From China to Mexico, Message at Chabad Women’s Banquet Was Love

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Two weeks ago to the day, as the COVID-19 coronavirus was rapidly spreading through the Chinese city of Wuhan, Rochel Kalmenson and her husband, Rabbi Yekutiel Kalmenson, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Ningbo, China, and their three young children, boarded a flight to Shanghai and then on to New York.

“Until then, it wasn’t obvious what we should do. It wasn’t yet dangerous to remain, and we knew we had to stay as long as our community was still there,” recalls Rochel Kalmenson as she sits among 3,100 Chabad women emissaries, friends and supporters at one of the hundreds of round tables at tonight’s gala banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos) in Brooklyn, N.Y. Two weeks ago, on Friday just hours before Shabbat, they learned that the last Jewish family in their city—a mere three-hour train ride from Wuhan—was leaving, and made the difficult decision to head out as well, flying out of Ningbo on Sunday. A few days later, coronavirus was spreading through Ningbo, and mass quarantines began.

While their community—made up mostly of international businesspeople from Israel, Europe and the United States—is spread around the world and no end in sight for the coronavirus, the Kalemensons’ work goes on.

They are in daily touch with their community, including with the 10 children in their Hebrew school, who are together with their families in Israel or Thailand for the time being.“On the 15th of Shevat, I sent out the worksheets and curriculums to the children so they can at least have Hebrew school at home,” says Kalmenson, who has served as Chabad emissary in Ningbo for the last three years. “Our school is now international,” she adds wryly, noting they still have no idea when they will be able to return.Kalmenson’s story is not unusual for the room of Jewish women leaders. In fact, the part of Kalmenson’s story that most resonated with her fellow emissaries sitting at her table was her reluctance to leave the city she calls home.“People ask me how it is that I can live 100 miles from Jewish infrastructure, kosher pizza, a school for my children,” says Manya Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, as she stands in the foyer outside the hall. “But the truth is I love my life; I have the mission and responsibility—together with my sisters, both literal and figurative, around the world—to share the vision of the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] with those around me, to bring sanctity and holiness to the world. It’s a privilege.”The women emissaries have been gathering each year since 1991, timed to coincide with the anniversary of passing of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, on 22 Shevat. Like the counterpart men’s Kinus, the women join together for five days of workshops, classes and meals, where they can reconnect, brainstorm and return home to their families and communities reinvigorated.

Honoring the Rebbetzin

With LED lights, carpets and chandeliers suspended from the rafters, the gigantic New York State Armory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn was transformed for the evening gala banquet. Mussie Kesselman, co-director of Chabad of Greenville, S.C., emceed the event, sharing her own family’s close relationship with the Rebbetzin.

The Rebbetzin was a very private person, but, knowing that Kesselman’s mother, at the time a 17-year-old girl studying in Crown Heights, was likely feeling lonely, she called her dorm and left a message with her mother’s roommate.

“Please tell Chaya that Mrs. Schneerson from President Street called, and if she could please call me back,” the Rebbetzin said. Kesselman’s mother got the message and called back immediately.

In the call, Kesselman explained, “the Rebbetzin expressed that … my mother … might be feeling homesick and lonely, and she wanted her to know that she had a friend in the neighborhood.

“Tonight, on her yahrteziet, I reflect on the personal stories of the Rebbetzin I have heard from my parents and grandparents,” added Kesselman. “ … Every moment brings opportunity for interaction. And in every interaction, I have the ability to channel the Rebbetzin’s sensitivity and connection to be there for the person I am engaging with. And thus, I share her sensitivity further. And so can you.”

The next speaker, Sorah Shemtov, co-director of Chabad of Riverdale in New York, built on the theme. When she was a girl growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., her father had served as the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s doctor, and so she had the opportunity to visit the Rebbetzin a number of times at her home. When she was 20 years old and about to become engaged, she visited the Rebbetzin to share the news. When the Rebbetzin heard the last name of the young man she was going to marry, her face lit up.

“Then I’m very happy because now I know you’ll speak in Yiddish to your children, and that’s very important,” the Rebbetzin told her. To Shemtov, having been brought up in an English-speaking home, this was a novel idea but one she committed to memory.

Years went by, and the couple were not blessed with children. Shemtov and her husband prayed, and made special trips to her gravesite. “I’m ready to speak Yiddish,” she’d say. “But where are the children?”

Twelve years later, on an evening following the men’s International Conference, her father-in-law sat at a Chassidic gathering and implored those gathered to give a blessing and say a l’chaim that his son and daughter-in-law be blessed with children.

“Three months later, I attended the Kinus for shluchos,” Shemtov told the audience, “this Kinus, having just completed my first trimester! And [thank G‑d], a few months later gave birth to our twins, Chaya Mushka and Menachem Mendel, and a few years later, to our son Yosef.

“Dear sister shluchos, family, friends,” Shemtov concluded, “This is a giant and yet intimate Chassidic farbrengen. Tonight is the Rebbetzin’s yahrzeit, and we are all her children. The incredible energy in this room is simply a manifestation of the immense power and potential we have to bless one another. May … our prayers and supplications, our l’chaims and heartfelt wishes to one another pierce the heavenly gates.”

Filling a Dual Role

Women who are on the one hand leaders of their Jewish communities while at the same time the backbones of their families, and homelife was on full display at the gala banquet, shared in stories, speeches and video. It’s an idea that’s second nature to the gathered, but wasn’t always so obvious.

“This was the Rebbe’s innovation,” asserts Rebbetzin Bassie Garelik, who together with her husband, Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, was sent to Milan, Italy, by the Rebbe in 1958. “That we had a foundational role grounding our families and building a home, but at the same time should be principals, camp directors, movers and shakers. My husband always supported any of my endeavors because he knew that’s exactly what the Rebbe wanted.”

She notes that when the women’s conference began it was all geared to the women all the time. When the Rebbe addressed the women, it was them in the central synagogue, while the men packed into the women’s section.

“That the women’s central role in the mission, in the shlichus, is not a euphemism,” says Garelik. “We always saw and felt that that was exactly the way the Rebbe saw it, and he treated us in that way.”

Dini Freundlich, longtime Chabad emissary to Beijing, China, addresses the room full of emissaries and guests.
Dini Freundlich, longtime Chabad emissary to Beijing, China, addresses the room full of emissaries and guests.

This idea was echoed in both the keynote and moving videos presented over the course of the evening. Keynote speaker Dini Freundlich, co-director of Chabad of Beijing, China—who, like Kalmenson, has been in New York for the last two weeks while her husband remains in Beijing assisting their much larger Jewish community—spoke of the young Jewish woman who had fallen into a trap and was being held against her will by her Chinese fiance in the city of Weifang. They had walked into a hotel in the city managed by an Israeli who eight years earlier had known the Fruendlichs when he lived in Beijing. Seeing the odd couple and realizing that the girls spoke no Chinese while the man spoke no Hebrew or English, he became suspicious and called Dini.

“I got on the train and headed to Weifeng. I had no idea what to expect, but I was determined to go and at least try to see her,” recalled Freundlich. She was met there by the Israeli, named Ohad, and spent a long day with the girl, who was scared and alone. Later that evening, the two of them sat on a high-speed train rocketing to Beijing.

“It’s not only about the big buildings, the huge numbers or the fancy dinners,” emphasized Fruendlich. “It’s about the person, the individual, the smile, the simple loving act that seems insignificant to you at the time, but means the world to the recipient, the small act that can actually be the catalyst to save a life!”

Mushkie Hecht’s story was not unsimilar. In the video presentation, the co-director of Chabad of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, recalled how this past Chanukah an American girl named Maya Weiss had come into their Chabad center as she backpacked through the area and spent a week with them. When it was time to leave, Maya and her traveling partner began hiking to the next village, Yelapa.

The two got split up at a point and Weiss became lost. She wandered for a few days, unable to find phone reception or civilization. She began penning her last will and testament in a notebook she had with her. When she made a last ditch effort to climb one more mountain, she saw the ocean in the distance and cell phone reception.

“I didn’t know who to call and then I remembered Mushkie in Chabad,” Weiss recalled. Hecht picked up. “I’ve been lost for days and my phone’s about to die but I need to come out of here,” Weiss pleaded.

Hecht told Weiss to share her location with her and stay where she was. Hecht asked a family member to bring a prayer to the Rebbe’s Ohel, his resting place in Queens, for Maya to return safely, packed her children into the car and drove to the police station. While the police were unhelpful, a private security company was enlisted, and a few hours later they found Maya.

“When they located Maya my children just started dancing,” Hecht shared with a cheering audience. “All the emotion was let loose.”

“After what felt like forever,” Weiss continued, “I saw the Chabad sign and Mushkie standing outside with all the police and security people and I realized I was back, I was safe.”

I Was Lost in the Mexican Jungle, click for video.

Back in the foyer, Lazaroff—who moved to College Station together with her husband, Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff, 21 years ago, and is attending her 20th Kinus gathering (she missed the one that took place just after she gave birth to triplets)—says it’s the energy in the room, shared in story and snippets of conversation, that is the highlight of her Kinus experience.

“It’s the power of feminine energy in this room,” she says. “The Rebbe knew that the secret weapon is the Jewish woman and her ability to imbue her surroundings and ultimately the world with light. That’s our job wherever we find ourselves.”

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