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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Female Chabad emissaries share experiences at NY gathering

When Dina Freundlich came to Beijing with her husband and two young daughters six years ago, there was no significant Jewish infrastructure. The community had never had a rabbi, there was no Jewish school, no kosher meat and only a very limited number of kosher food items were available.

Six years later, the community has grown tremendously. The Freundlich family, sent as Chabad emissaries, established a Sunday school and a Montessori school, and they brought over a butcher who enables them to supply kosher meat to four cities in China. They also spearheaded the building of a mikve (ritual bath), the first in China since World War II, which includes Chinese touches such as a pagoda and a carved dome ceiling, as well as a jacuzzi, multi-jet shower and massage services.

Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 Jews live in Beijing - employees of embassies, academics, students and foreign businessmen. About 3,000 Jews visit each year.

Freundlich is one of 2,000 female Chabad emissaries who came to New York from as far away as Singapore and Uzbekistan last week to learn from each other's experiences and to discuss the future of the movement. Topics addressed included the "revival" of world Jewry, contending with terrorism, leveraging the latest technology for spiritual outreach, and "breaking the ice" in new communities.

"Sometimes I go to bed thinking I've been pulled in a million directions, but I feel I've done something to make the world a better place," said Freundlich, who grew up as an emissary child in South Africa.

Chabad's emissary movement has trained and ordained thousands of rabbis, educators, ritual slaughterers and ritual circumcisers, together with their wives, to establish communities around the world aimed at Jewish outreach. Today there are roughly 4,000 emissary families, with growth of about 100 families each year.

"It makes me proud to fulfill the dream of the Rebbe [the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] to create a home for every Jew in the world, and I am proud to be a part of his team," said Freundlich.

The five day conference ended Sunday night at the Brooklyn Marriott, at a gala dinner that also served as a tribute to Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, widow of the late Rebbe. All the women were dressed in skirts and long sleeves, but it was clear that contemporary fashion had slipped through the cracks. Tight, form-fitting skirts, patent leather belts, and fashionable boots were all part of the evening attire.

Contrary to popular perception Chabad insists that women are not insular, nor are they secondary to men. On top of juggling large families, women run Chabad houses on college campuses, provide substance abuse counseling and share the responsibilities with their spouses.

"It is a perception that comes from judging things that are synagogue based, but Judaism is not a synagogue based religion," said Rivkah Slonim, an emissary at the University of Binghamton, where her and her husband run one of the largest and most successful Chabad houses in the country. "Ninety-nine percent of ritual doesn't take place in the synagogue."

Women and men are equally obligated to study the Torah required to observe mitzvoth, but women, unlike men, are not required to study above and beyond that because of their household obligations, Slonim said.

"The Rebbe going back all the way to the first, greatly encouraged women to develop every aspect of their personality including their intellect."
The late Rebbe recognized that in contemporary times, where women have more time, and are not just engaged in day to day household activities, they need to use their time to study Torah, according to Slonim.

"Certainly the contemporary Chabad woman does not see herself as disconnected from Torah study."

The rift between motherhood and professional life is less of an issue in the Chabad world, according to Sara Esther Crispe, editor of TheJewishWoman.org, a Chabad website launched a year ago that offers intellectual, emotional and spiritual writings on a range of women's issues including motherhood, and marriage.

On top of juggling large families, the women run Chabad houses on college campuses, provide substance abuse counseling, and share in their husbands' responsibilities.

Chabad women and men are equally obligated to study the Torah, but the women are not required to study beyond that because of their household obligations, said Rivkah Slonim, an emissary at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she and her husband run one of the largest Chabad houses in the US.

"The rebbes, going back all the way to the first, greatly encouraged women to develop every aspect of their personality, including their intellect," she said.

Sara Esther Crispe, editor of TheJewishWoman.org, a year old Chabad Web site that offers intellectual, emotional and spiritual writings on a range of women's issues including motherhood and marriage, said, "In the modern world, there is always a big rift, either you are a good mother, or you have a career. There is major pressure to choose, but these women [the emissaries] have shown that you can simultaneously do both."

Many of their daughters, "little emissaries," also came to New York for the conference, a rare chance to socialize with others like themselves. The kids participated in seminars on how to deal with cultural isolation.

At one point, they were asked to compare where they were from and where they get their kosher nosh (snacks). The girls were thrilled to be in New York, where they had all the kosher snacks they desired.

The night ended with a roll call by country, and then the emissaries were asked to rise by their decades of service. It began with just a few, and as the decades passed more and more women stood until the whole room was standing.

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