At 4:00 p.m., the Hilton New York in Midtown Manhattan was mobbed with more than 3,000 women of different ages and from locations across the globe, all of them Jewish educators, school administrators, Chabad House directors, inspirational speakers and their supporters. They’d come to this ballroom, a stroll from Central Park, Times Square and Fifth Avenue, to share stories, inspire and garner strength from each other.

Some flew in from far-reaching locations such as Laos, South Korea, the Congo, Morocco, and Ukraine. Others traveled a shorter distance, driving in from Dix Hills and Great Neck, Long Island. But as attendees of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries, they united behind a shared vision and common goal: the strengthening of Jewish communities wherever Jews may be found.

Hosted by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the conference offered several days of workshops, group programs, study sessions and networking opportunities timed to coincide with observances of the 24th anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, wife of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

At the conference’s gala banquet at the Hilton Sunday night, Chairwoman Shterni Gruzman, director of Camp Bnot Chayil in Vienna and program director of the Lauder Chabad High School there, pointed to the room full of women and those who couldn’t attend as emblematic of the Rebbe’s vision and the embodiment of the Rebbetzin’s legacy.

They are “women of pride and tradition who are inspiring a change in the world around them,” she said.

As an upbeat march began to play, a few hundred young girls in matching pink sweatshirts crowded the stage. Together, they sang and proclaimed their pride as the children of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.

Tanya Schmukler of Houston, Texas, is almost 12 years old.

“I felt like I was connected to all the emissaries,” she said of the experience onstage.

“It was so cool to see so many people around the world,” answered Schmukler’s contemporary, 12-year-old Rivkah Gniwisch of Montreal.

The children were not the only ones touched.

“The little girls always make me cry,” noted a proud Dalia Kulek, co-director of Chabad Chevra serving the University of Hartford in Connecticut. “They are our future.”

After the girls filed off the stage, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, addressed the crowd.

“The Rebbe placed women on a pedestal, comparing their daily tasks with the tasks of priests in the Holy of Holies,” he said. “You personify a beautiful mosaic by the way you act. It is in the power of the Jewish woman specifically to change the world, to fill it with goodness and kindness.”

Next to take the podium was Ilana Skolnik of Cape Town, South Africa, who shared her life story. At the age of 17, Skolnik was crowned a beauty queen, taking the title of Miss Africa South.

After traveling to South America, Greece and Israel, she converted to Judaism. A year after she got married, she met Rabbi Yossi and Hinda Gerlitzky, directors of Chabad of Tel Aviv, who suggested that she and her husband travel to New York to meet the Rebbe.

Taking their advice, Skolnik met the Rebbe in 1985 and her life was changed forever.

“I saw a bright light,” she recalled. “My hair stood on end.”

The Rebbe’s advice touched her soul, and with the help of caring Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rebbetzins, Skolnik and her husband slowly brought more Judaism into their lives.

“Years ago I came to America as part of a beauty pageant,” she said. “Today I am in a room with women who have the power to transform and elevate the world. Your work is extremely holy. Thank you, Rebbe. Thank you, all of you.”

The banquet drew on the participation of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries young and old, including their daughters, who performed from the stage. (Photo: Rivka Lifshitz)
The banquet drew on the participation of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries young and old, including their daughters, who performed from the stage. (Photo: Rivka Lifshitz)

Relax and Recharge

As soft Jewish tunes played in the background, the emissaries were treated to sumptuous beef medallions, boneless roasted chicken legs, and rosemary fingerling potatoes. Kulek mentioned that back home, she barely has a second to catch her breath. Catering kosher meals to an estimated 50 students at the University of Hartford every day, Kulek waits all year for the conference.

“It’s my one vacation a year,” she said. “I love being pampered. All I can do is say thank you and be overwhelmed by the feeling.”

“I’m humbled because each woman here means everything to their communities,” said Shaina Stolik, co-director of Chabad of South Palm Beach in Lantana, Fla. “Each woman is a therapist, librarian, chef, decorator, mother, and educator. Behind each face, there’s a huge capacity to influence others.”

“I love the power that’s in the room,” agreed Chaya Cohen of Montreal. “Everyone here has the same purpose.”

Sporadic shrieks of joy were heard throughout the evening, as women reunited with old friends.

“I see a lot of people meeting up with friends,” said Cohen. “I just walked around and met 15 friends from New York, England, France, and one from China.”

“There are 2,000 leaders of communities in this room,” added Chanie Geisinsky, co-director of Chabad of Great Neck, N.Y. “And this is not a Fortune 500 company. The youngest could be two weeks old and the oldest could be 89. What makes it empowering is that we all have one boss, one goal, one passion. We don’t make followers, we make leaders.”

More than 3,000 people filled a ballroom at the Hilton New York. (Photo: Rivka Lifshitz)
More than 3,000 people filled a ballroom at the Hilton New York. (Photo: Rivka Lifshitz)

The Driving Force

After a dessert of gourmet cupcakes and purple grapes, all ears turned toward Chava Schapiro, a classically-trained singer who offered a rendition of a Chasidic melody known “Ani Maamin.”

The singing was followed by a speech by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, who spoke about the tremendous influence of the Rebbetzin.

“She was a singular voice of calm and courage; we are forever indebted to her,” he said. “May your communal activities bring blessing to your personal lives. Thanks for your life’s work.”

Fruma Schapiro, co-director of the Chabad House of the North Shore near Sydney, Australia, was introduced amidst loud cheers.

“The Rebbe had the ability to see greatness in all creation, in all humanity,” she said. “People ask us, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ We are serving a purpose greater than ourselves on a daily basis. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt what we are here for. The vision, the soul of a great sage is a gift. Being connected enables us to achieve the impossible.”

Schapiro insisted that the Rebbe’s attitude and love for every Jew inspires emissaries to live in countries with little in the way of Jewish resources. The Rebbe’s message inspires them to reach out to every Jew who comes their way.

“When they need a home, we will be there for them with open arms in any part of world,” she explained. “Even if we have never seen them before and will never see them again. We will share our warmth and our kinship with our sisters all over world.”

As the evening drew to a close, six emissaries from different continents stood on stage, reciting a roll call of emissaries from all over the globe. Women cheered and waved their countries’ flags. As Omaha, Neb., was mentioned, Chanie Katzman, whose parents co-direct Chabad of Omaha, shouted out, “That’s us!”

Multi-colored flags of different countries flew overhead and music played as 3,000 women joined hands and danced around the room.

“Every single woman in this room is an outstanding community leader,” Katzman shouted above the din. “The energy is unparalleled. Can you feel it?”