In this feature by Dvora Lakein, 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
Sarah Hecht is the founder of Chai Tots, an award-winning group of preschools in Brooklyn. As the mother of 13, the 51-year-old is a dynamo: 10 months of the year she directs her popular schools, while the summer finds her in the Catskills running a sleepaway camp for 300 teenagers.
Park Slope is practically adjacent to Crown Heights. What was the need for Chabad there?
We were newly-married, 31 years ago, and living in Crown Heights. Eight men from the neighboring Park Slope wanted help maintaining the local Orthodox synagogue (they themselves were not observant). My husband and his brother-in-law walked there every Shabbat to complete their minyan. When we were thinking about where to go as emissaries of the Rebbe a year later, my husband said, “Why go far? They need us here.” The Rebbe agreed. So we went.
From the perspective of a mom and woman, how has the neighborhood changed since then?
A lot! When we moved here, I wouldn’t go past the main avenue (7th then) for anything. I can’t count how many times our car was broken into. Our first night here, I was home with two babies, and a rock flew through the window.
Park Slope is now rated the top neighborhood to live in New York, it’s even considered one of the most beautiful communities to live in the country.
It’s taken a similar turn spiritually. When we came, there was really nothing. But now, there are yarmulkes everywhere, many different shuls, and sukkahs popping up all over in the fall. I remember, years ago, shopping at a store in the very Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park and the owner asked where I lived. When I told him Park Slope, and explained why, he laughed. “Oh please,” he said, “the day that you have a minyan there, I’ll give you anything in my store for free.” Of course he pretended not to remember that when I went back.
Being so close to Brooklyn’s major Jewish communities would make your circumstances different from most.
Yes and no. As a parent, we’re lucky, we live so close to everything but yet we are so far. We send our kids to Chabad schools, we can buy anything kosher we want. When we need to run an event or day camp, we have an incredible pool of young people to tap into one neighborhood over.
But it’s interesting. Everything you do in Timbuktu, in terms of educating Jews, you do here. I still have people come to my house and ask the most elementary questions. Even though we live in the middle of Brooklyn, there are yet many people who don’t know much about their heritage.
How many children do you have (and what age range)?
Thirteen. My kids range in age from seven to 32. My youngest is a year older than my oldest grandchild. And we have many grandchildren, thank G-d.
That number wows some and shocks others. How do you do it? How do you balance family and community responsibilities?
Thank G-d, I have a lot of energy. I love doing, accomplishing, it’s in my makeup. I try to always look good; it’s important to me not to look frazzled. Were there times when I had a newborn and had to make a program a week after giving birth? Yes. Was I ever overwhelmed? Yes. But I always tried to remember that it’s good to be busy with good things.
It’s really all a blessing from Heaven. I don’t give myself credit for it. When you do what’s meaningful in life, it gives you energy to do more and more.
I always made it a priority to involve my children in our work here. It started with bringing my kids to a Mommy and Me program, and then having them participate in every program. Now, two of my sons have their own Chabad shuls right in our neighborhood.
How do you make time for yourself?
Take care of mom first. A healthy mom is a healthy family. Sometimes, if I need it, I will get a manicure, or a massage, or go on vacation. Sometimes, when the kids were little, I just needed sleep. It has always been important to me to get away with everyone, whether for a family trip for a few days or to go skiing. I want my kids to have a chance to be together ourselves, to know that family is most important.
You’ve dedicated much of your life to children and education. Tell me about the preschools you founded and direct.
It started with wanting to meet people! I held a Mommy and Me event in my living room for neighboring moms. They wanted more, so we decided to open a preschool. I had to give up my teaching job at a day school, my bread and butter, but I knew I had to do it right, I had to put my whole self into it. There were days, years of struggle, but we didn’t give up Chai Tots became a great quality Jewish preschool.
We have more than 100 kids enrolled at our different locations now.
It’s really a miracle if you think about it. A successful preschool run by a Chasidic woman in one of the most liberal places you can imagine.
The kids will go in many directions once they leave preschool. What one message or concept do you hope they will keep with them always?
I want them to leave Chai Tots with a love of Judaism and proud to be a Jew. And they do. After four years in our school, our students and families walk out with very different attitudes. They have new respect for Judaism. They may even bring some Shabbat to their table.
When they hit the big world, when they get to college, if they have good memories of the rabbi and rebbetzin, they will take that step and get involved with their campus Chabad or Hillel.
It all starts with the youth. It all starts with giving them the love.
To learn more about Chabad of Park Slope, visit www.ChabadParkSlope.com.