From London to Azerbaijan — Jewish women leaders attend Chabad conference

We know about the annual gathering of Chabad rabbis, but what do we know about the same event for women?


Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbetzins at their annual conference in New York (Photo: Chabad)

Those in the Jewish world are likely to be familiar with the annual gathering of Chabad rabbis and the iconic image of thousands of attendees in front of the world headquarters in Brooklyn Crown Heights.

The photo of thousands of men in black hats and coats goes viral each year, but you might be less aware that a similar, albeit more colourful, photo exists of Strictly Orthodox women.

Each February, thousands of female Jewish leaders running branches of the global network of Chabad descend on the same location for a five-day conference.

This year’s event, which took place last week, was first held in 1991, and mirrors the men's gathering in that it brings together women leaders of Chabad from Nigeria to Wales under the banner of spirituality and learning.

The event is a chance for the women to share things that have worked for them, as well as to learn about what keeps one of the world's best-known Chasidic movements ticking.

Those outside the Strictly Orthodox world might think of it as a place where women are seen and rarely heard. However, many of the women give talks and presentations. 

For first-time conference-goer Rebbetzin Batsheva Altein, the gathering was a welcome break away from her busy life as a mother of five representing her Crouch End and Muswell Hill Chabad enclave.

But more importantly, it was a chance to refocus her efforts on the mission for a Chabad couples around the world, to “build community and engage everyone in Jewish life”.

She told the JC: “It was really inspiring to be around so many Jewish women with the same focus. If, at times, also a little overwhelming.”

There are not many worlds in which a Rebbetzin from a multicultural London neighbourhood can collide with her Azerbaijan counterpart, but this is where Altein found herself.

“Something about it was really powerful. We are from communities from all over the world, but together, we are focusing on the same goal. I spoke to a woman from Alaska.”

She thought the conference was a good example of showcasing the important role Chabad women play in the movement.

She told the JC: "We have a unique role when it comes to building communities. If you take me and my husband, we are co-directors and we each have a part to play. There are no set rules of who does what and we bounce off each other.”

As well as providing a chance to connect spiritually with other women, the conference ran events on community-building, financing and mental health.

Meanwhile Chany Scheiner, who is a Chabad rebbetzin in Boulder, Colorado has been coming to the Kinus (conference) for years.

She said: “It’s amazing to connect to my global community, my friends whom I started out with, and to see them and get hugs and encouragement.”

Scheiner said that in recent years, women attending the annual get-together have become more “real”.

She said: “They are being much more open about both their successes and the things that didn’t work as well as they might have hoped.”

Similarly, Chaya Uzan, the Chabad emissary to Abuja, Nigeria, said the gathering was a chance to “connect with the other [shluchot], and realise you are not alone.

“You can gain so much from a workshop or from meeting old friends.”

Chabad couples are often placed in communities with few Jews or are, at the very least, far away from the religious communities they grew up in.

Tasked with engaging Jews from all walks of life in Judaism, the separation from what they are used to can be lonely and isolating.

But Chaya said the yearly gathering gave them “the tools to continue our holy work and bring it into our communities, who also need the energy and inspiration we bring back home”.

The conference coincided with the anniversary of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s passing, who was wife of the Lubabitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

This year's event marked 50 years since the Rebbe launched the Shabbat candle-lighting campaign in response to the Yom Kippur War. It also fitted in with this year’s theme which was “Increasing the Light to Illuminate the Darkness”.

And today, with October 7 in the rear view mirror, the circumstances are not too dissimilar.

Among speakers at this year’s event was Chani Klein, co-director of Chabad of Eilat, who spoke about the impact October 7 had had on her community.

Speaking to the thousands of guests, she told them about the 70,000 refugees from the “Gaza envelope” who arrived in her southern tourist hometown in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack.

In response, Klein started a preschool for displaced children and is now running programmes for entire families across 45 separate hotels, which are being used for temporary housing.

Many of them, she said, came from secular backgrounds and had never engaged with their Jewish heritage despite living in Israel, and, like many in the diaspora Jewish community, people were looking to Chabad for a sense of belonging since the attacks.

She said: “Instead of going back as individuals, they’re going back as a nation.”

Altein said the conference had been an important chance to express solidarity and warmth with their Israeli counterparts.

"I think many of us (Chabad couples) don’t get involved with politics, and since October 7, that has been hard for some of us.

"My brain-space has been so involved in Israel and that isn’t always the way for the people we engage with through our work, and that can be challenging. We have had difficult conversations with people.” 

But while they may meet Jews with diverse political views, “we respect that”, says Altein.

She also revealed the all mportant details of the gigantic group photo taken outside the Chabad headquarters.

"It was very squishy and lot more colourful than the men's pictures.

"Apart from giving the seats to older people at the front, there is no hierarchy of who goes where. You just climb up and wait. We were there for 45 minutes. Taking the photo takes time and everyone is doing selfies.”

But she said waiting for everyone to be camera-ready gave her the chance "to hear so many different conversations and I just enjoyed being up there and listening to that.”

While the scene often attracts intrigued passers-by, most New Yorkers are now used to it, said Altein.

"It happens every year so I think for them the novelty has worn off.”

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