Brooklyn, NY – It was a night to remember for more than 3,000 Chabad shluchos as the annual Kinus Hashluchos came to a climax on Sunday night at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal with a celebratory banquet honoring the women who dedicate their lives to shining the light of Torah Judaism in practically every corner of the globe.
The Kinus Hashluchos is scheduled each year to coincide with the yahrtzeit of the Lubavticher Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, on the 22nd day of Shevat and offers workshops, lectures and numerous social opportunities. For many shluchos, it is the highlight of their year, a golden opportunity to connect with old and new friends and to fortify themselves with inspiration for the upcoming year.
Mrs. Chiena Lazaroff, co-founder of Chabad Lubavitch of Texas in Houston, recalled coming to New York for the Rebbetzin’s funeral in 1988 and returning one year later as part of a small group to mark the first yahrtzeit.
“The Rebbe told us that there should be a women’s kinus and that was how everything got started,” Mrs. Lazaroff told VIN News. “We did a lot of programming in the early years in small rooms, small apartments and private homes. The kinus has come a long way since then.”
Mrs. Lazaroff, who had already been on shlichus to Houston for 17 years when the first kinus took place, noted that she has seen incredible changes in Houston since her arrival in 1972 when there was no kosher food to be had. Getting a staple as basic as milk required piling the family into their station wagon every other week for a visit to a nearby farm.
“My kids loved going for a ride to the farm to see the cow being milked and the farmer was happy that the rabbi was coming to bless his cow,” said Mrs. Lazaroff.
Meat and chicken were trucked in frozen from New York or California. Mrs. Lazaroff recalled that one Pesach, panic set in when word came that a scheduled Erev Pesach delivery would not be arriving.
“All of our people who were already baalei teshuva were saying ‘What will we do? There’s no meat. There’s no chicken,’” said Mrs. Lazaroff. “I told them we were going to have a pareve Pesach and I went to the fish market, bought fish and cooked it. The truck actually arrived later that day at 3 o’clock and everyone started cooking.”
With no mikva in Houston at that time, Orthodox Jewish women had a choice of traveling to Galveston to immerse themselves in the Gulf of Mexico or making the seven hour round trip to San Antonio. The nearest synagogue that considered itself to be Orthodox had no mechitza.
“They considered themselves to be Orthodox because they used an Orthodox siddur,” said Mrs. Lazaroff.
Schooling was equally problematic. A Torah Umesorah day school moved in a less traditional direction when a new principal came on board, leaving the Lazaroffs to send their children to the school for socialization and secular studies, while home schooling them for limudei kodesh.
Over time, the Lazaroffs built a Chabad center with a mikvah, a synagogue and opened up Torah Day School with just seven children, five of which were their own. With that infrastructure in place, the Jewish community ultimately grew by leaps and bounds. Today Torah Day School has an enrollment of 160 students and there are 12 Chabad houses and 40 shluchim in Houston. A mother of 11 and a grandmother and great grandmother of many, Mrs. Lazaroff is proud to have both children and grandchildren who are shluchim.
Chaya Mushka Kramer grew up as the daughter of the Chabad shluchim to Little Rock, Arkansas and just recently returned to her hometown with her husband and two sons to help her parents. Thinking back to her childhood, Mrs. Kramer said she never remembers feeling deprived by the lack of kosher foods.
“When my mother brought us to New York we had our ice cream and then we said, ‘Okay, we are ready to go back home now,” said Mrs. Kramer.
Having to leave home by the time she started fourth grade was a far more daunting prospect.
“We had relatives in New York,” said Mrs. Kramer. “I would go for a week and then come back. We have a day school now but when my siblings get to high school they have to leave home.”
Rochel Telsner, who serves as the co-director of Chabad at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, has crafted a unique educational solution for her children.
“We drive to Chicago once a week, put them in school for a day and spend the night by my parents in Skokie,” said Mrs. Telsner. “We send them to school the next day also, stock up on kosher food and then drive back home. The school is very accommodating and supportive and the teachers send them work to do at home.”
The trip to Chicago takes approximately two and a half hours but Mrs. Telsner said she feels privileged to be in Normal where she and her husband run a variety of programs and host students on Friday nights.
“We love every aspect of our lives,” said Mrs. Telsner. “We live in an amazing community and are so blessed to be there.”
Mrs. Telsner was seated at the kinus with her sister, Chanala Cohen, of Kirkland, Quebec. Having been in Kirkland for 10 years, Mrs. Cohen said that she and her husband have found many Jews in the area ambivalent about their religious roots. Undaunted, the Cohens compiled a list of people who may be Jewish, focusing on names that sound Jewish and any home with a mezuza.
“We go door to door and have personal, one on one communication,” said Mrs. Cohen. “We call people, we meet people and we just show up at their door. It works a million times over.”
Mrs. Cohen bakes six pounds of challah every week, distributing it to Jews in Kirkland.
“Food is the pathway to the heart,” observed Mrs. Cohen. “Baruch Hashem it works. We try to get people interested one baby step at a time.”
Small steps are what brought director Ronen Peled Hadad of Israel to the kinus. After being told repeatedly by a local Chabad shaliach that he had to see a kinus firsthand, Peled Hadad’s wife bought him a ticket to come to New York in honor of his 40th birthday, ten years ago.
“I was here for two weeks and I connected with the Rebbe so much that I felt I couldn’t leave,” said Peled Hadad. “After a visit to the Ohel I wrote to the Rebbe that I needed to stay here and a few minutes later I got a ride to Crown Heights with someone who knew that I was a director, who asked me if I had any ideas for the kinus which was in a month.”
After sharing a few thoughts with Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Peled Hadad found himself tasked with directing the upcoming kinus. Since then, Peled Hadad has directed every kinus, both men’s and women’s, along with his wife Nurit, who serves as artistic director. Along the way, the two have found themselves drawn to a religious lifestyle.
The kinus featured heartwarming words from guest speaker Mrs. Judith Alter Kallman who spoke about her experiences as a five year old during the Holocaust and keynote speaker Mrs. Esther Wilhelm, who shared how she and her husband transformed the small town of Zhitomir into the Jewish center of the Western Ukraine. There was a special emphasis on children at the kinus, with more than 140 on-site babysitters tending to over 250 babies and dozens of sixth grade girls from all over the world entertaining the shluchos with a beautiful musical interlude. The girls were part of a separate kinus for young shluchos that included entertainment, visits to the Jewish Children’s Museum, Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel, a roller skating trip and a special banquet.
For most shluchos, the highlight of the kinus is the international roll call, acknowledging the many countries on six continents that have Chabad houses. This year, the roll call featured four sisters: Mrs. Chanie Wilhelm of Milford, Connecticut, Mrs. Gitty Weinman of Edinburgh, Scotland, Mrs. Mushky Laine of Hanoi, Vietnam and Mrs. Sarale Chanowitz of St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles.
Mrs. Chanowitz, the third youngest of the four sisters, said that while most people imagine she lives in paradise, living in St. Maarten is a far cry from visiting the island country where the average temperature hovers at 87 degrees with high humidity.
“Our lives are very simple,” said Mrs. Chanowitz. “We import all of our meats and cheeses and milk and make everything from scratch. People ask us what do you do for ice cream and pizza and candy and we tell them that we don’t have it and that is okay.”
Mrs. Chanowitz said that while many Jewish tourists visit St. Maarten each year, there are between two and three hundred Jews living on the island.
“Even though the number may be small, each Jew is a whole world,” said Mrs. Chanowitz.
The kinus was a rare opportunity for the sisters, who lives thousands of miles away from each other, to spend time together and to give their mother, Mrs. Bluma Hecht, co-director of Connecticut’s Chabad of Orange, a healthy dose of nachas.
“When I see the things that my children are doing, it’s just a beautiful thing,” said Mrs. Hecht.
Mrs. Hecht said that she looked forwarded to seeing her four married daughters reading the roll call.