In this feature, From Park Slope to Pudong, Lubavitch International profiled six women serving as Chabad emissaries in disparate places. Like their personalities, their circumstances are strikingly different to each other; some with children, some without, and some with extreme challenges. Whatever the “cards” that have been dealt them, these women play the hand with refreshing grace and confidence, offering an illuminating contrast to the noisy politics of our day.
Highland Park, Illinois, is an affluent suburb north of Chicago where Michla Schanowitz and her husband Rabbi Yossi serve as directors of North Suburban Lubavitch Chabad. Passionate about teaching, Michla spoke candidly with Lubavitch International about one of her life’s greatest disappointments and how she’s chosen to respond.
You didn’t grow up in a Chabad family.
No. I was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa. My parents, observant Jews, had been hired by the local Federation as teachers for the new community school. My mother taught Hebrew School there as a single girl, and when she and my father, a graduate of the Hebrew Theological College, got married, they were offered the position of teaching couple. My parents said they would come for five years. They stayed for 25.
Sioux City was a very warm, close knit community of 500 Jewish families. Are there Jews there today? Maybe 300.
Why Highland Park, Illinois?
Soon after we married, we wrote to the Rebbe asking him if we should go as emissaries to Chicago. The Rebbe responded in the affirmative and stressed that we should also serve “the surrounding area.” We somehow secured financial support for our first year, found a home listed in a local paper, and that was it, we moved.
Here we are, 35 years later.
You community is child-centered, and you have taught young children for decades.
Yes, it’s beautiful. We live in a very diverse, highly-educated Jewish community.
I am very involved with our Hebrew School, I teach JLI adult education courses, coordinate hospital visits, and co-direct our Chabad center. We recently appointed our niece and nephew, Mina and Chaim Schanowitz, to serve our neighboring suburb of Deerfield. It’s nice working together with family.
Several years ago, we opened the first mikveh outside of West Rogers Park and Skokie [Chicago’s traditionally religious enclaves]. Its presence has heightened awareness and interest in this mitzvah and for many women, the fact that it is in the community, and open to all Jews, makes it less intimidating. This is a very family-oriented community. Suburbia!
Yet you and your husband don’t have children. That can’t be easy then, living in a family-oriented community.
In our work here, we are surrounded by children all the time. We celebrate bris ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even weddings here in our Center. You don’t want to be on the outside looking in. You want to be part of people’s lives and milestones, even though it’s nothing you may have experienced.
Because when you are part of other people’s happiness and joy, it gives depth and richness to your life. And because I believe that there is no greater blessing or joy than having children, I try to encourage other women to have more children.
There is a certain camaraderie among women. I may not have children of my own, but my husband is one of 12 and I am one of six, so I don’t shy away from encouraging large families. Women often have a hard time with the idea and in our classes they get to talking about raising their kids and the challenges of different ages and stages. I have taught young children for many years, and I am always available to discuss parenting struggles and offer insight and perspective.
Do you ever feel like you need to make people comfortable with your situation?
I do have to make people feel comfortable sometimes. The first question a person asks an Orthodox woman is how many children she has. That’s an uncomfortable moment. I usually answer we don’t have children, but we have spiritual children. Occasionally well-intended people say, “oh but you do so much,” meaning my life is full, and it is, but given the chance, I would gladly take both.
If women are blessed to have children, they can do both. I sometimes respond, “you should meet my colleagues with large families and see what they are accomplishing.”
From where do you derive your faith?
Knowing that G-d is running the world and He only gives us what we can handle helps me with my faith. I have full trust in Him and I like to focus on what we do have, not on what we lack. I love my life and wouldn’t change it for anything.
You may want to have children, but you don’t always get to have that choice. What is in your power to choose is how you are going to react to disappointment. Choosing how to respond makes or breaks a situation. And it takes work.
In 1977, a woman wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe saying that she considers herself a feminist and would like to know if there is a place for women in Chasidism beyond being a wife and mother. The Rebbe responded that childless women are not marginalized in the religious community; that we achieve immortality when we touch the life of another. Mitzvot connect us to something that transcends ourselves. And this, by the way, is not exclusive to women who don’t have children. It is really about the impact we make on others in our lives. We all need to extend ourselves a little further, and remember that we were brought into this world to transform it and leave our own unique imprint.
Because of my situation and my openness about it, the women I’m around think beyond their own children, to touch others. Also, many women I’m close with have children who are grown up and this message of personal growth resonates with them. Don’t stay stagnant. Live life with purpose.
We admire large families, it’s true, but there is no stigma for someone who doesn’t have that. And it’s not like a woman with many children has completed all that is expected of her. The nurturing and selflessness of the innate mother should really extend beyond her own family.
Your experience has probably given you insight that allows you to help others struggling with difficult challenges.
Yes, but I am careful not to project my personal response on to others who are faced with a challenge. For myself, I realize there is so much beyond our control. We might question, we might not like it, but G-d is running the world. It’s like Tevya’s question in Fiddler on the Roof. “Does G-d have a vast, eternal plan for me?” I believe He does.
Don’t let this consume you, this potential loss. Pain can be a quicksand, it can pull you in. But it’s our choice how we respond. I try to live life to the fullest with a tremendous gratitude that I have the life I have. I think when you have experienced a loss or challenge you become more sensitive to living with a sense of purpose and deeper meaning in life.
I remember reading an interview with Rachel Frankel, the mother of Naftali, who was murdered by Arab terrorists in 2014. She said something like, “I have a spiritual world, but it doesn’t lessen any pain. G-d has a plan, but G-d doesn’t work for me.” I believe that wholeheartedly.