A New Derher article explore the origins of the Nshei uBnos Chabad organization and the Rebbe’s special connection to the women of Chabad. A bonus publication contains a special collection of newly released letters and ma’anos.
The shul is packed with people, hundreds, even thousands of them. The cities they have traveled here from read like a global geography lesson, spanning the vast expanses of the United States and Canada — New York, Detroit, Cincinnati, Miami, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Montreal, Vancouver, and more — to locations across oceans and continents. They have come to hear the words of the nossi hador and garner guidance and inspiration for their holy work at home, each one in their own area.
Is it possible? Thousands of people fill every bench and bleacher in the grand downstairs zal of 770, yet there is not even a minyan present — for these devoted Chassidim are women and girls, every single one of them.
When was such a sight ever seen before — the nossi hador dedicating his time and focus in such a marvelous manner to the women of anshei shlomeinu, and not as an isolated incident, but multiple times every year?
Travel to every city with a frum community — you will find nothing which can compare. Our Rebbe, the nossi hador, launched a metaphorical revolution in the setting of women and girls within Yiddishkeit and Chassidus Chabad.
As the Rebbe explained in the kuntres “On the greatness of Jewish women” (Shabbos Parshas Bo & Beshalach 5752), the emphasis the Frierdiker Rebbe [and by extension, our Rebbe] placed on the role of women in avodas Hashem is not as an also-had, but unique and fundamental. The qualities of women are essential to the fulfillment of our core mandate as Yidden: to create a dira betachtonim and bring the coming of Moshiach.
The vehicle through which the Rebbe launched this revolution is the renowned and storied organization of Agudas N’shei U’bnos Chabad (shorthand: N’shei). The riveting
account of the Rebbe’s launch of this organization is the subject of this article.
A Simchas Torah Farbrengen
Simchas Torah day 5713, a mere year-and-a-half after the kabbalas hanesius on Yud Shevat 5711. The crowd of Chassidim filling the small (and as of yet, only) zal of 770 to the roof joyously participated in the Rebbe’s farbrengen. Suddenly, as the Rebbe began the third sicha, an entirely new organization, one neither planned nor initiated by the Chassidim, saw its debut.
“The [Frierdiker] Rebbe would publish his sichos and letters in Yiddish,” the Rebbe said, [unlike the previous Rabbeim, who did so exclusively in Lashon Hakodesh]. “One reason he gave was to allow women and girls the ability to access the content, thereby inspiring them in their service of Hashem. To strengthen this, the need has arisen to establish an association of Chabad women and girls, Agudas N’shei U’bnos Chabad…”
The Rebbe went on to ask that the new organization be up and running by Shabbos Bereishis, just a few days hence — and of course, that is what indeed took place.
The Israeli Connection
As it happens, the genesis of N’shei U’bnos Chabad began even earlier. In a letter dated 24 Sivan 5711, the Rebbe wrote to the vaad hapoel of Agudas Chassidei Chabad of Eretz Hakodesh (“Aguch”):
“In my view it is necessary to organize a special women’s division of Aguch… to organize both women who are Chassidim and all those who hold the spirit of Chabad dear to their heart and soul, to arrange activities for women generally. As is self-understood, this requires a unique approach and goals.”
In its own twist of events, the well-known Chossid, Reb Zushe Wilmowsky became heavily involved in launching this Israeli N’shei organization, predating the central mosad, with tremendous hatzlacha. Things moved quickly and on Sukkos 5713, just over a year later, the very first women’s conference of the Israeli N’Shei U’bnos Chabad took place. As mentioned above, a few days later, on Simchas Torah 5713, the Rebbe launched the central Agudas N’Shei U’bnos Chabad in America.
Auxiliary To No One
Successful organizations for frum women already existed at this point. In the early 5710s, most Jewish communities and organizations had a ladies’ auxiliary. This was an association of women who typically raised needed funds for the community or organization or assisted in some other way.
N’Shei was different. As the Rebbe set out the new organization’s goals, N’shei existed to support women in their service of Hashem, both internally and reaching out to others. It did not serve to assist other, mainstream organizations.
In fact, one thing that was absolutely off the table during the early years of N’Shei was active fundraising. In numerous letters and instructions, the Rebbe explained that raising its own funds would give the new organization an uncomfortable character and make it seem akin to the numerous ladies’ auxiliaries that already existed. Rather, the budget of central N’Shei U’bnos Chabad in those years was covered entirely by the Rebbe!
This went on for many years. Eventually, the Rebbe wanted the organization to stand on its own feet and raise the funds needed for their programs.
As can be expected, this new type of women’s organization required a fundamental shift of perspective. In a letter dated the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul 5714, the Rebbe writes to Reb Betzalel Wilschansky: “May it be Hashem’s will that a fundamental shift take place in the attitude of women of anash toward the entire idea [of N’shei U’bnos Chabad], for which purpose a fundamental shift must take place in the attitude of the men of anash. Apparently, it is not yet clear [to everyone] how essential the matter is….”
In 5713, after the Rebbe launched the new mosad, the Rebbe directed Rabbi Yosef Weinberg (who was involved in the ladies auxiliary of the Lubavitch Yeshivos) to get the organization off the ground.
The Rebbe quoted from Kisvei Ha’Arizal that the generation of Jewish women who wandered through the desert with Moshe Rabbeinu was outstanding in many respects. One of the women’s greatest merits was that they refused to bow down to the Eigel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. “Amongst the rewards promised to these righteous women was that their souls would come down into this world in the generation preceding the coming of Moshiach.” Based on this declaration by the AriZal, the Rebbe felt that it was the perfect time to establish N’shei u’Bnos Chabad, an organization that would inspire its members to bring more Chassidishkeit into their own homes and bring closer other women to Yiddishkeit and Chassidus.
The Rebbe continued quoting the writings of the AriZal further, saying, “In this generation, and as part of [the Jewish women’s] reward, the husbands will follow the wives ‘Talmidei chachamim nishmaim linishoseihem.’ If you want to accomplish anything with the men, accomplish first with the ladies!”
The executive board of N’shei Chabad was made up of Rebbetzin Tema Gurary, Mrs. Miriam Popack, and Mrs. Sarah Kahanov. The first official meeting of N’shei Chabad took place at the Gross home in Crown Heights and mailings were done from their basement.
Initially, only a few women participated — in fact, the Rebbe acknowledged this reality in his sicha on Simchas Torah, encouraging the initial entrants to not be intimidated by small numbers and to trust that growth will indeed come.
Mrs. Reba Sharfstein, who started N’shei of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 5715, relates: “My husband and I moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 1954, to teach. In a farbrengen during Shevat, the Rebbe spoke about women getting together to learn in general and especially about their mitzvos. Shortly afterward Reb Avrohom Drizin, who would come regularly to Cincinnati to fundraise, visited and stayed at our house. He asked if we heard what the Rebbe said. When I said yes, he asked, ‘So what are you doing about it?’ I looked at him in shock and explained that there were only one or two other women who were even possibly interested. He simply said, ‘Okay, call them,’ and handed me the phone. So I did. I called one woman, she thought of another woman, who then thought of another — so we started with five women. From that, it grew to hundreds.”
Throughout those formative years, the Rebbe regularly encouraged different women to launch or participate in N’shei chapters in their respective cities.
For example, on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5713, just days after the sicha launching the new mosad, the Rebbe wrote to Mrs. Rochel Cunin from the Bronx. He shared with her about the start of a new group for women to get together, learn halachos that are relevant to them, discuss matters relating to their children’s education, and learn about the weekly sedra and talks from the Frierdiker Rebbe. The Rebbe asks her if she can get together with other local women to launch a branch in her area.
A few days later, on 23 Cheshvan, the Rebbe wrote to Reb Shlomo Zalman Hecht in Chicago, following up on a conversation the Rebbe had with his wife, to see whether she had already started N’shei activities.
Numerous other such examples exist.
Multiple times, the Rebbe stressed that N’Shei is not limited to “certified Lubavitchers, nor dependent on which nusach the women daven, nor whether their husbands put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.” Rather, all those who agree that Hashem must be served not only emotionally, but also using one’s intellectual powers, are already included within the term “Chabad.” Indeed,
on a number of occasions the Rebbe asked women from “outside” the Lubavitch community to get involved.
On 26 Kislev 5713 the Rebbe wrote to anash of Dublin, Ireland, expressing appreciation for their report regarding the launch of N’shei there, and pointing out that not every participant needs to be from a Chabad background — the core requirement is simply that they desire to become closer to Chabad. Additionally, the Rebbe noted that generally the speakers and lecturers for the chapter should be sourced from the participating women themselves, though it is of course alright if, when appropriate, a man would offer a class or the like.
On a similar note, on 25 Cheshvan 5713, the Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Sholom Rivkin of S. Louis, Missouri, asking him to find ways to launch a N’shei chapter in his city, stressing that the official leaders must be women, though he and others can help keep the momentum going. Similarly, in a letter to N’shei of Tel Aviv on Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5715, the Rebbe noted that many of the participating women can lecture as well.
In 5713, the Rebbe asked Rabbi and Mrs. Bentzion Shemtov, then the pioneers of Chabad in London, along with other local Lubavitchers, to start a local N’shei chapter. Mrs. Fradel Sudak (daughter of the Shemtovs) was then a young girl. As she relates:
“At first, only about six to eight Lubavitch women would attend the regular meetings in each others’ homes, three of whom were older and the rest were new mothers. Yet, each woman invited her neighbors, and the group saw rapid growth. Whenever someone prominent traveled through London from New York, such as Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Hecht or Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, who often served as the Rebbe’s liaison for women’s matters, the Rebbe instructed them to address the local N’shei.”
Mrs. Sudak would originally babysit for those mothers who wanted to attend a meeting. Yet, after some time passed, she became the one to give the shiur in a Rebbe’s sicha, despite her relative youth!
She recalls that the Rebbe instructed London N’shei to learn three items at each meeting: 1. Something from the weekly parsha; 2. Halachos that are relevant to women, and 3. Chassidus, achieved by recounting a chassidishe maaseh.
London was one of the original branches — alongside Crown Heights, Brownsville, Montreal, Toronto, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Worcester and Pittsburgh, who laid the groundwork for the hundreds of branches and tens of thousands of participants in the years ahead.
The novelty of N’shei’s groundbreaking work did give rise to some opposition.
In 5714, Mrs. Shula Kazen, living in Cleveland, Ohio, had just given birth to her son, when she received a letter from the Rebbe asking her to launch a local branch of the LWO (Lubavitch Women’s Organization, i.e., N’shei). As she related, she was then contending with ill health and motherhood and did not feel up to stewarding the project forward.
Yet, a surprising set of circumstances led to her connecting with a local Jewish woman who was active in the Cleveland Jewish scene and who dearly wished for a local branch of N’shei to be established; and indeed, that is what happened.
“At that time,” Mrs. Kazen relates, “We had been publicizing N’shei activities in the local Jewish newspaper. Some criticized us for it. They felt that women’s issues did not belong in a mainstream publication (due to tznius concerns). The Rebbe, of course, encouraged me to continue. ‘In previous generations, Jews gave matan beseiser [charity inconspicuously]. But today, it’s different,’ he said. ‘When it’s published in a newspaper that Moshe has given a contribution, then Chaim, too, wants to give. If it’s published that Bracha has given, then Sarah, too, wants to give.’ Publishing good activities publicly encourages more to participate.”
When Mrs. Kazen first started the organization, participating women began donating funds toward the activities. She took no pay for her work, but some community members suspected her of using the funds for personal needs. Understandably, this deeply upset her.
She raised the issue with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe replied: “People always talk. You cannot stop others from talking, but you will succeed.” The Rebbe advised her to encourage participants to put money into a large tzedakah box at each meeting.
N’shei U’bnos Chabad, the name the Rebbe gave the organization in his very first sicha on the topic, mentions two distinct demographics: women and girls.
N’shei of Montreal asked the Rebbe how to handle different demographics when the issues confronting them are not all the same. On 22 Cheshvan 5715 the Rebbe responded: “Some issues and questions have a broad appeal and some are relevant to specific ages. Thus, some gatherings should be arranged for all members [of the branch] where broader matters are discussed… and additionally, individual groups can be formed for specific groups and ages — though the general meetings for all participants should occur often.”
In a letter to Rabbi Zalman Kazen dated Yud-Gimmel Tammuz 5714, the Rebbe advised him to launch a separate branch for younger women (as sitting with older women might be unappealing for the younger aged women), but to ensure that this is done diplomatically.
From the above it is clear that N’shei U’bnos Chabad exists to serve girls and women of every age, each in their own way and working as one whole.
Learning, Conventions, Publications And More
So, what was this new mosad, spearheaded by the Rebbe, going to do? What would be its primary activities?
On 28 Tammuz 5712, the Rebbe wrote to the earlier, Israeli branch of N’shei U’bnos Chabad and laid out the main tasks he saw the new association performing. The Rebbe divided these tasks into two sections:
1. On behalf of the participants themselves. These included:
a. Getting together regularly to learn about topics such as parshas hashavua, topics of each Yom Tov as it approaches, relevant halachos and so on.
b. Learning appropriate maamarei Chassidus, sichos or the like, that cover the fundamentals of Toras HaChassidus, its minhagim and hadrachos — thus strengthening the spirit and light of Chassidus in participants’ homes.
2. On behalf of others. These included:
a. To exert themselves, with great energy, for the good of others who are “closest” — i.e., on behalf of the chinuch of their own sons and daughters, and Jewish boys and girls in their neighborhood.
b. To lead a powerful campaign to strengthen Yiddishkeit in general, especially in the areas of taharas
hamishpacha, kashrus, and an upstanding, kosher education. c. To strengthen mosdos that provide an upstanding,
kosher education. This is especially so by actively participating in all Chabad educational institutions in
Eretz Yisroel, in particular by assisting with arrangements for food and accommodation, ensuring proper
cleanliness and appropriate attire, and the like.
These same ideas, permuted perhaps into an appropriate form for every time and place, have been the bread-and-butter of N’shei branches the world over.
Most importantly, the purpose of N’shei is to do all the above as a group. In the sicha of Simchas Torah 5713 the Rebbe emphasized the public influence a group of women working together has, above and beyond that of individuals. Firstly, new people will hear about the activities when done in a group, and secondly, they will be able to participate as well. Thus, N’shei U’bnos Chabad became a vehicle, not simply to strengthen the avodas Hashem of women themselves, but to become a key part of impacting the world and bringing Moshiach.
The Rebbe spoke often about a woman’s role as “akeres habayis,” the mainstay of the home. How can a mother of growing children also become a prominent community activist? The Rebbe writes to a woman, “The housewife is, of course, limited as far as outside activities are concerned. Nevertheless, within the available possibilities, a great deal can be accomplished with good will and determination.
Mrs. Sima Ashkenazi of Kfar Chabad, Israel, relates how the Rebbe encouraged her to become more involved in the communal life of Kfar Chabad and its N’shei, even before her husband was appointed as its rav. In 5729, she was in yechidus and the Rebbe asked her about the yiras Shamayim of the women of Kfar Chabad. She wasn’t sure what to answer, and the Rebbe told her that yiras Shamayim is evident in two things: tznius and taharah.
The Rebbe instructed her to strengthen these two areas, and upon her return to Kfar Chabad, she should divide the town into sections, with regular classes on these two subjects in each area. The classes should be for all ages, for the old may have forgotten and the young may not have learned them properly.
Another area she got involved with was teaching in the girls’ seminary.
As time went on, however, Mrs. Ashkenazi found it exceedingly difficult to balance both aspects of her life, her work in the community and seminary and serving as mother and wife. In a yechidus together with her husband, she asked the Rebbe about it. The Rebbe replied:
“The primary function of an akeres habayis, who is the ‘magnificent crown of the Jewish edifice’, lies in educating her children and matters of the home. Yet, if time allows, she should prioritize her seminary teaching, as it involves teaching students who will in turn teach others [i.e., continuing the cycle].”
At the end of the yechidus the Rebbe wished her hatzlacha in hafatzas hamaayanos. When she returned home, she arranged matters as such that she would be able to balance both roles.
On that note, Mrs. Leah Gniwisch of Montreal, Canada, tells how each year from 5723 to 5734 she led N’shei of Montreal in putting on a kosher musical performance for Jewish women and girls.
The performance was prepared with the highest quality in mind, necessitating months of hard work and many late evening practices by the women in the performance. The slack for all these late evenings was invariably picked up by their husbands, who would take care of the home and the children while their wives went to N’shei for the rehearsals. Despite the time and energy devoted toward the project, they felt that the impact was worthwhile and continued doing it, year after year.
One year, however, it was just too difficult. Most women couldn’t make the time to participate, and their husbands were not prepared to take up the slack.
The performance took place each year around Purim time, four weeks before Pesach (with the proceeds going toward helping with maos chitim needs). That year, about ten weeks before Pesach, Mrs. Gniwisch had a yechidus.
In the yechidus the Rebbe asked her if they would be having a play that year. She responded that unfortunately they would not be, as she couldn’t get any women involved and their husbands were too worn out. The Rebbe looked at her and told her to go back and tell the husbands that they should do what they need to do, and she should put together the play. Indeed, that is exactly what happened.
Conventions, Events, Initiatives
One of the major activities of N’shei U’bnos Chabad is the annual convention.
In 5716 the Rebbe instructed N’shei to host a convention of the various different branches of N’shei U’bnos Chabad. It took place on Sunday, 26 Iyar, at the Riverside Hotel in Manhattan. It was a very special affair — even Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother, participated, along with over 300 other women.
Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Karzanovsky read the Rebbe’s letter written for the convention, followed by various speeches and reports from delegates of the different branches across North America. Finally, the delegates took on various resolutions that N’shei would perform over the coming year.
The highlight of the convention was the special sicha the Rebbe addressed to the delegates and women that evening in 770, and a special yechidus the women had with the Rebbe.
The Rebbe instructed that a journal be compiled with a detailed account of the convention and transcripts of the speeches, instructing that it be made as beautiful as possible.
In a maaneh from 14 Kislev 5744, the Rebbe gave a number of important directives for N’shei events. (This specific maaneh was in connection with the “Week of the Jewish Woman” — a special project of N’shei that year.) First, the Rebbe wrote that at all such events, the initial meeting should take place at the center of Chabad, in Crown Heights. Later events during the convention can take place elsewhere. As such, the best time to host such an event is when people are in Crown Heights anyway, such as during Yom Tov times.
As well, the Rebbe wrote, the primary and important events should be accompanied by a special journal. It should include divrei Torah — especially ones that are timely — candle-lighting times (and times for havdalah), and sections describing N’shei U’bnos Chabad and its activities.
Finally, it would be extremely good “for the journal to be made as beautiful as can be. This is so that women will desire to bring it home, use it to adorn the home bookshelf, and even gift it to friends. These directives were reiterated multiple times at various N’shei initiatives. In general, the Rebbe always instructed that activities and events should be done in as beautiful a manner as possible.
The Rebbe would also emphasize the importance of producing sophisticated publications and PR, and hosting elegant events. For example, in a letter dated Rosh Chodesh Shevat 5712, the Rebbe wrote to Reb Zushe Wilmowsky reminding him to ensure that when promoting N’shei U’bnos Chabad in Israeli media, to be mindful that it be done in a refined and elegant manner.
In general, the Rebbe was extremely involved in every aspect of the convention and N’shei. For years, the Rebbe would review and edit every item of writing used in N’shei activities, checking them not only for content, but even for simple grammatical errors. Everything had to be presentable and accurate.
The convention became an annual affair, occurring every
Shabbos Mevarchim Sivan, growing larger and more elaborate each year. Eventually, it extended to an entire weekend, with multiple events and activities, while Bnos Chabad would put on a grand production for the women.
The Rebbe instructed N’shei that each year’s convention should have a unique theme. That first year they could not decide which theme to choose, so the Rebbe instructed them to submit a few options and the Rebbe himself chose the year’s theme. In fact, this continued annually — the Rebbe would choose the theme the convention would feature — up until a certain point, when the Rebbe told the organizers to choose a theme on their own.
The convention sicha was one of the select times during the year when the Rebbe would specifically address the women in person in 770.
The sicha would take place after the convention participants made their way back to 770 from Manhattan. Mrs. Sternberg recalls the Rebbe instructing the women not to worry and rush back for the sicha, as he would deliver it whenever they arrive.
At first, the sicha took place in the Rebbe’s room, as only delegates from the initial cities were in attendance. The crowd grew each year, until 5721 when the location of the sicha moved to the small zal, and eventually to the downstairs shul of 770. After the sicha the women would have a chance to go up to the podium and speak privately with the Rebbe.
Mrs. Sternberg recalls how one year the Rebbe shared tremendous brachos with the women in attendance, and one woman was so overcome with emotion that she couldn’t help but begin to sob. The Rebbe noticed and gave her one of his handkerchiefs, neatly folded and ironed, to dry her eyes.