I was deeply touched last week when so many friends who read my message replied by email and text offering to help me with the kids while Mussie was out of town. Well, I'm glad to share that she got back home safely on Monday night, after spending an invigorating weekend at the Chabad women's leadership conference in NY.
Thinking about the tremendous accomplishment of those thousands of women who had gathered last week, and the positive influence they each have leading their families and serving their communities, made me look back at Jewish and Chasidic history to gain an understanding of how this all came about.
This attitude was started by the Rebbe at the very beginning of his leadership, and reminded me of a story my grandmother Susha Alperowitz tells of a personal experience she had with the Rebbe in 1962.
During the late 1950s and early 60s, she served as president of the Neshi Chabad and editor of its magazine. The periodical contained Torah insights, talks from the Rebbe, recent community news and other matters relevant to its readership.
Once when my grandmother had a private meeting with the Rebbe, the discussion turned to the magazine, and the Rebbe suggested that the next issue include a rendition of his recent talk on the Song of Miriam at the Exodus and how it differed from the men's singing.
It was a scholarly talk the Rebbe had given some weeks earlier, during which he explained the difference of these songs, citing Talmudic, Midrashic and Kabbalistic teachings, and the relevant message it had for women as role models for their families spirituality today.
When my grandmother heard the Rebbe's suggestion she immediately thought to herself that there was no way she could possibly prepare such an article herself. Its depth and breadth, citations and complexities, would be beyond her ability to fully comprehend, let alone write up for print. She doubted her ability and credentials to adequately accomplish this task. However, she had an idea. Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, a prominent Chabad scholar and author of a commentary on the Tanya, had just delivered a lecture on the Rebbe's talk, so she figured it would make perfect sense for her to ask him.
"I will ask Rabbi Weinberg to prepare it" my grandmother said to the Rebbe.
My grandmother recalls how the Rebbe replied to her, with words that she can never forget and that have guided her ever since "Why do you need Rabbi Weinberg to do it when you can do it on your own?"
This was 1963.
It's no wonder then that in 2023, the Kinus Hashluchos (Chabad Women's Leadership Conference) is the largest network of female leaders in the world. A group of 6000+ women from different languages, backgrounds, personalities and even ethnicities, including the world's largest cohort of Gen Z Jewish leaders, all "in it together" gathering once a year to share inspiration and strength.
You know the saying "behind every Chabad community leader is... her husband."
Well, I'm home alone this weekend with the kids as Mussie spends time in New York at the annual Chabad women's leadership conference. She is catching up with friends and family from around the world, including from the other 49 states and 107 different countries.
Earlier this morning, Mussie and thousands of her colleagues gathered for their annual "class photo." Just before that another "class photo" was taken, with over 1500 girls who dedicatedly serve world Jewry alongside their parents today, and are the future of Jewish leadership tomorrow.
These group photos of Chabad women and girls are symbolic of what amazes the world most about Chabad. Alongside Chabad’s staggering growth, its tremendous focus on women leadership is a trend setter. This phenomenon is unparalleled in Jewish organizations and unprecedented in history, and dates back to the early days of the Rebbe's leadership in 1951.
Chabad manages to seamlessly balance the modern ideals of women leadership and influence with age-old traditions, meaningfully and positively. As Rivka Slonim said, Chabad philosophy has offered her the ability to look beyond the individual issues to the totality of Judaism.
Every aspect of the the organizational, educational, spiritual and social work of the Chabad Jewish Center of South Dakota, is only possible due to Mussie’s co-directorship.
This is true for the 6000+ Chabad institutions around the world. Be it a school, a shul, a mikveh, a soup kitchen, a preschool or library, and many many more, they are all jointly directed by the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin in complete partnership.
Juggling the duties and responsibilities of Jewish womanhood as guided by our rich heritage and sacred traditions, of being a mother and a leader in the community, is an extremely rewarding task, and one that provides us all with a deeper sense of meaning and spirituality.
In South Dakota, we owe our thanks to Mussie.
One of my highlights from the Chabad leadership conference that I recently attended in NY, was gathering with some 6500 colleagues and friends, and hearing the announcement that Chabad was opening a new country; Zambia.
Many have never heard of Zambia, and most can’t place it on the map. But Zambia is now the 109th country with a Chabad. There is a tiny Jewish population there, and it has been over 75 years since a rabbi has lived there.
The young couple who chose to dedicate their life to the Jewish community there, are Rivky and Mendy Hertzel. Rivky was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and Mendy is from Rosh Pinah, Israel. Together, they made a decision to leave their families, friends and comfort zone, to move to a place where they could be in service of the Jewish community. A place where they feel they could do their part to strengthen our people with love, and ensure Jewish continuity, vibrancey and warmth.
They are a gifted young couple that could have chosen comfortable careers in this country where they currently live. Instead they chose the path of service to others. To live life a little higher.
Many are amazed by this. But Rivky and Mendy don't feel amazing at all. They feel they are living a life of meaning and purpose.
It’s not every day that you meet a couple like this. Where, may I ask, does their attitude come from?
As they were preparing to leave, an elderly Sephardic man from Brooklyn named Yerachmiel Glazer contacted them. He had a story to share with them. He told them that he was born and raised in Zambia, and lived there through his young adult life.
But there was more. As a teenager, he went to study in Israel, and while there met Chabad and decided to travel to New York to meet theRebbe. When he visited the Rebbe in 1969, the Rebbe encouraged him to go back to Zambia and share with the local Jews the newly acquired Torah knowledge he had learned in Israel. Although he was not a rabbi, and still only had minimal education, the Rebbe urged him to send letters to the people living there, with relevant information for the Shabbat and holidays, and travel back to bring them a shofar, megillah, tefillin and shabbat candles, and show them how to use them.
Glazer was so moved that this young couple would now be settling there permanently, that he gifted them all the correspondence he had from the Rebbe.
Who else would be looking out for the Jews of Zambia in the1960s and 70s if not the Rebbe, and who else would be moving to live there now in 2022, if not the Rebbe's students. Mendy and Rivky are young. They never met the Rebbe, but they did learn his teachings and were inspired by his revolutionary vision of Ahavat Yisrael. They watched the videos of him passionately talking about the need for a unified Jewish people, and a unified humankind, and they want to do their part in making it happen sooner.
I'm in New York this week, where I'm spending the weekend meeting people from 107 countries and from each of the 50 states. No, I'm not at the UN, and the people I'm meeting are not diplomats. They are Chabad Rabbis serving Jewish comminutes in all those places and more. In fact, the conference this weekend will bring together approximately 4000 of the 6000+ Chabad Rabbis from all over the world.
On Sunday morning we will take the"class photo" where the NY Fire Department will be on hand to provide cranes to take a single photo with a wide enough lens to capture so many people.
When I recently looked at pictures of the history of the conference, I was amazed how the first year there were all but 65 participants, the next year maybe 80, by 1992 about 500, and over the past decades we have reached more than 6000.
What amazes the world is not just the staggering growth of Chabad, but that it is happening at a time when most religious organizations, including many Jewish ones, seem to be on the decline and struggling to keep their doors open, yet Chabad keeps expanding.
Thisphenomena is something that Pew has done research on, coming with results that show Chabad to be the largest Jewish educational organization in the world, and the fastest growing Jewish religious movement, with the majority of American Jews who engage with Judaism participating with Chabad. A recent article described the phenomenal growth Chabad experienced this year, with a new Chabad opening on average every 3 days!
So what is the secret?
Contrary to what some may think, we are not marketing experts, we are not fundraising experts, we are not public speaking or media experts. We have Yeshiva education and look like we came out of fiddler on the roof!
But the Rebbe knew that Jewish people want Judaism, and when you offer Judaism, Jews feel more Jewish and more in touch with themselves.
As the Rebbe said when he participated in the earlier conferences, that our mandate is to reach out to every Jew with love, to strengthen Judaism, and help mend the world with ethics and morality for all people, to prepare the word for an era of peace and harmony for all humanity with the coming of Moshiach.
That is how we measure our success. Not by how many members we have; every Jews is a member. Not by how much money we raise; every penny counts. Not by who comes; everyone is always welcome. But by how many mitzvahs and Jewish actionswe can achieve each year.
Every observance of shabbat is a success, every mezuzah, tefillin, shabbat candle, is a success, every child who learns the Alef Bet is a success. Every invigorated community is a success, every ripple effect of Chabad’s presence in a city, is a success.
We try to stay focused on what our mission is, and try to do that as best as we can.
Never in history, has there been such a movement, and my family and I are proud and honored to be playing our role for the Jewish community in South Dakota.
This Shabbat will mark the 28th yahrtzeit-hilula of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
The Rebbe’s mother would recall that when he was nine years old, the Rebbe dived into the Black Sea to save the life of a boy who had fallen from the deck of a moored ship. The adult onlookers didn’t feel confident enough to jump in. Those who witnessed this heroic act recalled the sacrifice the Rebbe had made that day. He himself collapsed, almost lifeless, soon after bringing the young boy to shore.
To me, this story is emblematic of the Rebbe’s life; the sacrifice and deep sense of responsibility for all who cry out for help. The call of those drowning and no one hearing their cries. For all people calling out for moral guidance in a world engulfed in darkness, the Rebbe rose to this historic calling offering guidance and leadership.
The Rebbe selflessly acted as that spiritual lifeguard and moral compass, jumping into the most dangerous waters to pull out those who were sinking and save their lives, and going where others were afraid to, despite the personal cost he may have had to pay.
Over decades, he carefully taught, living by example, of complete dedication to G-d and the Torah, dedication to world Jewry with Ahavat Yisrael, and humanity in general, encouraging acts of goodness and kindness, bringing us all closer to the fulfillment of Isaias's prophecy of true peace when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation. . . they shall beat swords into plowshares," when the world will be filled with the wisdom of G-d with the coming of Moshiach.
Through the sheer force of his convictions -- his dedication to G-d and his fellow human being -- along with his deep insight into the human condition, the Rebbe quietly, unassumingly but most determinedly, inspired and empowered people of all walks of life all over the globe with his teachings that stirred the conscience and spirit of a depleted and demoralized post-holocaust world Jewry to rebuild and flourish, and reached far, far beyond the confines of the Jewish people to inspire countless human beings of all walks of life to a life dedicated to serving.
In the last 28 years, the Rebbe's reach has expanded exponentially. Today there is not a single Jewish community in the world that has not been positively impacted, and in many cases transformed and completely revived and revitalized, by the Rebbe's vision and teachings. Recognizing his urgent call for world Jewry and humanity, millions of people around the world study his teachings, and movements well-beyond Chabad are looking to Chabad and the Rebbe's teachings to identify what makes Judaism and Jews tick and what keeps people inspired and engaged.
Of course the Rebbe is very personal to Mussie and myself. Our move and work in South Dakota is inspired and guided by the Rebbe's vision and leadership. When a lonely Jew in South Dakota has a seder to go to and matzah on Passover for the first time in decades, it is because of the Rebbe, when a young child learns Alef Beit, it is because of the Rebbe, when a Jewish college student can have a home away from home, it is because of the Rebbe, and when a destitute woman who had been shunned by her community receives a proper Jewish burial, it is because of the Rebbe.
So today, please join me and millions of women, men and children around the world and do an extra mitzvah in honor of the Rebbe. Take a few moments and study some Torah. If you have a pair of tefilin, put it on and say a short prayer. Light the Shabbat candles this evening. Place a few coins in a tzedaka charity box to be given to a person in need or a worthy cause. And do what you can and be ready "to jump into the water" to save someone in need.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.