The year 1998 was an auspicious one for me. It was the year that I met two of the people who would most shape my adult life. One was my husband, Tevi Troy, whom I met via shidduch (matchmaking) by his (and now my) sister-in-law, Cheryl Troy. The second, Nechama Shemtov, was introduced to me by Tevi just a few months after I met him. Nechama is the senior Chabad shlucha, or emissary, to Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, were sent as shluchim in 1992 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (known as “the Rebbe”), to establish a permanent presence in Washington, D.C. This entity, American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), would bring Yiddishkeit to the unique community of Washington, D.C.
To provide a little background: Chabad-Lubavitch was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. In 1951, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the seventh Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, and transformed it from a small Chassidic sect into a worldwide movement. Although the Rebbe passed away in 1994, the movement continues to grow and expand, with new Chabad houses established continually. In the past year, a major milestone was reached by Chabad, when shluchim were sent to the last state without a Chabad house, South Dakota. Almost any Orthodox person travelling in the US and abroad today will research the proximity of the nearest Chabad house to their destination, knowing that the rabbi and rebbetzin there will be able to guide them in their quest to daven, eat kosher food and keep Shabbat.
Now back to my story: I was seriously dating my husband when he introduced me to the coolest couple, Chabad shluchim Rabbi Levi and Nechama Shemtov. I grew up on the West Coast in a Reform Jewish family; I had a strong desire to learn more about Yiddishkeit, but was living a largely secular life. And through learning, discovery and feeling a deep connection with my Chassidish forebears, within a year and a half of meeting Tevi, and then Nechama, I was married, living a fully-observant kosher and shomer Shabbos life, and covering my hair. I know, right? So weird. Except it didn’t feel weird, because Levi and Nechama made it seem so normal. Not even normal, just that it was the obvious way to live.
When we moved to the Silver Spring community of Kemp Mill in 2002 when our oldest child was one, we deeply missed the Shemtovs, but they have remained integral to our lives and I haven’t made one major life decision since we met without running it by Nechama first. We are also fortunate that Chaya and Rabbi Berel Wolvovsky, shluchim at Chabad of Silver Spring, arrived on the scene four years after we moved and established a beautiful Chabad house here which we are also very attached to.
So imagine my delight when I was able to attend the gala banquet at Kinus Hashluchos, the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries on February 19 in New York. The Sunday banquet is the capstone of the four-day gathering, which comprises lectures, workshops, plenaries, and networking. (The shluchim, the rabbis from Chabad houses around the world, attend a similar gathering in New York the weekend prior to the Hebrew month of Kislev). Nechama has invited me for years, but for various reasons, I have not been able to go. I was also fortunate that Fran Kritz, a very important person in my life since moving to Kemp Mill all those years ago, was also attending the banquet and accompanied me at every step of our exciting journey.
The banquet took place in the newly renovated Pier 12 Brooklyn Cruise Terminal— chosen because previous venues are now insufficient to accommodate the ever-increasing number of shluchos in the world. When we arrived, we witnessed thousands of women and girls (with the occasional rabbi and baby boy) milling around. Entering the banquet hall (converted by conference organizers, including Nechama, one of five members of the executive committee of Kinus, into a gorgeous and glittering space— replete with chandeliers, elegant décor and fancy chairs), we saw every corner packed with glamorous women. This is often the only time in a year that sisters and mothers and daughters see each other. Women are frequently sent far from home to countries as far-flung as Vietnam, Ghana, Ukraine, and other countries in the world that you may or may not have heard of.
The program began with welcoming remarks from event chairperson and emcee Chanie Shemtov, shlucha at the Chabad house at the University of Illinois in Chicago, which she and her husband established nine years ago. She said, “the thought that comes to mind is that the entire world is represented right here. And you, you are the women who hold up our world…I can only imagine how much nachas this gathering brings to the Rebbe…the Rebbe literally put the world into our hands and gave us the ability to infuse our environments with kedusha.”
The level of girl power in the room was overwhelming. Three thousand shluchos attended the event, along with 1,000 of their daughters (the children have their own kid-friendly Kinus that runs simultaneously with that of the shluchos). The band, most of the photographers and the majority of speakers were women. The sixth-grade girls at the event performed a song about being the daughters of shluchim; part of the chorus was: “Rebbe, all I am I owe to you/ you sent my parents and you sent me too/ a shlucha I was chosen then to be.”
Chaya Raichik, daughter of Rabbi Sholom and Chana Raichik of Chabad of Upper Montgomery County in Gaithersburg (and my daughter’s classmate at the Torah School of Greater Washington), attended Kinus and sang at the banquet. At Kinus, she said, “I felt like I wasn’t alone...at home I’m the only person on shlichus in my class…I found it interesting that some girls live where there are lots of Jewish stores and others where there are none. This shows that there are many different kinds of shlichus. My favorite part of Kinus was meeting new friends, seeing old ones from other years and sing[ing] with my friends.”
After an inspiring evening of speakers, including shlucha Esther Wilhelm, who, together with her husband, established the Chabad house in Zhitomir, Ukraine in 1993 and subsequently built a children’s home and school, and provided social services to a community badly in need of these things, while raising 15 children. The adorable 20-something Alti Majesky told of the new Chabad house she and her husband recently established in Accra, Ghana. Chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (the educational arm of Chabad) Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who was for many years the Rebbe’s personal secretary, shared beautiful words about the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, a very private woman who retains an air of mystery even 29 years after her passing. Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, praised the shluchos for their work, but reminded them that, “there are so many more people to reach. You can’t leave out even one person.”
And the most energizing part of the evening, which almost defies credulity, is International Roll Call, this year presided over by four sisters who grew up as daughters of shluchim and have established Chabad houses in Milford, Connecticut; Edinburgh, Scotland; S. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles; and Hanoi, Vietnam. They split up the list of the 91 countries around the globe where Chabad houses have been established, and called them out one by one (along with each of the now 50 U.S. states) while a slide was put up to show how many shluchim are located in that country.
Right before Fran and I headed back to our hotel, Nechama told me, “It takes about 10 months to plan and some days are crazy, but now that I’m here, I feel so blessed to be able to help do it. To see all these shluchos, I feel humbled.”
Kami Troy is the senior editor for Kol HaBirah.