When Nechama Rothstein arrived as a new Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Nashville, Tenn., last week, her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein, soon left for New York to attend the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. In typical fashion, she saw his absence for the first Shabbat as an opportunity to reach out to local college students: Instead of preparing for a quiet family affair with her 10-month-old Mendel, she had another idea.

"My husband isn't here, so I might as well have girls over," Rothstein remembers thinking, "but I only know two students!"

Her attitude mirrored that of other female emissaries around the country, albeit without the just-moved-in aspect. While their male counterparts were spending Shabbat at Lubavitcher World Headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., they invited female students for a comfortable and elegant Friday night dinner where they could let loose without the guys present.

As Chana Rochel Novack, co-director of Chabad on Campus serving Washington University in S. Louis, puts it, a women's-only Shabbat "allows women to appreciate the unique abilities they have to contribute to the atmosphere of the holy day."

So that the men wouldn't feel left out, many Chabad Houses made arrangements for a male student living nearby to host his own Shabbat meal. Others offered ready-to-go dinners, complete with grape juice and challah.

But in Nashville, Rothstein had to iron out some little details: She didn't have enough chairs, dishes or glasses for all of the guests.

She searched the Internet for local stores and drove to the nearest department store, where she filled two shopping carts with everything she needed to not only stock her fridge and pantry, but to furnish her apartment as well. (The only furniture the Rothsteins brought with them were bookshelves, beds and a table.)

Next, Rothstein reached out to a sophomore referred to her by a colleague on another campus. The girl said that probably couldn't come, but if she did, it would only be for 20 minutes. Then, she knocked on a neighbor's door to introduce herself, only to find out that the neighbor was Jewish.

"I know this is kind of crazy," she says she told the neighbor, "but do you want to come over for Friday night dinner?"

Little by little, Rothstein had found ten girls to attend the dinner. She gave them directions and told them to look for a big mezuzah and a big window.

Jewish Femininity

College girls mark the onset of Shabbat by lighting candles.
College girls mark the onset of Shabbat by lighting candles.
Before they sat down to the meal, everyone sang the traditional "Shalom Aleichem." Rothstein sang "Eishet Chayil," the song from the last chapter of Proverbs, and the sophomore who thought she couldn't stay made Kiddush; she even ended up staying for three more hours.

Even though nobody knew each other, Rothstein says that the conversation flowed: "It was so comfortable and so much fun."

The guests heartily debated environmental issues, Rothstein led a discussion about the three commandments unique to women – the laws of family purity, separating challah and lighting Shabbat candles – and at one point, a student performed a stand-up comedy routine.

"It was so nice," says local student Michele Smoler, who found out about the gathering through a Facebook invitation of Rothstein's. "I felt comfortable. Immediately, when I came in and saw only girls, I knew that I didn't have to impress anybody."

While the Nashville crowd was celebrating, Novack was hosting "Shabbos With the Stars: Celebrating Our Jewish Women in the Arts" in S. Louis. The event was far from spontaneous; it took three weeks work of planning by Novack and Batsheva, a Jewish women's group at Washington University that Novack advises.

A female a cappella group welcomed the crowd of 55 to a campus ballroom with their own rendition of comedian Adam Sandler's Chanukah ditty "Eight Crazy Nights." A female professor recited poetry by Israeli women, and a local artist displayed work to show the role that art can play in expressing one's thoughts.

But the most amazing part of what for some is the only Jewish function they attend all year, says Novack, was that the women stayed through the whole dinner and discussion, a first in the six years since Novack began the annual event.

"They just enjoyed being together as a Jewish female community," says Novack.

By the end of the event, everyone "really wanted more women's programming," she adds. "Now our Rosh Chodesh group is going to explore the femininity of Judaism in art by making challah covers with the help of the artist who spoke."

Back in Nashville, Rothstein told a story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. She says that one of the students exclaimed, "You mean the Lubavitcher Rebbe? I got a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe!"

That student related that when she was born three months premature, both she and her mother were very sick. Not knowing what to do, her father asked a local Chabad rabbi, who suggested that he write the Rebbe and request a blessing. After receiving the Rebbe's blessing in return, the father began to don tefillin daily. Both the student and her mother fully recovered.

According to Rothstein, the girls were even more amazed when the same student said that she once had an eye infection that could lead to blindness. Her father again wrote to the Rebbe, and this time the infection disappeared, to the amazement of her doctor.

"What I liked about Nechama," says Smoler, who performed the stand-up routine, "what made me open up to her more was that she was so enthusiastic and supportive of any effort to be part of the service. She made me feel welcome and proud of my Judaism.

"She was really encouraging and respectful of anything you do," adds Smoler. "She made it about the group [and] respected every single person. And she's a great cook."

At the close of the meal, says Rothstein, the Nashville girls agreed to come together again for another women's-only function. She's since begun planning monthly Shabbat luncheons for the female students.

Of course, she and her husband are now tackling the unpacking.