Almost every year I am invited to attend the grand banquet of the International Shluchos Convention, the climax of a four-day weekend that attracts some 2,500 Chabad shluchos from all over the world – from Argentina to Australia, from Thailand to Kazakhstan, and from every state in the U.S. It takes place the weekend of Chaf Bet Shevat, the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l.
Unfortunately, I was out of town the night of this year’s banquet last month, but had I been there I would have met Rebbetzin Simi Abuhatzeira, widow of the late Baba Sali, and Olga Levayev, wife of the Georgian diamond tycoon who set up hundreds of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union. I would also have heard the keynote speaker, Rebbetzin Chani Lipskar, who together with her husband built The Shul in Bal Harbour, Florida, as well as many other distinguished rebbetzins.
Although unable to attend the banquet, I did attend an earlier event, and I discovered a hidden jewel that I think few people know exists. I refer to the Guest of Shluchos program run by my friend Molly Resnick, former NBC producer and frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. This is a special four-day lay leadership conference for women the shluchos have become close to and whom they bring to Crown Heights to sample their own specialized programs while the shluchos recharge their batteries at their convention.
It isn’t just the number of countries these women come from – though that itself is impressive: six from Brazil, three from France, one from China, two from Costa Rica, four from South Africa, one from Sweden, etc., for a total of 120 women – it’s also the quality of these women and the shluchos who bring them as their guests.
The opening evening started at the Jewish Children’s Museum where first-time visitors were taken on guided tours, while others started on various workshops.
The gala dinner began with a presentation from Mrs. Chanie Kaminetski, shlucha to (the unpronounceable) Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. When she and her husband set out 23 years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told them to stock potatoes in their basement in the summer so that their family and community would not starve during the harsh winter.
She recounted that after landing in Moscow they had to take a train for 17 hours in the stifling hot July weather with windows that didn’t open. When they finally arrived she said to her husband, “We’re staying here forever because there is no way I’m riding this train back another 17 hours.” Religious-looking Jews were so alien to the region in 1990 that the locals reacted to their arrival by asking not “Who are you?” but “What are you?”
Today, unbelievably, Dnepropetrovsk hosts the largest Jewish center in the world. The Menorah Center is a series of seven adjacent buildings with restaurants, social halls, a Holocaust museum and a hotel. The person who helped build it is Gennadiy Bogolyubov, one of several Jewish billionaires in the Ukraine, popularly called the “oligarchs.”
As Mrs. Kaminetzki related, Bogolyubov recalled that the hardest check he ever had to write for a Jewish cause was his first one. Rabbi Kaminetzki took Bogolyubov on a tour of his budding soup kitchen providing free meals for the local Jewish poor. Bogolyubov asked him how he knew all the people lined up were really needy. The rabbi replied with a question: “Would you lie to get a meal if you weren’t really hungry?”
That day Bogolyubov wrote a check for $10,000 and never looked back. When he donated the money for the magnificent Menorah Center he stipulated that it be large enough to be seen from the sky. He didn’t want something small and hidden; Jews in that region had been doing things small and hidden for 70 years under Communism.
Several years ago Bogolyubov also set up a $10 million Simcha Fund for shluchim around the world. Every shaliach who has a child or makes a bar mitzvah or wedding gets a generous stipend to help defray some of the celebration costs.
I could have listened to Chanie Kaminetzki for hours, so fascinated was I by her stories.
The second speaker was Rabbi Yehoshua Metzger, who together with his dynamic wife, Bracha Chana, runs Chabad of Midtown – or as he called it, “the crossroads of the world.” He recounted how 20 years ago they were greeted with protests of “Who needs Chabad in Manhattan?” Today, they run daily minyanim and shiurim for local business people and visitors; Shabbat dinners; a kollel; and the famous sukkah in Bryant Park. They also construct a giant ice menorah on 5th Avenue every year. Rabbi Metzger also told poignant stories about things that have taken place at their Shabbat dinners.
The woman I sat next to at the dinner is a story herself. Rebbetzin Shula Kazen, a woman in her nineties, has been a shlucha in Cleveland, Ohio, for close to 50 years. Her father was shot by the KGB for clandestinely teaching Torah and being a mohel and shochet. It took more than three decades to verify that while her mother remained an agunah.
Her mother raised her and her siblings alone and in hiding in an unused shul in Gomel. Since she refused to send her children to atheistic schools in the USSR, she was unable to get food rations and so fed the family potatoes she and others had planted in back of the shul.
One day the Soviets suddenly approached and everyone began fleeing. Some people tried to rescue the shul’s Torah scrolls, running through the potato garden.
Several women shouted, “Don’t run on my potatoes,” but Mrs. Kazen’s mother declared, “Anyone carrying a Sefer Torah can trample on my potatoes.”
Today Rebbetzin Kazen is the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of more than 100 shluchos around the world, in locales as diverse as Israel, Shanghai, China, Brazil, Argentina, Johannesburg, Paris, Italy, Panama, among many others. One of her daughters, Rivka Kotlarsky, co-runs the Guest of Shluchos program together with Molly Resnick.
(Rebbetzin Kotlarsky’s husband, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the educational arm of Lubavitch, is in charge of the entire Kinus weekend and helps set up new shluchim around the world.)
There was a musical segment to the program featuring Laura Kegeles, a gifted cellist who has played at Carnegie Hall and is a ba’alas teshuvah through Chabad, as well as an ensemble of a flutist, violinist, pianist and singer who entertained us.
I always knew about the work Chabad Lubavitch does for Jews who are unaware of their Jewish heritage. But when you listen to some of the stories and see so many of these women together and realize how many lives have been touched, the effect is overwhelming. And I only experienced one evening, a mere taste of this magnificent weekend.
One can imagine what it must be like with 2,500 “Mrs. Kaminetzkis” in one room. I hope to be able to attend next year’s banquet.
About the Author: Naomi Klass Mauer is associate publisher of The Jewish Press.
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