I have always considered myself to be a feminist. And while I am not Orthodox, I am very Jewish-identified. And I have always had great respect for Chabad, even though we are just never going to agree on certain issues. And that is part of the story of my interaction with the Rebbe, may his memory be for a blessing.

When I was living and working in New York City in the mid-1970s (I was, and still am, involved with broadcasting), I wrote to Rabbi Kastel of Lubavitch Youth Organization about an issue bothering me.

“I guess at times I wonder if there is a place for women in Chassidism except in the roles of wives and mothers—yes, I know women are encouraged to study and learn too, and some hold jobs as well as raising countless children, but the emphasis still seems to be on the role of wife and mother.”

Rabbi Kastel told me to write a letter to the Rebbe. “The Rebbe always answers his mail,” he told me.

I had long since come to terms with the fact that I could not have children

Like the Rebbe’s late wife, I cannot have kids. I wrote to remark upon the emphasis Orthodox Judaism seems to place on women having many kids. I asked about women who are childless, because it seemed to me that such women were stigmatized by Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on large families.

I was not rude in my letter, but I must admit, being in an occupation where I am always working with celebrities, I did not expect a reply.

Surprisingly, I received a response.

The letter, I thought, had been lost over the years—there was a water main break in my neighborhood a while back, and I lost much of my rare memorabilia—but the compassion in his letter will never be forgotten.

Recently, I was exchanging e‑mail with a staff member at Chabad.org, and it turned out that a copy of my 1977 letter still existed. Rabbi Kastel had retained a copy in his files, and Chabad.org sent me a copy of my letter. I tip my hat to them for coming up with something so important to me, something I thought I would never see again.

The Rebbe said that childless women are not to be marginalized, that they do have mitzvahs they can do, and in the eyes of G‑d, those mitzvahs carry the same meaning as having kids. I had told him that I was a mentor, I teach, I’m a “Big Sister,” etc.

I found the Rebbe very empathetic and cordial, even though he knew I was not a member of Chabad, nor even an Orthodox Jew. That he would take the time to respond so thoroughly (the letter was two and a half pages) touched me deeply.

Click here to read the letter.

Donna L. Halper today
Donna L. Halper today

I had long since come to terms with the fact that I could not have children. But in a culture that defines women mainly by whether they are mothers, I wondered what G‑d had planned for me, and that is what led me to discuss my situation with the Rebbe.

His advice was comforting—absolutely. But now, as I look at the parts of the letter that Chabad.org sent, what impressed me then as now was how he cared about me, even though I wasn’t a Lubavitcher, even though I was not even Orthodox. He understood that I was seeking some guidance as to what mitzvah a childless woman is supposed to perform, and I thought that his response was both beautifully expressed and very, very compassionate.

There is a role for every woman, whether a mother or not, in Judaism

I was never discouraged about not being able to have children. My attitude has always been that I’m glad to be alive. I shouldn’t be here—both my mother, of blessed memory, and grandmother, of blessed memory, died of cancer; yet here I am, cancer-free, so thank G‑d for that. I know that many women long to have kids, but not every woman does. And although I was at peace about my situation, it was still reassuring to hear from someone of the Rebbe’s stature that there is a role for every woman, whether a mother or not, in Judaism.

I hope that women who are deeply depressed over not having kids will take the Rebbe’s advice to heart, just as I did. Their situations may differ from mine, but in all cases his advice was practical and encouraging. I appreciated it then, and I appreciate it now. He reinforced for me that G‑d knows what is in our heart and what mitzvahs we wish we could have done.

While I lived and worked in New York, I subsequently had the chance to go to Lubavitch Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a talk the Rebbe was giving.

My memory of him also stays with me—he was a person who truly radiated what some call “spirituality.”

If there is a Jewish saint, this man certainly was the epitome of a tzaddik, a righteous man. Even years later, I have never forgotten how it felt to be in the same room as such an amazing human being as the Rebbe.

He was talking to a large group of children, and they seemed as enthralled as I was. None of them squirmed or wriggled or anything—they knew they were in the presence of a great sage. I knew it too.

It still brings a smile to my face to recall how those children looked adoringly up at him, and the kindness and warmth he displayed as he was teaching them principles of Torah—even a skeptic could see that he genuinely loved being a Jew and that he genuinely loved teaching about G‑d.

He gave out a dollar to each person at the end of the talk, so they could give charity, and I felt privileged to be one of them.