be anywhere in his presence. The only possible counterpart you could have is the awe people used to have for a king, but there are no more kings like that."
There was no Lubavitch school system in place when Risya was a girl. Her parents allowed their artistically talented child to make the daily commute to Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, something that would not happen in Crown Heights today. Risya is uncomfortable talking about that aspect of her upbringing. "I didn't grow up in a cocoon," she says. "But I'd never send a child there today. It was a wonderful experience, but you don't get the preparation for life they offer at a Jewish girls' school." Still, New York was her world, and it was a shock in 1949 when the sixth Rebbe announced that she and her husband of two weeks would be moving to Nashville. They were the first Chabad shluchim to be sent so far.
"I have to tell you, I never wanted to leave New York," she admits. "For me, the rest of the world was the romantic unknown. I'd never been west of Pennsylvania or north of Massachusetts. But my husband was looking for a position, and it was the Rebbe's suggestion to do this. The Rebbe would see possibilities for you that you couldn't see for yourself."
Nashville in 1949 had about 800 Jewish families. None of them expected the Posners to stay. "They thought, this is a nice place for a young rabbi to get training, and then after two or three years, you'd go to New York to a 'real' pulpit," Zalman Posner says. In 1954 Posner started his day school with five first- and second-grade pupils. He was their teacher and chauffeur, picking up the children and driving them home himself. That was not seen as a demeaning job for a Lubavitcher rabbi, Risya explains. Both the sixth and the seventh rebbes encouraged their hassidim to teach Judaism to young children, calling it the noblest possible vocation. After all, the Baal Shem Tov himself worked as a teacher's assistant in an elementary school in Poland.
Nashville at the time was the smallest Jewish community in America with a day school. Other local rabbis criticized its establishment, and the city's Jewish federation declined to support it. The Posners had to strike out alone. "We didn't have the things shluchim have today, all the publications, the tapes and videos," Risya says. "In those early years, the only communication you had were letters from the Rebbe and mimeographed sheets of the Rebbe's farbrengens they'd send in the mail."
The Posners held Sunday night get-togethers at their home for students from Vanderbilt University, which Risya calls "the first Chabad Houses." By 1959, Rabbi Posner was making regular trips up to Crown Heights to teach at the movement's "Encounters with Chabad" weekend workshops. He wrote down many of the questions visitors asked him, along with his lengthy answers, and sent them out to other shluchim as resources for them to use in their own outreach work. Many of those writings were later included in his first book, Think Jewish, a chronicle of how Chabadniks presented hassidic thought to the counter-culture generation.
On November 14, 1999 the Posners were the guests of honor at a gala dinner honoring their 50 years of service to Nashville's Jewish community. Letters of congratulation poured in, including two from the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudas Harabbanim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, indicating the esteem Posner is held in by the rest of the Orthodox world. Not all Chabad shluchim have been as successful at inserting themselves into the greater Jewish community.
That was all very far away when the Posner's first child, Shifra Aviva (Vivi), was born in 1951. "In a sense, you can say I was born into the movement," Vivi comments. "But a rebbe is only your rebbe to the extent that you, the hassid
, let him be. It's not automatic. Being born into it is a wonderful start, but if you're not working and struggling and moving forward yourself, then you're not a great hassid." In a way, being part of a prominent Lubavitch family is a disadvantage, she says. "A person can very easily think, 'I'm hot stuff, look who my father and grandfather are,' and sort of coast."
It's a week after the annual Chabad convention, and Vivi is standing in front of her stove in Stamford stirring a huge cauldron of soup she's preparing for the upcoming Shabbat. She is a large woman with a round, gentle face and eyes that size up the person she's speaking to with swift accuracy. She has continued in her parents' path, working as director of the Chabad preschool she and her husband run in Stamford, and speaking at dozens of forums nationwide.
Two of her six children are also in the kitchen, talking to her at once. Twenty-six-year-old Mendel is flying out that night to Vienna for a friend's wedding, and then on to Moscow the next day to check out a job opportunity. Chani, 21, is debating whether or not to drive with him to Kennedy Airport to catch the overnight flight to Brazil, so she can attend her cousin's bar mitzvah the next morning. She'll have to fly right back to New York in time for Open House Friday morning at the Hebrew School class she teaches, but neither the ticket price nor the long hours in the air factor into her decision. She's only afraid she might be late for the Open House. Anyone who thinks Lubavitchers are culturally isolated only has to look at this family's frequent flyer mileage, typical of most shluchim. These families are far-flung, making births, deaths, weddings and bar mitzvahs all the more precious. From their early teens, Lubavitchers think nothing of hopping flights at a moment's notice to represent the family or lend a hand to another shliach. The Rebbe discouraged excessive expenditures, but as shluchim become further spread out, people's understanding of "excessive" has shifted.
This kind of travel was not common when Vivi was growing up in Nashville. Crown Heights was far away, and even more than her mother in 1930s Bensonhurst, Vivi knew that she and her family were "different." There were other Sabbath-observant Jews in Nashville, but they were all elderly; she was the only observant child she knew. Her father was the rabbi, but he was also her first-grade teacher. "He taught us how to read, he told us lots of funny stories," she recalls. "It was a funny feeling, sharing him." When her father became her full-time Judaica tutor at the age of seven, he taught her Hebrew directly from the Bible. "We never had stencils or worksheets or lists of hard words. Just Humash. He'd ask a question, we'd find the pasuk (verse), I'd read it out loud and he'd show me how to break it down. I didn't cover as much ground as I would have in a regular class, but he gave me the tools and a real love for Humash, and the confidence that I could do it myself."
Zalman and Risya never apologized to their children for "forcing" them to be different, Vivi says. "Being different was a fact of life. My parents communicated so effectively that it was not a burden." Vivi remembers walking to shul with her father, and seeing other children point and laugh at his long beard and yarmulke. "My father was so totally not affected by it," she says. "It didn't touch him in the slightest. He didn't have to say anything to us, it was so clear he was proud of what he was and that anyone who didn't appreciate that was to be pitied." Rabbi Posner had a sense of humor about his appearance. With his dark beard, swarthy skin and large features, he bore a striking resemblance to a certain Latin American dictator. Once, while walking in the halls at Vanderbilt University's hospital, a man ran up to him to ask whether he was a well-known author scheduled to give a lecture that evening. Rabbi Posner said, quite nonchalantly, "No, I'm Fidel Castro," at which the man nodded, and continued on his way.
Like most little girls, Vivi idolized her father. When she watched him deliver his Saturday morning talks in shul, she felt that he had a direct link to G‑d. "I imagined Hashem nodding in approval, saying, 'I'm glad at least somebody down there gets it.'" Students would come to the house to study Torah late at night, and Vivi remembers sneaking out of bed to listen from behind the door, until she'd be caught and sent back to her room--only to sneak out again. But in contrast to Lubavitch families today, where the Rebbe is a constant presence and children learn stories about him as soon as they can talk, Vivi says that Schneerson was a somewhat mysterious figure to her as a child. She and her siblings were brought up more on stories about the heroic Lubavitcher hassidim working underground in Russia. Their stories of secret mikvahs and Siberian exile were bedtime tales for American Chabadniks in the '50s and '60s. "It was all very hush-hush. We were careful not to talk about anything that could endanger people still there. But they were real people doing real things." And the Rebbe, she knew, was the reason they did those things. "The Rebbe was the one who was guiding, leading, showing the way. When my father got a phone call from the Rebbe's secretary, I saw the way he would act. It wasn't just a phone call, it was an event. There was nothing that got the kind of reaction from him as something coming from the Rebbe."
When Vivi was 10, she went with her parents to Crown Heights for yechidus--a private meeting with the Rebbe. Schneerson suggested that it was time for her to receive a proper education, so she was sent to live with Risya's parents in Bensonhurst to attend the Chabad movement's new girls' school, Beth Rivkah. The school was three bus rides away, and Vivi made the long trip every day for nine years. As a teenager, she went through the usual adolescent period of questioning authority. Everyone does it, Vivi points out, even hassidic kids. "At one point or another, you start doubting. Is there a G‑d? Did Torah really come from Sinai? Most frum kids won't come out and say it, but we all have those questions." The fact that each Lubavitcher has to accept the communal yoke individually tends to blur the usual generation gap, she says. "We are all hassidim of the Rebbe. We are all people who live with the Shulchan Aruch. I remember a strong feeling of being treated as an equal, even as a child. Not in the stupid way that grandmothers might wear blue jeans, but in the sense that we shared goals and had shared standards."
When Vivi was 18, she says the Rebbe told her parents it was time to find her a husband. He suggested Yisroel Deren, her cousin in Pittsburgh, whom she hadn't seen since she was six. Yisroel was 19, in the middle of his yeshiva studies. "The Rebbe brought it up to his mother, that she should feel him out, and if he responded well they should take it further." Yisroel did not, Vivi remarks, respond well. In fact, he almost passed out. Marry? He'd barely spoken to a girl before. The family let things lie for a year, and then the match was made. After a seven-month engagement--lengthy by Lubavitch standards--the couple wed in February 1972. When Yisroel received ordination two years later, they set out to establish a Chabad presence at the University of Massachusetts' Amherst campus.
The Derens rented a small house right across from campus, and started holding Friday night services and teaching classes in their home. They found fertile ground for their spiritual energies among the student body. "Amherst was always a crunchy-granola kind of place, so the interest was there," Yisroel says. "They were still holding onto the '60s." Soon the Derens were working on all five U-Mass campuses, and oversaw the training of several young couples whom they sent out to open other Connecticut Chabad centers. In 1988 they handed Amherst over to one such couple, and headed to Stamford, the last big Jewish community in Connecticut without a Chabad presence. The city's strong Orthodox community required a certain delicate touch. The Orthodox shul had suffered a breakaway congregation ten years earlier, and the Derens didn't want to open old wounds by presenting another organizational threat. "They were perfectly happy to have us there, but things would have been very difficult if we'd tried to start our own congregation," Yisroel says.
The Derens had dreamed of opening a study institute for women, but they found out that Stamford Jews wanted a nursery school. So that's what they established, in space they rented from the Orthodox shul next door. Like other Chabad nursery schools, the Stamford school attracts non-affiliated as well as affiliated Jewish kids, and has proved to be the Derens' most effective way of drawing entire Jewish families into a more Jewish lifestyle. "We measure the success of our nursery school by how many kids move on to regular Jewish day school afterwards," Yisroel says. "Many would not have made that choice were it not for the exposure they had through our school."
Eleven years after moving to Stamford, Yisroel is itching to buy his own building. That's what Chabad shluchim do. "It's an axiom in Chabad that when you have the money, you build a building," he notes. He unfurls a map showing the site he's planned out, and the 19,000-sq.ft. building that will stand there. He already has a contract for the land. And the money? "It's in the bank," he declares confidently. "Just not in our account." Do the people in whose accounts this money lies know that it's destined for a new Chabad House? "No, they don't know it yet," he admits. Smiling broadly, he continues; "The important thing is that G‑d knows. He'll let them know eventually."
Rabbi Yisroel Deren, a son-in-law of Risya Posner and co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Fairfield County in Connecticut, greets Sen. Joe Lieberman.
One fortuitous connection the Derens made in Stamford was with Marcia Lieberman. As soon as her son Joe was tapped to run for vice president in the summer of 2000 the American media began harping on his Orthodox lifestyle, but made little mention of his long-standing connection to Chabad. Senator Lieberman first met the Rebbe while still an undergraduate at Yale, and visited him again several times at key moments in his life, including the eve of his first Senate inauguration in January 1989. His mother went along on that visit. "The Rebbe knew everything Joe was doing," she recalls. "He talked to Joe about things I didn't think anyone else knew. He gave Joe a dollar, and gave me two dollars for giving birth to him."
Lieberman's mother says that when he's home in Stamford, they often eat Shabbat meals at the Derens. An observant woman her entire life, Marcia says the Derens reinvigorated Jewish life when they came to Stamford, and did so without alienating people. "Rabbi Deren made people aware of their Jewish identity without being ashamed of it," she says. "They've done a lot for Stamford Jews, not only for those already here, but they've attracted others to move here. Once I went to their home for dinner and they had a Reform rabbi and his wife there. My mother would never have had a Reform rabbi at her table. How can you feel about people who present Judaism in such a wonderful way?"
The Derens are both active on the national speaking circuit. When they hold joint workshops, they are often asked to speak about faith in the face of adversity. Two of their children died within a year of each other, both of cancer. They speak openly of their loss, and of how their faith sustained them. But most of the time when Vivi is invited to speak, it's on women's issues. From the early '70s, she's been a major voice on the lecture circuit in defense of hassidic women. She gets a kick, she says, out of dispelling stereotypes. In the summer of 1972, barely 20 and newly married, Vivi spoke to a youth group from the Reform movement that was visiting Crown Heights. When she was finished speaking, one of the girls asked why hassidic women are only allowed to wear black. "I just smiled. There I was, standing in front of her wearing a white dress with red polka dots. I kept smiling, but she didn't get it. There were other hassidic women in the room in pastels, flowers, polyester. But this girl had read in a book that hassidic women only wear black, and that was the image she had."
Misconceptions went deeper than that, Vivi continues. "Jews are misunderstood. And within the Jewish world, hassidim are misunderstood. And within the hassidic world, women are the most misunderstood of all. " When she got to Amherst in 1974, she says the campus women's movement "had reached a rolling boil." Jewish students were asking very pointed questions about women's rights in Orthodoxy, and Vivi relished the chance to put her beliefs to the test. She was often asked to speak on Jewish panels where she was invariably billed as a hassidic woman, as if that described the totality of her presentation. "The image was, you know, barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen. Very condescending. If you could make chicken soup or bake challah, that was enough. It made me think of the slogan on the Beth Rivkah stationery when I was going to school: 'Raising the Jewish mothers of tomorrow.' I was always embarrassed by that, even though we didn't have courses on vacuuming or kugel. Raising the Jewish mothers of tomorrow meant we had to learn Humash and Rashi and tefillot, materials of substance. It was a given: In order to be a Jewish mother, you had to have Jewish knowledge."
Vivi blames contemporary Western society for artificially elevating the public sphere--career, money, social position--while devaluing the private sphere of home and family, which traditional Judaism places at the center of human endeavor. In this, her argument has much in common with new feminist thinking. The Jewish woman keeps the family together and transmits values to the next generation, Vivi continues. That is her most important job, and it is of supreme important. Focusing on what women may or may not do in synagogue ritual is placing undue emphasis on what is secondary in the Jewish scheme of things. "When you define Judaism in terms of Christianity, you think that the most important Jewish things happen in shul, during the service, and if you're not up there front and center you don't have a role," she says.
When Vivi talks, she is not justifying a way of life that she secretly fears may be patriarchal. Neither is she speaking naively, as someone who knows no other way of being. With great care she conjures up a world, the world she grew up in, where everyone's roles, men and women alike, are circumscribed by an all-encompassing set of rules called halacha. It's not a case of men being "allowed" to do more than women, but a cosmic scheme in which man and woman, adult and child, Jew and non-Jew, each has his or her delineated function. "It didn't occur to us to want [equal rights]," she says thoughtfully. "We lived with a Judaism that was for the most part genderless, but which had within it certain very limited, very prescribed roles that were specifically for men or for women. We all kept Shabbos and we all kept kosher and we all learned Torah and we all went to the Rebbe and we all davened and sang niggunim."
Vivi's understanding of how women fit into Judaism derives from hassidism's view of the overall coherency of the universe, articulated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his predecessors as one Torah, one world, one Jewish people. It's a notion that makes many non-Lubavitchers uncomfortable, even angry, which Vivi acknowledges. But she still believes in it. "People always get a little bit uptight when we say things like, 'We see Lubavitchers, and we see potential Lubavitchers.' I personally don't like to use that phrase. It fits into the stereotype. Tongue-in-cheek, sometimes, when we're together, we'll use it, but only tongue-in-cheek. Underlying it is that sense of inclusivity, which is a very Lubavitch characteristic."
Ten minutes down the road from Vivi and Yisroel Deren, their eldest son Yossi and his wife Maryashi are sitting up late one night, studying one of the Rebbe's letters to help Maryashi prepare for her women's Torah class the next morning. "People in Greenwich are sophisticated, they all went to Ivy League colleges," Maryashi says, explaining why she prepares so carefully before every class.
Rabbi Yossi Deren , a grandson of Risya Posner and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greenwich, Conn., assists in affixing a mezuzah on a Greenwich doorpost.
Yossi and Maryashi moved to Greenwich in 1996, just before the birth of their first son, Menachem Mendel. They now have three children, aged four, two and one, and Maryashi is pregnant again--with twins. "I haven't told anyone in the community yet," she worries. "They thought it was bad enough I was having a fourth when my oldest was 3 1/2. If they knew it was twins, they'd freak out."
Yossi and Maryashi were 23 when they rented their first apartment in this wealthy Connecticut suburb, and started calling the handful of names Yossi's parents had given them as potential contacts. "Thank G‑d we were so naïve," Yossi says. "If we'd known what we were getting into, we never would have been able to do it. On a college campus, you know exactly what you have to do--bring the kids in, and get them involved. But in a community like this, people are set in their ways. They have their lifestyle figured out."
Maryashi describes how nervous she was when she made a social call on one Greenwich woman, whose daughter she now tutors for her bat mitzvah. "I'll never forget walking into that house, a typical Greenwich home," she says. "I remember her walking down the stairs, dressed like a real wealthy woman, and I thought, I'll never get through to this woman. I laugh now to remember how intimidated I was."
Maryashi grew up in Crown Heights, the daughter of a businessman who very much wanted to go on shlichus, but whom the Rebbe told to stay in Brooklyn. "My mother was very disappointed, but I grew up knowing that they'd wanted to go," Maryashi says. "So we children all wanted to do it, too."
Maryashi is more naturally outgoing than Yossi, a bubbly, vivacious contrast to her husband's more reserved, thoughtful demeanor. But just like Maryashi remembers her home filled with visitors every Shabbat, Yossi grew up surrounded by college students 24 hours a day. "Our Chabad House was a total student center," he says. "They lived there, slept there, ate there. I remember going around the dorms when I was nine, pulling kids out to make a minyan. I was used to it, because my father did it. I remember one Rosh Hashanah, I went with my father to a dining hall. There were 1,000 people, hustling and bustling. He walked in, grabbed a chair, stood on top of it, held up his hand and shouted, 'Boys and girls, it's Rosh Hashanah!' Dead silence. Kids were walking with their food, they stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of this rabbi in a black hat, standing on a chair, yelling about Rosh Hashanah. He blew the shofar, everyone said the blessing with him, and we went on to the next place.
"On one hand, my parents set extremely high standards, in terms of the kind of shluchim they are. It's a challenge to try and fit myself into the same mold. On the other hand, they gave me a lot to work with. Sitting at a Shabbat table and talking to people comes naturally, as do many other things, because I saw my father do it. I constantly push myself to fill my father's shoes."
Greenwich Jews looked askance at the Derens when they moved in. "The hassids are coming to town, watch out! That's what people said," Yossi relates. "They thought we wanted to set up a yeshiva here." Two months after they arrived the young couple sent out shalach manos, Purim gift baskets, to every Jewish family on their list. One person sent it back with a nasty note asking why they bothered, since he wasn't one of their supporters.
Tempers cooled as local Jews met the soft-spoken young rabbi and his wife, who were careful to make social calls on all the local rabbis and Jewish organizational heads. "We were nervous, yes, but we were given so much more than we knew," Yossi says. "If we'd been taught about outreach techniques, 'this is what you have to do to reach them,' it wouldn't have worked. It would have set up an 'us' and 'them.' We were taught truths--Torah, Jewish soul--we were taught how to smile, to be nice. And people respond. The Rebbe told us that when you come to a town, your point is not to set up your agenda and try to impose it on others. You need to go and see what it is that people want, and then provide it. Hopefully when you come in with that attitude, people sense it."
In four years, the Derens have had visible impact on their town's Jewish community. Their first year in Greenwich, they held Purim, Lag B'Omer and Chanukah parties that drew hundreds of people. Two years later, the local Reform congregation organized its first Purim party. The following year, the Jewish federation held a Chanukah celebration, and the year after that, the Conservative synagogue had its first big Lag B'Omer bash. Maryashi feels that although these duplicate parties may be stealing some of Chabad's thunder, increased observance of Jewish holidays will eventually create a bigger pool of committed Jews. And some of those people might even, she adds with a laugh, gravitate to Chabad events.
Like his parents, Yossi made a concerted effort to get along with the local Jewish establishment. Local Conservative and Reform rabbis spoke at the dedication of the Greenwich Chabad House when it opened in September 2000. One of those rabbis comes to the Derens' Shabbat dinners, his wife attends Maryashi's classes, and the executive director of the local federation praised Chabad in a talk at a recent General Assembly of United Jewish Communities. "When we came to this town, not one UJA [federation] event was kosher, and now they all are," Maryashi notes. But that doesn't mean everything's rosy. A member of Temple Sholom, the Conservative shul in town, was present at a November 1999 board meeting where Chabad was discussed as an organizational threat. An internal draft from that meeting warned: "Chabad presents challenges to our growth in membership. The group has actively involved themselves in the Jewish community and welcomes non-members as well as members of their own congregation. Many of Temple Sholom's women in particular have been encouraged in a warm, pro-active way to join the events at Chabad." The meeting concluded, the member says, with talk of the congregation's need "to move to the right" in order to stop losing members to Chabad.
Living in a wealthy community has certain advantages. Maryashi taught full time at an Orthodox day school in Stamford the first two years she and Yossi lived in Greenwich, but then she quit to devote herself to drumming up support for Chabad activities. The Derens now raise virtually all of their annual $250,000 operating budget from local donors, who also contributed $1.5 million in 1999 to purchase the three-story building that serves as the Chabad House and Deren family home.
The morning after Yossi and Maryashi's late-night study session, Maryashi bustles into the Chabad office downstairs where half a dozen volunteers are already at work, preparing last-minute details for a parenting workshop planned for the next day. By 9am, 15 well-dressed women have shown up for her Torah class. She finishes a phone call, re-checks a flyer for spelling errors, and sits at the head of a long wooden table, opening her Torah to the week's portion. It's the chapter where Rebecca helps her favorite son Jacob deceive his blind father Isaac in order to steal his brother Esau's birthright, a colorful yet troublesome Biblical story that is often explained in terms of family jealousies, Oedipal bonds and other human weaknesses. But Maryashi is having none of that. If you want psychological interpretations of Bible stories read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, she advises --a book she has never read herself. ("What could it teach me? What non-observant women believe?")
Maryashi outlines the standard Chabad take on the story of the stolen birthright, one that emphasizes Rebecca's spiritual powers. Rebecca "knew" of God's plan for Jacob, Maryashi tells the class, and did what she had to do to help it come to fruition. Her seeming deception of her infirm husband thus becomes the determination of a holy woman bent on serving her Creator. "This is Torah," she states. "No excuses. This story isn't about trickery, it's about Rebecca receiving a prophecy while Jacob and Esau were in her womb. It's about women being powerful."
Margye Black is one of the women in Maryashi's class. A past president of Temple Sholom's Sisterhood, she says she was looking for a way to boost her own Jewish education, and Maryashi fit the bill. "As removed as she is from my world, she takes Torah and makes it applicable to my life," Black says. "You can't live in Greenwich as a Jew without having skewed values--the money these men make!"
Greenwich has 10,000 Jews, but you wouldn't know it, insist the women at Maryashi's table. "You don't want to hide your Jewishness, but you don't want to be too, either," Black notes. "Greenwich is such a WASP town," says Joan Mann, past vice president of Temple Sholom and a former president of the local federation. "When Chabad first came in, we wondered: What do they want? What will be their turf? I'm not a neophyte. I understand what Chabad is about. But from the beginning, I welcomed them. Their whole approach is so non-threatening, so inclusive. When I want Jewish education, I go to them." Mann is still a dues-paying member of her Conservative congregation. "It's not one or the other," she points out.
Black sends her children to the Derens' summer camp, which she says upsets her husband. "My daughter went for one week and started davening at home, and my husband went nuts. He doesn't want them at that camp next year. But they love it so much, and they're almost the only Jewish children in their school. So what do I do? It's a big conflict." Black says she "struggles all the time" with the question of how much of Chabad's teachings she wants her children to absorb. "Maybe they know they can't do the job on me, but they can get my kids," she muses. "My husband says we're being brainwashed, that we don't see the complete picture. I don't know. But what I get from this class is invaluable."
The Greenwich Jews who come regularly to Chabad activities see it as an antidote to what they describe as the money-driven lifestyle that dominates their community. Mark Blechman abandoned his Conservadox roots in the late 1960s to travel the world, exploring Buddhism, Hinduism and Chinese philosophies, before settling in Greenwich. Already a spiritual seeker, he met Yisroel Deren and immediately responded to the mystical aspects of Chabad philosophy. "I believe in reincarnation, all those Jewish beliefs that have been pooh-poohed by the Jewish [mainstream]," he says.
He went to a farbrengen in Crown Heights while the Rebbe was still alive, and although he couldn't understand much of what was said, the emotion in the room had a tremendous impact on him. He contrasted it with what he calls "a lack of warmth" in the Reform and Conservative congregations he knows. He may not agree with everything the Chabad shluchim preach, but they represent traditional values, a sense of right and wrong that he wants to give his children, "so they can deal with the peer pressure and the greed they're surrounded with here." He sees nothing odd about his support for a hassidic movement whose lifestyle is so far removed from his own. "This isn't a Chabad House to me, it's my shul," he shrugs.
Blechman isn't bothered with Chabad's focus on the personality of the Rebbe. Schneerson is a "sainted person" like many others, he believes. Even praying at the Rebbe's grave serves a human need. When Blechman's father and nephew died within five days of each other, Yossi Deren took him to the Rebbe's grave for consolation. "I viewed it as a cathartic experience," notes Blechman, who is trained as a clinical psychologist. "You write out all the feelings you have, and then you pray. You're not praying to the Rebbe. You feel energized by writing down all that crap and then tearing it up."
Steve and Annette Batkin are another local couple who became close to Chabad after they moved to Greenwich in the mid-'80s. When they decided to make their home kosher, they called their Conservative rabbi for information. "He said, 'We'll get back to you,' and it never happened," Annette says. "Someone told us about Yisroel and Vivi, so we called and they came right over. They told us how to make the kitchen kosher, and they held our hand as we went through it all."
When Yossi and Maryashi moved to Greenwich, the Batkins stopped attending their Conservative congregation and moved over to Chabad. The couple had already become more observant than most of their friends. They kept kosher and lit candles Friday night, but would then watch TV and drive to services the next morning. That's changed now. In 2001 the Batkins sold their home in order to move closer to the Chabad House, so they wouldn't have to drive on Shabbat. Mulling it over in his mind, Steve decides that it was less anything that Yossi or Maryashi taught than their personal example that drew he and his wife closer to the Judaism they represented. "They never tell you what to do, but they present a very nice model," he continues. "I've realized it's a better way to live. I've learned through Yossi that much of what we spend time doing is a waste of time. I've cut my TV time down to an hour a week--can't give up Star Trek. The more I see how they raise their kids, the more I see you don't need all this stuff we think is so important. Yossi's managed to get through life without it."
Hearing people talk about Yossi and Maryashi--or Yisroel and Vivi, or Zalman and Risya--it all sounds too good to be true. These people can't be so angelic, so self-effacing, so constantly giving. Is everyone in town on their payroll? "I'm sure not everyone in Chabad is like them," remarks Blechman. That's certainly true. Yet Yossi and Maryashi, like other Chabad shluchim, are careful to deflect praise by attributing everything they do right to the Rebbe--and everything they "have yet to accomplish" to their own human failings.
Growing up as a fourth-generation Lubavitch shliach can't help but rub off, Yossi believes. "We grew up with an emphasis placed on this kind of life service. It was our decision 100 percent, but we still grew up with it. Sometimes we fail to realize the greatness of what the Rebbe accomplished when he sent shluchim out to distant communities. Not just in terms of outreach and how he made it a trendy thing, but in terms of the philosophy of being able to look at another Jew seriously. The Rebbe imbued us with a belief in people and in the immutability of the soul. We heard it growing up like table talk, and we don't stop to think how profound a concept it is. We just look at it as what we do, but it has an affect on us, on other people, on the whole world. Part of the Rebbe's genius was to make it naturally part of our lives."