- Social & Humanitarian
- The Rebbe
Family, Leadership and Then Some
October 6, 2014
It’s that time of year when hosting an endless stream of guests over the Sukkot holiday (three days in a row this year=six festive, multi-course meals) and then again for the last days of Sukkot=preparation for hosting another six meals, becomes a breathless marathon. Although men are often helpmates in the kitchen, for the most part, the women choreograph the production.
In a departure from traditional attitudes, the Lubavitcher Rebbe raised the profile of the woman, placing her at the center of the project of Shlichut. Leaders in their respective communities, Chabad Shluchot are often responsible for fundraising, administration, curriculum planning, education and counseling. That they do all this while raising large, happy families (their biological ones) and extended ones (students and others), speaks to their rare appreciation for Chabad’s ideal of the integrated life, inspiring many a college student to follow their example.
Miriam Lipskier grew up dreaming about going to college.
Not for a degree perhaps, but instead, to share Jewish wisdom with many students otherwise signed up for American Lit 101 or Organic Chemistry. Lipskier’s parents became Jewishly observant during their own college years (her father at the University of Maryland and her mother at Cooper Union), and this, she felt, would be the perfect way to give back. A few months after marrying Rabbi Zalman in 2000, the two opened the doors of the Chabad House at Atlanta’s Emory University.
“We were idealistic, passionate, ready to start a Jewish revolution on campus,” recalls Lipskier. “But we didn’t have a clue,” she laughs.
Nowadays, there is a strong network supporting of campus shluchim, some 150 altogether, which provides members with solutions to common dilemmas, and offers budgeting advice. But no such initiative existed when the Lipskiers started out and the learning curve was steep. Pulling out of financial trouble and figuring out the minutiae of campus life has not only helped Lipskier advise younger shluchim, including three of her siblings also on campuses, but has forced her to create her own, workable equilibrium.
The Lipskiers and their seven children share their large brick home with hundreds of students. There’s the living room, where students pop in to study or chat, an expansive kitchen responsible for thousands of meals each month. The dining room, large enough only for “small Shabbat meals” (of up to 80 people) is adjacent to a permanent tent that holds 200 guests. Regularly.
“No one comes upstairs, there’s nothing there except bedrooms,” Lispkier says. Instead, the top floor is a “safe place for the kids to go when they need time by themselves.” It’s also where she puts the younger ones to bed before protracted Shabbat meals.
Lipskier equates campus life to “a roller coaster: all semester it’s busy, there’s no breathing, no sitting down. You just have to buckle your seat belt and hang on.” And then come the inevitable lulls, two months off during the summer, another month in December. “The calendar gives you balance, the semester does not.”
“Miriam is a time-management pro,” shares Randi Braun, who graduated from Emory in 2010. “I learned from Miriam that you have to be proactive and plan, but that you have to be adaptable and ready to take things day by day. I’m always amazed not only by how she physically gets it done, but how relaxed and unflappable she is in doing it all. It’s part of what makes their home such an inviting place for students and a refuge from the stresses of attending a top-20 school.”
But how does she do it? How does she prepare six consecutive Sukkot meals for scores of students, a Seder for 200, days after giving birth? How does she teach a class to college students while her own children are bouncing around upstairs?
An Integrated Approach
“I don’t compartmentalize,” she insists. “It’s all part of my life. It all has to get done and it doesn’t matter which category the ‘where’ and ‘what’ fall into.” Giving a class, preparing massive meals, shepherding her children around town, and playing therapist to a student in need, are all a small part of a day’s work. But there’s “me time” built in there too. Going for a jog or a manicure “are no less important than the other things I need to do. Everyone in my life needs a happier person and no one benefits if I ignore myself.”
Her grounded approach was a surprise to Braun, who came to Chabad with preconceived notions. “I thought that religious women were considered second-class citizens in their own communities; subjugating their needs, desires, and aspirations to be baby-making-cooking-cleaning machines so that their husbands could study Torah all day. Miriam is certainly a prime example of the independent, intellectual, and strong religious woman, who is an equal partner in her home and an important force for learning and inspiration for her community.”
In the Lipskier household, Zalman is as likely to be found doing domestic tasks (“nothing too big or too small for him,”) as she is to be presenting a Torah thought at the Shabbat meal. “My greatest secret to sanity and balance is my husband,” shares Lipskier. “He is right there by my side.”
Chabad women often leave their community members wondering how they pull it all together so well. “These women aren’t barely holding it together,” said Sarah Gross, a doctoral student who has met many Shluchot while traveling. “They are amazingly gifted, executing so many disparate responsibilities at once, and doing it all with a lot of graciousness and laughter.”
Mrs. Shula Bryski, representative to Thousand Oaks, California, and a mother of six, says that the Rebbe “empowered women in a way perhaps never done before.” Embracing modernity, the Rebbe understood that today, “women need more sophisticated Judaism, more depth, more spirituality.”
Bryski’s personal emphasis in this affluent Los Angeles suburb is educating women through a weekly Caffeine for the Soul class, monthly Rosh Chodesh Society meetings, and the wildly-popular bat-mitzvah classes she leads. Bryski also serves on the editorial board of the Rosh Chodesh Society, a project of Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) and is a prolific writer.
“When the women first meet me, they seem surprised that a Chasidic Chabad woman can be worldly and that her wisdom is accessible. ‘The Torah does not just belong to the rabbi,’ I tell them. ‘It is equally our inheritance too.’ That really intrigues them.”
Notwithstanding her focus on education, she insists that the most effective influence in her community is her relationship with her family. “”A healthy society stems from strong, healthy families. I hope that when people see my family as the heart and center of my life, they will increase their mindfulness in making their families their priority.”
Mindfulness is an important beacon for Bryski. She intentionally does not own a cellphone so that long car rides to and from school and time at home can be spent focusing on her children. After each holiday, she and her husband ask their kids (who range in age from 16 months to 13 years old) to rate their holiday experience on a scale of one to 10. The rating leads to discussions about the meaning and challenges of the holiday and ways to make it more pleasant in the future.
“The Rebbe talked about shlichut being a seamless whole,” she observes. “It makes no difference if I’m giving a class or playing with my kids in the park, it is all equally important; all part of my mission.
“Many women, if they’re honest, struggle with feelings that they should be doing more for their kids, more for their communities. I keep my children’s emotional well-being front and center, and this guides me in knowing how much to take on, and what activities to drop. There’s still a struggle to strike the right balance, but I use my mothering as a focal point.”
With mothering in mind, Bryski decided to scale back on Shabbat meal guests, a family tradition long enjoyed. The Bryskis still host regularly, but often on a smaller scale, making time for their children to take center stage as well. “For us, for now,” she says, “it’s time to focus on our kids.”
Between 3 and 7 pm, Lipskier doesn’t answer the phone (“usually the world will go on without me”). But even during that hectic family time, students pop in to do homework on the couch or grab a bite of the family’s supper. One girl showed up at 5:30, three times a week. “Was she just hungry?” wondered Lipskier as she dished out another portion.
Not hungry for food. Raised as a latchkey kid, warming her dinner in the microwave, alone each evening, the student, Miriam soon learned, “couldn’t get enough of this crazy, cool family. She told me it was more therapeutic than years of therapy and medication.”
After 14 years of hectic semesters, Lipskier has come to realize that, “I need to do what I need to do, and that’s not always running programs. A lot of the time, students learn the most from watching our family, from being with us. And that’s how it should be.”
Nobody Said It Would Be Easy
Today, with 5,000 Shluchot worldwide, Chabad women have the support of a vast network of colleagues to learn from. They network with Shluchot serving similar demographics (students, preschoolers, young professionals, seniors) with older Shluchot who can speak from years of experiences, with those raising large families like themselves.
Rashi Minkowicz was co-director of Chabad of North Fulton in Alpharetta, Georgia and mother of eight children. When she passed away tragically, suddenly, this past March, her colleagues were devastated. Rashi was a role model to them, a woman who “seemed to have it down pat,” said Miriam Lipskier.
For 14 years, Rashi and Lipskier were close friends: Alpharetta is 30 minutes from Emory and the two talked and texted regularly. “She was incredible at managing huge amounts of responsibilities,” recalls Lipskier. “‘What are you doing today?’ and ‘how are you getting it done? “We discussed our lives all the time.”
Beloved by her community, Rashi, says her husband, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz, “always put the children first. Somehow, she still figured out a way to satisfy the community’s needs to the best of her ability. But if it ever came to needing to choose between the two (and it did happen) she chose the family first. The dedicated people in the community understood.”
Rashi is remembered for a great many accomplishments, among them the successful camp that she directed. Teenagers vied for the opportunity to work for her and hundreds of former counselors recall her open home (which they lived in during the summer), and her contagious warmth. In an interview in The N’shei Chabad Newsletter shortly before her sudden passing, Rashi shared some of her feelings about balancing her personal needs with those of her staff.
Hosting 20 camp counselors each summer comes with its own set of complications, Rashi explained. “Some may say having girls live with them is not worth the headache and challenges, and for someone like me who is pretty OCD by nature, it truly is an invasion of space and privacy.
“To cope, I spend a few weeks before the girls arrive in a meditation of sorts to get into a mindset where ‘nothing bothers me’ and to be able to live in a sort of out-of-body experience for the five weeks. I really work hard on my attitude and perspective before it all begins so that I am in a good place mentally. In this frame of mind the mess doesn’t bother me and the noise and the chaos and the drama and the busted sewers and the sticky countertops . . . it’s all part of what we have we have to do to have a successful camp and we learn to laugh instead of cry and smile when we want to scream. All I can say is that the proof is in the pudding: it has worked for us over and over again each summer.”
While she always included her kids peripherally in her community work, Rashi and her husband believed strongly in giving their children a regular childhood. “The children need to focus on their schooling, education and growth,” said Rabbi Minkowicz. “In the more recent years, as the kids were getting older, Rashi would involve them a little more hands-on with some of the activities such as running the kids service on Shabbos.
On March 11, Rashi wasn’t feeling well, but her house had already filled up with women from the community who were coming to her popular Torah & Tea class. Rashi’s daughters, ages 10 and 11, had observed their mother leading the class many times. This one, only days before Purim, would include hamantashen baking, and the girls had offered to stand in for their mom while she went to rest, so that it wouldn’t be necessary to cancel the class.
Sharing her thoughts in that interview shortly before her untimely passing, Rashi’s words resound with wisdom and pragmatism, indispensable to her friends and fellow Shluchos as they reflect—and reflect they do—on their roles as mothers, women, community leaders.
“Nobody said it was easy, but who said anything is supposed to be easy? Hard doesn’t mean not worth it or not possible.”