Sister Time: Chabad Representatives Chill in New York

Sister Time: Chabad Representatives Chill in New York

by Dvora Lakein - New York

January 28, 2016

Their daily routines are intense. Many begin at dawn, mothering large families, leading day schools, preschools, and adult education courses that sustain and grow the communities they helped build. Calling it a day well past midnight, these women rarely get one off. Getting away for a few is rarer still.

Organizers behind the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchos, which opens Thursday evening in Brooklyn, appreciate this. It’s why they pack the five days with a rich menu of lectures, how-to workshops, support groups, and, for a change, the opportunity for these women to be wined and dined.

Over 1,800 representatives, many accompanied by community lay-leaders who participate in a parallel program, are arriving in Crown Heights for a weekend of intense study and networking. The conference serves as a continuing-education of sorts offering 65 workshops and sessions to ease their work. Timely discussions on “Contemporary Challenges and Alternative Lifestyles” and “The Shlichus of Safety” complement staples such as marketing, fundraising, and child-rearing.

There is also a slightly more prosaic perk. Leaving husbands, kids and kitchens behind, representatives get some “me time” too. Crown Heights’ main drag, Kingston Avenue, boasts of sales in honor of the women who convert their purchases back to Reals, Shekels, Rands, and Euros. And then there are the wigs, called sheitels, ubiquitous on this set. “My sheitel gets a redo every nine months,” laughs Chavie Bruk of Bozeman, Montana. “Of course, I’m getting it done.”

The neighborhood is rife with stylists, but for those who prefer to get pampered in-house, a salon in the corner of the colossal Brooklyn Armory, where most of the sessions take place, allows the women to have their tresses colored, cut, and styled while they learn about teen programs and adult education opportunities. It’s the ultimate power meeting for these women who have it all, and it’s just one of the ways the organizing committee acknowledges its guests’ varied needs.

Approximately 3,000 women will join the convention, known as the kinus, over the five-day span. They come from 85 countries, from communities and cultures so diverse, that the committee spends a year in planning-mode. The day after last year’s convention, says Rabbi Shneur Najar of the administrative committee, “we were brainstorming new ideas and collecting data from surveys to make the program perfect.” Considering the multitude of languages, customs, and demographics these women represent, the challenge is to devise a program that is at once individualized and simultaneously inclusive. Something akin to the test these representatives face every day out in the field.

For Bruk of Bozeman, population 39,800, it’s the sense of community that helps her “regroup and rejuvenate.” Bruk will be meeting her mother and three sisters, fellow Chabad representatives, but she will also be connecting with a broader sisterhood. Forget wigs, in Bozeman, medical care is scarce and even organizing summer camp is challenging. (“There is nowhere to take the kids on trips and there are no specialized arts, karate, and gymnastics teachers.”)

That’s where the Ufaratzta Circle comes in. Bruk is a member of this subset of representatives who live in tiny, rural locales. “It’s really nice to be part of a group in similar situations to me. Small cities have a whole set of challenges unknown in other places. We are attuned to each other’s needs, and encouraging of each other.” She will be presenting at Ufaratzta’s session Thursday, discussing the challenges of living in an isolated town.

“There are few greater powers than that of being together with the 'sisters,’” agrees Freidy Brackman, Chabad’s representative to Oxford University. “From a psychological perspective, the bonding and friendship has a huge impact, and that's before you consider the impact of the incredible workshops: teaching ideas, inspiration for different projects and support in dealing with the unique challenges our individual communities present.” In addition to general classes and programs, Brackman is an Oxford-trained psychodynamic counselor, working both with students on campus and at a women’s center nearby. In her varied roles, Brackman is a vocal proponent for women’s leadership. She offers the women on campus strong opportunities in the organization and to empower herself, she makes sure not to miss this enriching annual retreat.

As the year following the shemitta year, this convention, says Rivkie Kahanov, a 23-year veteran of Chabad in Jacksonville, “will be exceptional.” The theme, and this current year, is Hakhel, referring to the Biblical command to gather every seventh year in the Temple. The Lubavitcher Rebbe continually expressed the power this year holds and the organizers are tapping into that. “Each day we will focus on another aspect of Hakhel,” Kahanov explains, “examining the women’s role in this commandment as well as our essential connection with every Jewish person.” Coordinators intend for this Hakhel convention to trickle down to the cities and countries the women call home.

In 27 years as Chabad’s representative to Munich, Chanie Diskin has missed only two conventions. Calling herself, “an avid Kinus-goer,” Diskin returns to her native Crown Heights to “recharge my batteries, reconnect to my roots, and get inspiration for the coming year.” Over the years, and due to specific workshops, she has refined her programming in Germany, adding a Bar-Mitzvah Club 15 years ago and upgrading her women’s study options.

As a mentor for her colleagues, she meets mentees and gains new ones at each year’s convention. These connections, she says, are vital. “On a very personal level,” Diskin shares, “I have son with special needs. These women [in similar situations] are my only support group. There are so many facets to the challenges [representatives] face. The country they live in may not offer resources, they need to interact with their community, local support groups may not be Jewish, and Jewish support groups in big cities don’t understand our circumstances.” The convention hosts a brunch for women who are parenting special needs children, giving them a resource they draw upon all year.

The two years Diskin missed were due to the births of her children. This year, she also won’t make it. A “spiritual child,” a boy she taught to read Hebrew, is celebrating his Bar-Mitzvah this Shabbat. The family is hosting a Bat Mitzvah party which they've decided would be kosher--a reflection of how their choices have been inspired by the Diskins. And so, as is true for other shluchot whose community commitments will keep them from joining, she’ll defer this year’s conference.

She doesn’t see it as a conflict. After all, she says in a phone conversation from Germany, “isn’t this what it’s all about?”

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