By Mimi Hecht
This weekend, over two thousand women – members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement - will gather in Brooklyn to mark the anniversary passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson. Referred to simply as Chof Beis Shvat (the Hebrew date of her passing), the convention weekend features offerings meant to personally inspire participants and embolden their work as community leaders around the globe. Women will spend a Shabbat of togetherness, then glean inspiration from popular Chabad figures and attend workshops and seminars on expertise central to running a successful Chabad House, including preparing lectures, managing schools and cooking large meals.
But a mere glance at Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s existence opens an interesting conundrum about whether a weekend about Jewish community service and leadership is an appropriate way to honor her life. The Rebbetzin was in no way the female equivalent of her husband, a highly public and outward leader whose every move was documented. The Rebbetzin’s voice was contained to the warmth of her own home - delicate whispers in private and personal conversation between few of her friends and family. Her deeds can not be heralded, for they are unknown. Pictures of her are scarce and people struggle to share memories. Essentially, her privacy was the only thing that was loud.
What, then, does the pioneering Lubavitch woman have to take to heart from the Rebbetzin’s life?
Chof Beis Shvat participants will certainly evoke the Rebbetzin’s spirit by hailing her as a great example of humility, an icon of warmth and many other accolades. But honoring merely the details and deeds of her being is missing the point. In actuality, Chof Beis Shvat celebrates not who the Rebbetzin was, but what she selflessly gave.
The Rebbetzin had the wisdom and foresight to make the sacrifice of unwaveringly supporting her husband, a leader that would change the face of Judaism. The Rebbe was able to dedicate his life to inspiring Jewish hearts and minds because the Rebbetzin was willing to forego her entitlement to a “normal” life. By accepting her husband’s exceptional responsibility, the Rebbetzin created the space for the Rebbe to commit himself fully to the revival of Judaism after the Holocaust. She gave herself entirely to the Rebbe, so the Rebbe could give himself to the world.
This weekend’s Chof Beis Shvat participants are outgoing teachers, speakers and directors who dream of teaching Challah-baking on Oprah and for whom family-purity is a public discussion. It’s fair to say that they will never truly emulate the Rebbetzin’s ways. But they were never asked to. Instead, they gather to properly acknowledge what the Rebbe no doubt appreciated and cherished about the Rebbetzin with his entire being – her self sacrifice. Today, Chabad men and women serving in leadership positions have the Rebbe to emulate, but the Rebbetzin to thank. The Rebbe spent every waking hour dedicated to the Jewish people because he had an extraordinary wife who accepted the lifestyle that would come with his mission. The Rebbetzin gave her husband to the world because she had the wisdom and selflessness to understand who he was and believe in his revolution. Because of this, every Chabad emissary recognizes that it is also to the Rebbetzin’s call they are heeding. The conference this weekend, with its leadership theme, is indeed everything she lived for.
The Chof Beis Shvat gathering is a salute to the saying, “Behind every good man is a great woman.” In a time when most women resent the phrase – and a demure and self-sacrificing woman is hardly a national role model – Chabad is celebrating the virtues of a truly altruistic woman…and the eternal gift she gave.