It was nearly 11:00 at night and women were still singing. The program had ended, the white tablecloths were being taken off the fleet of round tables that filled the room, the chairs were being stacked and still the energy was high. They piled together for photos, arms around each other, waving red flags from their tables as they celebrated their shared mission and sisterhood.

A crowd of 2,640 joined together in the Armory on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., only minutes away from Lubavitch World Headquarters, for the gala banquet of the 23rd annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries. Beginning on Thursday and running through Monday, the conference offered a chance for Jewish community leaders from around the world to connect and network.

Banquet chairwoman Dinie Greenberg, co-director of China’s Shanghai Jewish Center, addressed the audience from a stage designed to represent every Chabad House’s living room, a reflection of the conference’s theme of integrating family and communal life. She stood in front of framed pictures of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, and a bank of bookshelves complete with a lapping virtual fireplace; a chandelier hung overhead.

“Tonight we celebrate another year of accomplishment,” she told the beaming crowd of fellow emissaries and their lay leaders.

Throughout the evening, she welcomed women to the podium who shared stories and experiences as emissaries and the people they serve.

“Each one of us is unique in some way so that we can enhance each other and the world,” stated Greenberg.

Randy DeFilipp, of Charlotte, S.C., spoke alongside three other women about the importance of the work emissaries do to enhance the lives of individuals, families, and communities. As a lay leader in her home community, DeFilipp signaled her awe at a network of emissaries who serve as day school principals, Hebrew school directors, motivational speakers and mentors, all with a mother’s touch.

This network “has given stability and cohesion to my family’s college experience, has enabled them to travel with meaning and enjoyment,” she said, adding that she was glad to have the opportunity to express her thanks, and to recognize the people who “work hard on behalf of my family and everyone else’s family.”

Women flitted from table to table over the course of dinner, taking time to reconnect with old friends and share stories of inspiration. During a break in the festivities, Greenberg said in an interview that she hopes the conference gives participants a renewed sense of mission and purpose.

“This conference keeps us rooted in a way; it reminds us of the fact that we’re all kind of in the same boat, that we’re all doing the same thing around the world, that we’re each thinking local and affecting global,” she explained. “We are servicing Jewish people around the world and making joyous and meaningful Judaism available to them.”

But the five-day gathering this week also offered something for everyone, from those in the beginning stages of their work wondering “what do I do, where do I start,” to veteran emissaries, said Esther Grossbaum, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Community Center in Thornhill, Ontario, and a member of the conference’s executive committee. “We make sure there’s something for every age and stage.”

Mashie Butman, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said she’ll return home filled with support and encouragement.

“It’s not a specific comment I heard or a tip,” she said, “it’s just the feeling of being part of the Rebbe’s army, a part of [this mission] to bring light into the world, to bring G‑dliness into the world.”

Her husband, Rabbi Bentzion Butman, like those of many attendees, was at home with their children, aged 3 and 1 and a half years, and 3 months. Babysitting was also available on site for participants; children played in a nearby room full of toys, where babysitters texted back and forth with parents by cell phone.

During the banquet’s roll call, emissaries stood waved red flags when their home country was announced. (Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie)
During the banquet’s roll call, emissaries stood waved red flags when their home country was announced. (Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie)

A Family Affair

For Henya Laine of Brooklyn, N.Y., like many others, the event was a family affair.

“I have eight children, seven daughters and a son, all emissaries,” she revealed.

They’re based in Pittsburgh, Pa., Connecticut, Panama, Paris, Wisconsin, two parts of Florida and Milan, and she comes from a family of emissaries herself: Her parents were sent to Cleveland by the Rebbe in 1953.

“I have come here since it started, since they allowed parents of emissaries to come,” she said. “It’s the highlight of the year.”

During the conference’s workshops, Laine babysat seven kids under the age of 2 so that her guests could attend.

Shternie Althaus, originally from Brooklyn, came back from Sydney, Australia, to attend the conference.

“I haven’t seen a lot of people here for 15 years,” said Althaus, who teaches high school and conversion classes and speaks on women’s issues. “It’s like picking up where you left off. And seeing everything they accomplish, you get such pride from your friends.”

Althaus brought two of her children with her and left four at home with her husband.

“They’re starting school and he’s having to get them in their new uniforms and shoes, making sure their supplies are packed,” she detailed.

Estie Druk, who lives in Israel, said that she was most moved by the roll call at the end of the event, to see those just starting out and “to feel a little part of the big picture.” Cheers went up from around the room as countries’ emissaries were recognized; one table erupted in confetti.

“To see how many places, to hear the names, and I can’t imagine someone lives there, to see women like me can live there and have children there. It’s amazing, very exciting,” she exclaimed.

Simcha Nemni, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Martinique, a Francophone island in the Caribbean, said it was incredible to hear about the courage of women to live and thrive in other places: “I am going home recharged with new energy.”

Aidy Kuravsky flew 10 hours from Moscow with a group of 21 women to attend.

“It’s a first for us, such a big group” she said.

Kuravsky, who has lived in Moscow for almost 10 years, said her whole year is better because she comes to the conference.

“The lectures, the workshops, the talks; it’s all inspiring,” she said. “Being together with so many sisters, being a part of such a huge family with the same goal – we are all emissaries, we’re all connected to the same source, get our inspiration from the same place, and are out to strengthen Judaism.”