New York, NY – It is an annual event taking place each winter, timed to coincide as closely as possible with the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin’s yahrtzeit and thousands of shluchos from all over the world gather to celebrate their efforts spreading the light of yiddishkeit and to be inspired in their outreach efforts for the coming year.
I have never been to a Kinus Hashluchos and the extent of my association with any official Chabad program is limited to two summers spent in Camp Emunah ages ago.
I leave to the kinus on Sunday afternoon expecting to hear stories about the many sacrifices being made by shluchos sent to remote corners of the globe. Instead, I find myself in a room at the Hilton in Midtown, Manhattan filled with over 3,000 women who seemed to be living their dream, even if they are far from their families, have to place food orders months in advance and have to send their children away to yeshiva while they were still gap-toothed grade-schoolers. For them, life is all about igniting the dormant spark of yiddishkeit embedded deep inside every Jewish neshama and both they, their husbands, and even their toddlers are walking examples of just how beautiful a Torah lifestyle can be.
There was Chaya Mushka Yaras of Coral Springs, Florida who, together with her husband, has taken over for her father at the local Chabad House.
“We run a program for the Israelis here,” says Mrs. Yaras. “Once a month we do a Friday night dinner for all the families and have somewhere between 80 to 100 people.”
I ask Mrs. Yaras who does the cooking for the Friday night dinners.
“Me,” she replies, adding quickly that other community women come over on Thursday nights to help her cook.
Now in its first year, Coral Springs’ Hebrew school currently has an enrollment of seven and is the only Hebrew school in Florida that actually speaks Hebrew to its students.
Mrs. Yaras admitted to being nervous about a wine and cheese party being held later this week.
“I am going to be talking to them about the mikvah and it is a little nerve wracking for me because it is such an important mitzvah and I want to present it in a way that everyone will want to do it,” says Mrs. Yaras.
I also meet Rikal Pewzner of Chabad of the Cayman Islands.
“It is wonderful to live in a warm place with the ability to spend so much time outdoors in a relaxed atmosphere,” says Mrs. Pewzner. “People go to work but make time for scuba diving and are open to new experiences and building new friendships.
With food on the island coming from the United States, kashrus isn’t a big challenge. Grocery items typically bear an OU and meat, chicken and cholov yisroel dairy items are sent from Miami.
“The one practical thing that can be hard is that we don’t get regular mail like in the United States. If I am doing a program that requires a specific item, I either do without it, or plan far in advance, having Amazon ship it to the house of someone who I know will be coming to the islands.”
Mrs. Tzivie Hecht tells me that there was nothing even remotely Jewish anywhere within a half hour of Rhinebeck, New York, when she got to the upstate town seven years ago. Today the town boasts a beautiful shul and an almost completed mikvah, a project born out of necessity.
“What happened was that it was a very snowy day and I had to travel to the mikvah down in Monsey,” says Mrs. Hecht.
The round trip, which should have taken two and a half hours, took closer to eight hours on that particular winter night, almost two years ago
“When we got to Monsey my car couldn’t get up the hill and I had to walk about a quarter of a mile in the snow,” recalls Mrs. Hecht. “I totally connected with my great grandparents, my great-great grandmothers…it was a very, very scary drive there and a very, very scary drive back and Baruch Hashem, the next day, my husband sat down with donors who promised the money to build the mikvah.”
“We are very excited to bring this mitzvah to the women of our community,” adds Mrs. Hecht. “I really hope to change lives through our mikvah.”
The Hechts shuttle their three young children back and forth to Albany’s Maimonides school.
“We travel an hour and fifteen minutes each way, every single morning,” says Mrs. Hecht. “My kids get up at 6 AM and we leave the house at 6:45….my children return home at about five o’clock.”
Despite the long commutes, the Hechts call Rhineback home.
“We are going to be there until Moshiach comes,” says Mrs. Hecht.
As a New Yorker, I have a pretty narrow view of life west of the Hudson and hearing that Chana Rochel Zwiebel lives in Chico, California, I assume that she must be relatively near kosher food and other amenities that we take for granted.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
“We are all the way up north and are eight hours away from kosher food,” explains Mrs. Zwiebel, whose three oldest children are enrolled in the Chabad online school program.
“As a mother I feel lucky that I get to be so intimately involved in their chinuch, and for me personally the computers are a little stressful sometimes, but then I hear them laughing with their friends,” observes Mrs. Zwiebel. “They are learning a lot but the main thing is that they really have friends.”
The daughter of Chabad shluchim in Detroit, Mrs. Zwiebel always dreamed of finding herself being sent out on shlichus.
“I always knew that this is what I wanted to do,” says Mrs. Zwiebel. “This is hashgacha pratis and this is where my children were meant to grow up. We are all where are supposed to be and if it is in the Ukraine, China, California or New York City, we are all doing what we are supposed to do.”
The shluchos I spoke with were all clear that while they do make some personal sacrifices, they are still content with the lives they have chosen. Mrs. Chanie Rapaport of the Chabad House at Syracuse University shares that she had to send children away for schooling as early as first grade and that her Augusts were typically filled with difficult moments as each year she faced the inevitable parting with her little ones.
Working on a college campus, Mrs. Rapaport notes that many of the students typically became adopted family members. That close relationship sometimes evolved through Mrs. Rapaport’s cheerful brand of outreach.
“Each summer, they would send me the list of incoming students and I would reach out to the Jewish ones and friend them on Facebook,” says Mrs. Rapaport. “By the time they got here and met me they would say ‘I know you!’ and many became part of our lives.”
Mrs. Goldie Avtzon of Hong Kong, the evening’s keynote speaker, tells me that on a typical weekend she can host between 30 and 50 guests for Shabbos meals.
“It takes a lot of organization and experience and we hire help when we need to help us get it done,” explains Mrs. Avtzon.
Kosher food is ordered in bulk, sometimes up to six months in advance, and stored in rented freezer space.
“We bring in a couple of tons at a time and take it out as needed,” says Mrs. Avtzon. “It’s not just for us, it’s for all the shluchim in the area.”
Are there really Jews in Korea? I find out that the answer to that question is a resounding yes during a quick chat with Mussy Litzman of Chabad of Korea. Originally from Israel, Mrs. Litzman says that the idea of living in Seoul never shocked her.
The biggest difficulty she encountered during her seven years in Korea?
“We had a challenge having friends for our kids,” saysMrs. Litzman. “There was nobody there. But another family came and now my kids have friends. Baruch Hashem, we are happy to be in South Korea.”
While Yudit Havlin always aspired to be a shlucha, she admits to being taken aback when she was sent to Hamburg, Germany.
“It was hard in the beginning because I thought about the Holocaust,” says Mrs. Havlin. “It was really hard to do ‘v’hadarta pnei zakein’ to the old people in Germany because I thought all the time about what they did.”
It seems fitting that Mrs. Havlin’s brother in law, Rabbi Shlomo Bistritsky, runs the Jewish school in the same building where his own grandfather ran a yeshiva before the outbreak of World War II and Mrs. Havlin tells me that one Hamburg resident, the son of a Nazi, is trying to right the wrongs perpetuated by his own father by honoring the city’s former Jewish residents.
“We have a special program in the street where they have gold stones by every house that was Jewish before the Holocaust,” says Mrs. Havlin. “They write the name of the family on the stone and the date that they went to Auschwitz. My brother in law took a picture with the stone that has his grandfather’s name.”
Chana Gopin of Lugansk, Ukraine, has faced some unique challenges in the recent past.
“So many events have happened in this eight months,” notes Mrs. Gopin. “In the beginning when it started getting dangerous we sent our kids to Israel to our parents. It was the beginning of the summer, so we sent them for a vacation and my husband and I thought to stay to see what was going on. We didn’t want to leave but a few days later the Ukraine army started to bomb our city. From that moment on our mission changed. We started to work to help our people just to leave. It is a very hard decision to leave, especially that we don’t know to where we are going or when we will be back. We knew that what we had to do in that moment is to help each family in our community just to survive.”
The Gopins have moved twelve times in the past eight months, first to Kharkov and then to Kiev, ultimately settling temporarily in Israel.
“We thought we would be going back in a month,” says Mrs. Gopin. “We didn’t think it would take such a long time. My husband is going once to a week to Kharkov and Kiev to visit our people. It is impossible to go back to Lugansk. It is too dangerous.”
I ask Mrs. Gopin how her children are adjusting to life in Israel and I expect her to tell me that they love being surrounded by Jewish children and being able to get kosher ice cream on every block.
Once again, I am wrong.
“They want to go home,” says Mrs. Gopin. “I think that the feeling to be a shaliach in a city that is far, that everybody needs you, it is such a good feeling and they just want to go back. I hope that soon we should be able to go back to Lugansk.”
Taiby Camissar tells me how happy she is to be on shlichus in Amsterdam, despite the prevalence of drugs in the country.
“It is not the best place for a Jew to be there and davka there we find sometimes for Shabbos people knocking on the door and saying, ‘Wow, we found a mezuza here in the middle of the tuma and the darkness and there is something holy here?’ It really touches them and makes it all worthwhile.”
The ballroom at the Hilton is wall to wall tables for the kinus, with women chatting amiably, crowding together for pictures and posting selfies to the kinus Twitter feed. Looking down at the crowd from the upstairs mezzanine, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer number of women who have dedicated their lives to being emissaries for yiddishkeit in literally every corner of the world and as one woman jokingly tells me “wherever there is Coke, there is Chabad.” I think about the husbands and children they left behind, the frozen meals stashed in the freezer to tide their families over in their absence and the complicated child care arrangements so many of them made in order to make it to the kinus, not to mention the massive amounts of money spent on airfare. I am amazed by what these women accomplish on a daily basis as each one of them wakes up every morning wondering how to spread the light of Judaism just a little farther. What seems to me to be untold acts of mesiras nefesh is all in a day’s work for them.
Truthfully, I could sum up the whole night with one story.
As soon as I got to the Hilton, I sat down to change out of my boots and into more appropriate footwear for a formal event. As I slip into my shoes a total stranger comes over, holds out a shopping bag and says “do you want a bag to put your boots in?”
That is what these women are all about. Just being nice to other people and making a kiddush Hashem wherever they go.