Ask the hundreds of lay leaders who participated in last weekend’s 21st annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries why they trekked all the way to Brooklyn, N.Y., from points around the world, and many will tell of perceptions changed, barriers shattered and friendships forged as they got to know the female “soldiers” who run Chabad Houses, teach classes and preside over families from Nepal to New Brunswick.

Take Olivetter, Mo., resident Randye Rosser, who was one of nearly 3,000 women who attended the conference’s Feb. 15 gala banquet, the largest ever. Over the course of four days, Rosser took part in workshops, discussions and classes for lay leaders, while her friend, Chana’la Rubenfeld, co-director of Chabad of Chesterfield, Mo., examined best practices and studied Torah with other emissaries. At the banquet, with Rubenfeld sitting next to her, Rosser, 57, said that less than three years ago, you wouldn’t have found her anywhere near a Chabad House.

“My view of Orthodox Jews was that they always shunned someone who didn’t follow their beliefs,” she explained.

That viewpoint even kept her from meeting the rabbi who counseled her younger brother through years of an ultimately fatal illness. But when her brother ended up in the hospital for the last time, she knew she had to call Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld. The rabbi stayed with Rosser’s brother throughout the night, seeing him through his passing.

Shortly afterwards, the Rubenfelds invited Rosser to their home for Shabbat dinner. It was the first of many.

“I was shocked to find Chabad so welcoming to all,” she said, “like one big family.”

Another of her preconceived notions – of women being relegated to the back of the bus in religious and family life – quickly fell by the wayside.

“They are in unison, working as a pair,” Rosser said of the Rubenfelds. “I had a misconception that women play a minor role in Jewish practices, that men are the important figures.”

But through participating in activities at the Rubenfelds’ center, said Rosser, she discovered the exact opposite to be true. The conference – which is always timed to the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, and always focuses on the unique responsibility of women as the foundation of Jewish education – only served to highlight that realization, added Rosser.

“You can rarely go to a conference where there’s not a single bad speaker,” said Rosser. “It is amazing and very empowering, being with all of these fine women from all over.”

She added that because of the conference and its accompanying spiritually-uplifting Shabbat, she’s considering keeping the holy day on a regular basis when she returns home.

Sparks of Goodness

This year’s conference was the second for Chava Mann of Caracas, Venezuela. She said that she is always struck by how welcoming the Crown Heights neighborhood – home to Lubavitch World Headquarters – is to guests from out of town and how it creates an atmosphere conducive to Jewish life.

“Everyone is working together to make the neighborhood an environment for Jews to practice comfortably,” said Mann, who came with Chani Rosenblum, co-director of the Chabad House in Caracas’ Altamira neighborhood.

What also stood out for Mann was the “intense learning” the conference offered for all of its attendees.

“Time went by so quickly,” she related. “We stayed up past 2 a.m. almost every night, talking among ourselves, sharing perspectives and singing together.”

Of Rosenblum, whom she met in 2001 after searching for some spiritual connection in the wake of a troublesome pregnancy, Mann hailed the emissary as “the most powerful woman I have every met.”

“There’s absolutely no comparison,” said Mann. “She is a great mom, wonderful wife, teacher and friend. I feel like she is the sister G‑d never gave me. I can talk to her about anything.”

Eileen Edelman-Bruskewitz used practically the same words to describe her relationship with Faygie Matusof, co-director of the Chabad House of Madison, Wis.

Bruskewitz’s first encounter with the emissary and her husband, Rabbi Yona Matusof, was almost three years ago, after her mother suffered a heart attack. Seeing her mother in such terrible pain prompted the woman to turn to G‑d.

“Send me a rabbi,” she prayed.

Soon thereafter, her doorbell rang, and when she opened the door, she saw two Chabad-Lubavitch students, one of the Matusofs’ sons and his friend.

“They probably got my address from when I ordered a Chanukah menorah 15 years back,” she said of the spontaneous visit.

When she subsequently met Faygie Matusof, she was worried that she’d be cast aside because of her lack of Torah observance.

“Of course you’re Jewish,” Matusof assured the woman. “And you will fit right in.”

Since then, Bruskewitz has immersed herself in an exploration of Jewish teachings with Matusof serving as a sort of guide. Today, the woman serves as president of the sisterhood at the Chabad House’s synagogue.

One speaker at the gala banquet touched on the goal of being “a giver of exponential goodness,” said Bruskewitz, a description that fits Matusof perfectly, “for by touching one person, that person can affect others. And that is how goodness spreads.

“This weekend, I have learned about my own challenges” in living a Jewish life, she continued. “I am realizing that this is the way it is supposed to be. My job is to elevate myself from these challenges.”