S. PAUL, MN—They came from unaffiliated backgrounds, observant homes and everything in between. But one thing the forty teenagers who’ve just completed the 2002 Bais Chana summer session now have in common is a new respect for their parents.
Joining the ranks of thousands of women before them who have had the “Bais Chana experience,” these teenagers are guaranteed to think differently about a whole gamut of issues. Melissa Johnson, 18, spent several weeks at Bais Chana. “The experience has helped clarify many issues for me,” she says.
Now in its 31st year, Bais Chana’s highly unusual program has kept impressive pace with a changing milieu, continuing to attract women while responding to a very different set of dynamics. “In the 1980s,” recalls Rabbi Manis Friedman Dean of Bais Chana and key lecturer and teacher at the Institute, “people came in search of philosophical, theological truths.” By contrast, today he observes a moral confusion so debilitating as to have eaten away at any healthy impulse driving the existential quest. “They just want moral clarity,” he says. “Where once there was a clash of values, today, there’s a kind of resignation—people aren’t arguing—they’re just asking for some moral direction.”
Rabbi Friedman delivers with a back-to-basics sensibility that is refreshing for its simplicity amid a panoply of fancy healing and self-help fads. An advocate of old-fashioned morality, Friedman challenges the women to evaluate their lives with brutal honesty. “Rabbi Friedman’s openness and willingness to address topics ranging from religion to drug abuse and getting along with parents on a level that I could relate to was very compelling,” Melissa says.
Friedman, who has made the fifth commandment the theme of many of his lectures this session, speaks to the disintegration of family that, he claims, “has made parents altogether irrelevant to children. “It’s not that there is friction between children and parents today,” he laments, “but rather that parents just don’t figure at all in shaping their children’s values.” The only way to be functional and successful in life, he argues, is to behave consistently in a way that is morally right. For starters, mothers need to learn to behave as mothers, and to assert their authority as moral guides. That, he insists, will help children behave morally towards their parents, and ultimately as morally conscious adults.
Under the direction of Mrs. Hinda Leah Sharfstein, Bais Chana, which is based in S. Paul, has adapted its program (both winter and summer programs) to accommodate teenagers, couples and single women. All benefit from respective sessions that run 2-3 weeks and are designed to address their particular issues and interests. Some 100 women are expected at the session in August, to be followed by a retreat for couples.
With widespread interest in the program, Mrs. Sharfstein is now considering requests by Chabad Houses to coordinate Bais Chana sessions in their respective cities.
Named for Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Bais Chana was founded by Rabbi Moshe and Mindy Feller who were appointed Chabad-Lubavitch representatives to the Upper Midwest U.S. by the Rebbe back in the 60s. Bais Chana’s goal, says Rabbi Feller, “is to bring Jewish women the world over to a deeper understanding of Torah and Chassidut, and ultimately to a greater commitment to Judaism.”
For so many of the 10,000 women who have been to Bais Chana, the experience has proven itself a watershed, marking a dramatic change in their personal identities and consequently, in their lives.
But these days, Rabbi Friedman is content to define success in concrete measures. “It was nice back when people argued the big philosophical issues. But today, when someone leaves Bais Chana and says, ‘I’ll never talk that way to my mother again,’ that’s very dramatic. It’s a really practical change.
“And that,” he says, “is the bottom line.”