At the International Conference of Chabad Shluchos which ended Monday, daughters sought out their mothers, sisters each other, and every woman her friends. At the banquet dinner Sunday night, where the large majority of women seemed to be in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the young went looking for the old. And the older the better.
At 92, Mrs. Rochel Pinson of Tunis was the most senior Chabad representative in the hall at the Brooklyn Armory, where the gala was held. When the microphone was handed to her, she remained sitting unceremoniously, unfazed by the big screens and the strobe lights. But 3,000 women stood up in her honor. Smiling warmly, this Chabad representative since 1953 spoke modestly but briefly, like someone who lived her life knowing that actions matter more than speeches.
Today, a young generation of emissaries make use of technology and tools that didn’t exist for Mrs. Pinson. But if digital life makes things easier, it also makes the possibilities greater, and with that, the drive to do more, reach more people and go longer distances.
The women enjoying a rare break at the conference typically carry a full load, their days packed with a daunting array of responsibilities. Educators, administrators, fundraisers, mentors, life coaches, spiritual coaches, stand-in-therapists and stand-by crisis managers, they earn their leadership titles the hard way.
But Mrs. Richa Slavaticki seemed humbled by her 39 years as the Chabad representative to Antwerp, Belgium. “I’m not a woman who makes great things happen,” the keynote speaker said, maintaining that the success she’s had making real change happen for the people in her city derives from the fact that she is “a follower of the Rebbe.”
To help her stay on message, Slavaticki, like many of her colleagues, consistently asks herself whether the decisions she makes are true to the Rebbe’s values–an important question now that Chabad representatives have the support mechanisms that allow them to reach hundreds, sometimes thousands, and execute large, professionally developed programs. In his greetings, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky recalled the Rebbe’s steadfast concern for every individual. “It is not a numbers game. The Rebbe expected us to account for every Jew in our respective communities, and to reach out and do for the individual as we do for the many.”
The Conference program, developed by a team women who are themselves Chabad representatives, addressed an eclectic and wide range of topics. Sessions addressing preschool and Hebrew school development, Chabad House On A Budget, Events Marketing, and others on social and domestic issues like Understanding Troubled Relationships, provided participants with new information by professionals and older colleagues with years of experience under their belt.
Dr. Chana Silberstein, Chabad’s representative in Ithaca, New York, and Shaina Rosenfeld, serving Jewish students on campus at Hamilton, Ontario, led a session answering the kinds of questions commonly asked by people exploring Judaism. Years ago, reflected Silberstein, the questions that came to Chabad representatives from people in their communities concerned philosophical issues of faith: is there a G-d? Today, she says, the questions people ask are self-focused. They want to know things like, “Why doesn’t Judaism allow me to do this?” Using text-based sources, the two scholars led a roomful of women through an hour-long dialogue on the questions they field every day.
Mental health concerns took up a number of sessions at this year’s conference. One of them, Life on Campus: Psychodynamic Counseling for Anxiety, was geared to campus representatives working with students. There were others on similar themes guiding the women who are sought out by people in their community suffering from mental health issues. And among the representatives themselves, some are struggling to address these issues within their own families while being emotionally available to meet the many demands competing for their attention.
When she presented again at a later session, Shaina Rosenfeld took her colleagues by surprise, opening up about her personal struggle with depression and anxiety.
“As Shluchos (emissaries) we often put this pressure on ourselves to be perfect. But we are human and there is a beauty in that. We are as much on a journey towards improving ourselves as the people who come to our Chabad Houses. By being open about that, we can be accepting of ourselves and be even more accepting towards others and the challenges they face.”
After speaking of her own long battle with mental health, the respected community leader explained, “There have been a lot of ups and downs and thankfully, I have strong support behind me. But I’m not cured. My goal in life is to learn how to function beyond the depression and anxiety and not let mental illness define how I am going to live my life.”
Rosenfeld’s candid confession struck a chord with her colleagues. Rochel Baila Yaffe, of Madison, CT, said that for her, “The conference is about being there for one another, about sharing, crying and laughing together, about healing and supporting each other. So what Shaina did was powerful.
“She showed us how the responsibility we have for our own self-awareness does not preclude our helping others. She hasn’t put her life on hold, but is out there teaching and living up to her responsibilities while dealing with her challenges. And everyone has their own challenges. We need to acknowledge that.”
In fact, women are statistically one-third more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than men. Bringing this issue to the forefront of the conference’s discussion, was, many felt, a huge step forward in breaking remaining taboos on the subject. With the positive response to her talk, Shaina told lubavitch.com she now hopes to build on the momentum by creating a forum to promote healing.
“The conference has long been on the frontier of dealing with sensitive issues head-on. We have pioneered bringing children with special needs into our community, we’ve dealt with infertility and even abuse. Now is the time to bring mental health on board.”
Healing Through Unity
It was a different kind of healing that brought Bat Galim Shaar from Israel to the conference. Her 16-year-old son was one of Israel’s now-famous three teenagers who became national symbols after they were abducted by Palestinians in June 2014. The mutilated bodies of Gilaad Shaar and his friends were found after 18 days, as Jews worldwide grieved with their families.
Accompanied by Chanie Canterman of Chabad of Talbieh in Jerusalem, Bat Galim, who has harnessed the pain of her tragedy to bring unity between people wherever she travels, said she came to New York to experience the “healing of Chabad’s love that is so palpable at this conference.”
During her visit, Bat Galim was greeted at the home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, where he presented her with a gift of one of the dollars that yet remain from the Rebbe’s famous “Sunday dollar” tradition. The dollar, explained Rabbi Krinsky, always came with the Rebbe’s blessings.
“The Rebbe’s blessings, that you find solace and healing, and great success in the work you do to bring Jews together, are surely with you.”
Leaving the Rebbe’s home, Bat Galim reflected: “I have learned that your Rebbe is my Rebbe; that there’s something of Chabad within each of us.”