Four Days In February


by Baila Olidort - LUBAVITCH HEADQUARTERS, NY

January 20, 2004

Sara Blumenfeld is making last minute arrangements before she leaves to New York for the Annual International Conference of Shluchos (Chabad women emissaries)February 11-16. It’s a big event for her and her children—there are seven of them—because relative to Brooklyn, where the Conference takes place, Lima, Peru seems like another planet. Mother, teacher, mentor, and friend to so many, Sara's days are packed with commitments, and leisure time has no slot on her calendar.

Thanks to the pluck and perseverance of the Blumenfelds--Chabad-Lubavitch representatives to Lima for the past sixteen years--today, Jewish families there enjoy an abundance of kosher food and a traditional Jewish community. But for Sara, life in Lima--a stark contrast to the intensely vibrant Jewish town of Kfar Chabad, Israel where she was raised--is not without an occasional sense of longing for the warmth of family and familiar faces from back home.

Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim, unlike all others who do outreach, make lifelong commitments to their respective communities. So they are grateful for all the resources that contribute to the success of their work and help them sustain their ardor over the long haul. The Conference, which offers a wide range of workshops, seminars and presentations of interest to Shluchos, is planned expressly for this purpose. But, say the Shluchos, more than that, the Conference provides them with a rare opportunity to reconnect with friends and family from back home, and participate in a vibrant exchange with others who share the same values and life commitments.

In a four-day role reversal, most of the Shluchos who come to the Conference leave their children at home with their husbands, and plan ahead so that most of the community programs they direct, continue uninterrputed.

Like Sara, the 1300 women expected at this year’s Conference are all women in leadership positions and make up a vital part of the Chabad-Lubavitch human resources team, without which the Chabad Houses and Chabad communities around the world would not exist. They represent Jewish communities in some 65 countries worldwide and run the gamut from young newlyweds in their early twenties, to grandmothers in their 50s and 60s. Like Sara, most are mothers in a perpetual juggler’s act, balancing demands that compete for their attention, vie for their talents, and daily test their endurance, resourcefulness and stamina. They are principals, administrators, board members, and program directors with a coherent sense of purpose.

Esti Grossbaum, representative to the Jewish community of Thornhill, Ontario for the last 30 years, is on the planning board of the Conference. (The Conference is always scheduled to correspond to 22 Shevat—the Hebrew yahrzeit date of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Moussia Schneerson.) Mother of 11 and grandmother to many more, Esti steals hours every year from her load of responsibilities as co-director of Chabad of Thornhill, to help plan a program addressing the concerns, needs and interests of Shluchos. During the months before the Conference, she travels to New York for periodic meetings where she and her colleagues brainstorm. With five of her married children serving as Shluchos—in Halifax, England, Florida and Thornhill (she got lucky, she says, to have one of her children fill a post in her city)—Esti is thoroughly familiar with the challenges that are unique to a much younger generation of Shluchos.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Back to Basics”—will revisit the 12 point mitzvah campaign introduced by the Rebbe. But Esti is keeping an eye open for any opportunity to share with the younger generation of Shluchos, the inspiration she and her colleagues drew from the Rebbe in their work during the his lifetime. She explains: “We set out on Shlichus [mission] during the lifetime of the Rebbe, when we enjoyed direct correspondence and personal guidance from him, which was enormously motivating for us.” Esti expresses amazement the younger generation of Shluchos who seem to have the same fervor and commitment to a life of Shlichus. “Many of these young Shluchos were only small children when they last saw the Rebbe.”

According to Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the social services and educational divisions at Lubavitch World Headquarters, the number of young couples applying for Shlichus positions, grows daily. “In the past two years, 75 Chabad Houses have opened. “This pace continues unabated, with young men and women passionately committed to the Rebbe’s Shlichus,” he says.

Miriam Esther Wilhelm, in her 20s, from Chicago where she grew up in a large, religious Jewish community, is of this younger generation. As Esti points out, Miriam’s commitment to the Rebbe’s legacy is imbued with equal fervor, owing perhaps to having been raised as the daughter of Shluchim herself. Now serving in Knoxville, Tennessee since 2001, she and her husband have made inroads to a community that knew very little about Torah-observant Jews, much less about the lifestyle. Today, this small bible belt community of 2500 Jews has warmed to the Wilhelms and the full range of dynamic educational and social programs they launched. And while Miriam Esther wouldn’t mind a steady turnout of hundreds at every event—as is typical of Chabad in larger communities—the 30 to 60 who come to the monthly Shabbos dinners at Chabad, are worthy of her best efforts all the same, she says.

For Miriam Esther and hundreds of Shluchos like her, the Conference has planned a track to address the dynamics and challenges unique to small communities. But Miriam Esther says she sees the Conference as an opportunity to learn from veteran Shluchos, and draw strength from them. “They are an extremely valuable resource and have so much to offer.” This will be her third Conference as a Shlucha. “Sometimes,” she says, “the most important thing I get from the Conference is learning that I am not alone in the difficulties that I may find. I discover that they are normal and commonplace, especially when you are trying to build a Jewish community from the ground up, as we are in Knoxville. And that is wonderfully encouraging.”

Perhaps one of the greatest hurdles facing Shluchos today is their children’s schooling. Faygy Matusof, a Shlucha to the campus town of Madison, Wisconsin since the early 80s, and mother of 12, knows this terrain well. With no local day school that would meet her requirements of a solid Jewish education for her children, (and with Madison being a university town with a highly transient population making the opening of a day school—an eventual development for many Shluchos—a non-starter here), she’s experimented with various forms of home schooling and sent her children to schools out of town at very young ages.

“Sending my children away from home was the hardest thing for me to do,” says Faygy. She now homeschools three of her younger children, and sends the 8-9 and 10 year olds periodically, to a Chabad yeshiva in Chicago, two and a half hours away, for short periods, “just so that they get the feet wet and gradually ease into the idea of going to school out-of-town.”

According to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of the educational division at Lubavitch World Headquarters, “most of the metropolitan cities all have at least one, if not several Chabad Houses, and new appointments are typically made to smaller cities,” where there is no Jewish day school, or the quality of the Jewish education is not up to par. That leaves many Shluchos with the formidable task of homeschooling--and many have become experts and authorities on homeschooling--or, alternatively, sending their children to out-of-town schools at a decidedly young age.

But Faygy has no regrets. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says. Her children—her oldest is now 22—have been raised with a deep sense of idealism, and know what it means to give of themselves for a greater cause. “The sacrifice they’ve made has molded them into who they are. And they are proud to have been part of our Shlichus at such a young age. This was their contribution to the Rebbe’s Shlichus,” says Faygy.

Sara, Faygy, Esti, Miriam Esther and thousands others like them invest their lives, the lives of their children and community, with a profound commitment to sharing Judaism and perpetuating a deeply Jewish way of life. In good Chabad tradition, they never rest on their laurels, and look back only insofar as it gives them inspiration to forge ahead.

Across the board, all the Shluchos look forward to those four days in February, every year, when they come to New York for a conference that inspires them anew. “I love being there—being at the Conference takes me back to my roots, and I’m surrounded by friends and family who are all doing the same thing I am. There’s no one better than fellow shluchos with whom to share the triumphs and tribulations of life as a Shlucha.

"The energy of all these dynamic women is powerful. I’m always uplifted when I return home from the Conference,” Faygy says.

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