When Esther Hecht and her husband, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hecht, first arrived in New Zealand in 2018 with their young daughter, she says all her energy went to building Chabad of Auckland, where their responsibilities include serving Jewish communities and facilitating Jewish life across the vast island nation, in addition to the local Jewish community they were building.

“We’re leaders in our communities. The Rebbe put women at the forefront,” Hecht tells Chabad.org. She likens the work to that of the biblical Abraham and Sarah, who opened their tent to all and taught recognition of the Creator to the passersby. Now, she says, her main focus is on raising her growing family of three girls, and after years of isolation with New Zealand’s borders shut due to the pandemic, has been looking forward for months to traveling the more than 8,000 miles from New Zealand to New York to attend the 33rd annual International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Women Emissaries.

From all over the world, a record number of Chabad-Lubavitch women emissaries, or shluchot, will gather in Brooklyn this week for the annual conference, which is the largest Jewish woman's conference in the world. More women than ever before have registered for the conference this year, which runs Feb. 8 through Feb. 13, when many of the 5,718 leaders will attend an array of workshops and focus groups in support of their roles.

The conference culminates in a gala banquet on Sunday evening when emissaries and their local supporters will join for an evening of recognition and appreciation—best known for the roll call of attendees from all 50 states and more than 100 countries. The banquet will once again be broadcast live on Chabad.org.

The Kinus Hashluchos (Conference of Emissaries), which began in 1991, coincides with the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) on the 22nd of Shevat of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, the wife of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

In the spirit of this year’s Hakhel theme, which marks the Year of Jewish Unity, organizers expect a larger attendance than usual, reports Rivkie Kahanov, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Northeast Florida and a member of the Kinus executive committee. Although this year’s conference will be the first “back to normal” conference since the start of Covid, thanks to changes in the Kinus format due to the pandemic, the entire program will still be streamed to women unable to attend in person, she tells Chabad.org.

For those for whom financial constraints mean staying at home, a revamped grassroots effort in honor of Hakhel has raised thousands of dollars to purchase tickets for shluchot from Argentina, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, England, France, Israel and Austria. Chanie Krinsky, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Needham, Mass., together with Devorah Bush, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Petaluma, Calif., spearheaded the effort together with other shluchos. In addition to helping with airfare, shlucha Dalia Sanoff has worked to match families in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the conference is based, with emissaries who need a place to stay.

Volunteers will be at work all week long. - File photo by Kinus.com
Volunteers will be at work all week long.
File photo by Kinus.com

Six Days of Connection and Reflection

The women will take time over the six days to step back and reflect on their past journey and their crucial role in the communities they and their husbands serve, as well as renew their commitment to the work at hand. Highlights of the week include a visit the resting places of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin at the Ohel, daily workshops, a group photo, Shabbat with friends and family from around globe, and the gala banquet on Sunday night, which will feature keynote addresses by Miriam Moscovitz, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkov, Ukraine, and Israeli journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir.

The Kinus is described as a once-a-year lifeline for emissaries on the front lines of Judaism. Rochel Telsner, co-director of Chabad at Illinois State University & Bloomington Normal, in Normal, Ill., tells Chabad.org that “living in the cornfields” with her younger kids homeschooled, these are the few days a year she has to rejuvenate and re-energize. Her three oldest attend school two-and-a-half hours away in Chicago, where they board with their grandparents—she or her husband drives them in on Monday and brings them home on Thursday.

Telsner serves a Jewish student population of between 500 and 1,000 and describes a shlucha’s role as “the power behind everything that happens at the Chabad House.” More than a supporting or ceremonial role as the rabbi’s wife, a shlucha and shliach are a team. “It’s a joint force between them,” she says.

A visit to the resting places of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson at the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., is a highlight of the trip. - File photo by Kinus.com
A visit to the resting places of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson at the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., is a highlight of the trip.
File photo by Kinus.com

Serving on the Front Lines of Judaism

In Auckland, Esther Hecht speaks of the impact a Chabad couple can have just by being themselves.

“Just seeing an observant family living here makes an impression on people.” The lack of suitable schooling options for her children is becoming apparent, now that her oldest is four, and she says they are currently focusing on opening a Jewish preschool—in addition to everything else she runs, including all the children’s and teen’s programs, Hebrew school (or “cheder,” as it’s known there, which attracts 25 kids weekly), and Gan Izzy summer and winter day camps.

Serving an active and fast-growing Jewish community, Chabad in New Zealand has services and communal meals every Shabbat and regular Torah classes. Hecht leads a large monthly women’s group which gathers on Rosh Chodesh to study and make crafts. Soon, she reports, they will be building their own mikvah. In addition, she has a worldwide audience teaching Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot on Chabad.org.

With all that, she’s been anticipating the trip to New York for months. “It’s very isolating living here, even picking up the phone is difficult,” she says, due to the time difference and having her kids at home all day. “I’m really looking forward to meeting women of my age and stage.”

Thousands of women and their guests from back home will attend the gala banquet. - File photo by kinus.com
Thousands of women and their guests from back home will attend the gala banquet.
File photo by kinus.com

The grand banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries will be webcast live on Chabad.org on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m.