Two weeks ago to the day, as the COVID-19 coronavirus was rapidly spreading through the Chinese city of Wuhan, Rochel Kalmenson and her husband, Rabbi Yekutiel Kalmenson, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Ningbo, China, and their three young children, boarded a flight to Shanghai and then on to New York.
“Until then, it wasn’t obvious what we should do. It wasn’t yet dangerous to remain, and we knew we had to stay as long as our community was still there,” recalls Rochel Kalmenson as she sits among 3,100 Chabad women emissaries, friends and supporters at one of the hundreds of round tables at the gala banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos) in Brooklyn.
Two weeks ago, on Friday just hours before Shabbat, they learned that the last Jewish family in their city — a mere three-hour train ride from Wuhan — was leaving, and made the difficult decision to head out as well, leaving Ningbo on Sunday. A few days later, coronavirus was spreading through Ningbo, and mass quarantines began.
While their community, made up mostly of international businesspeople from Israel, Europe and the United States, is spread around the world and there’s no end in sight for the coronavirus, the Kalemensons’ work goes on.
They are in daily touch with their community, including with the 10 children in their Hebrew school, who are together with their families in Israel or Thailand for the time being.
Kalmenson’s story is not unusual for the room of Jewish women leaders. In fact, the part of Kalmenson’s story that most resonated with her fellow emissaries sitting at her table was her reluctance to leave the city she calls home.
“People ask me how it is that I can live 100 miles from Jewish infrastructure, kosher pizza, a school for my children,” says Manya Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. “But the truth is I love my life; I have the mission and responsibility — together with my sisters, both literal and figurative, around the world — to share the vision of the Rebbe [Menachem M. Schneerson] with those around me, to bring sanctity and holiness to the world. It’s a privilege.”
The women emissaries have been gathering each year since 1991, timed to coincide with the anniversary of passing of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, on 22 Shevat. Like the counterpart men’s Kinus, the women join together for five days of workshops, classes and meals, where they can reconnect, brainstorm and return home to their families and communities reinvigorated.
With LED lights, carpets and chandeliers suspended from the rafters, the gigantic New York State Armory in Williamsburg was transformed for the gala. Mussie Kesselman, co-director of Chabad of Greenville, S.C., emceed the event, sharing her own family’s close relationship with the Rebbetzin.
The Rebbetzin was a very private person, but, knowing that Kesselman’s mother, at the time a 17-year-old girl studying in Crown Heights, was likely feeling lonely, she called her dorm and left a message with her mother’s roommate.
“Please tell Chaya that Mrs. Schneerson from President Street called, and if she could please call me back,” the Rebbetzin said. Kesselman’s mother got the message and called back immediately.
In the call, Kesselman explained, “the Rebbetzin expressed that ... my mother ... might be feeling homesick and lonely, and she wanted her to know that she had a friend in the neighborhood.
The next speaker, Sorah Shemtov, co-director of Chabad of Riverdale, built on the theme. When she was a girl growing up in Crown Heights, her father had served as the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s doctor, and she therefore had visited the Rebbetzin a number of times at her home. When she was 20 years old and about to become engaged, she visited the Rebbetzin to share the news. When the Rebbetzin heard the last name of the young man she was going to marry, her face lit up.
“Then I’m very happy because now I know you’ll speak in Yiddish to your children, and that’s very important,” the Rebbetzin told her. To Shemtov, having been brought up in an English speaking home, this was a novel idea but one she committed to memory.
Years went by and the couple were not blessed with children. Shemtov and her husband prayed, and made special trips to her gravesite. “I’m ready to speak Yiddish,” she’d say. “But where are the children?”
Twelve years later, on an evening following the men’s International Conference, her father-in-law sat at a Chassidic gathering and implored the gathered to give a blessing and say a l’chaim that his son and daughter-in-law be blessed with children.
“Three months later I attended the Kinus for shluchos,” Shemtov told the audience, “this Kinus, having just completed my first trimester! And [thank G d], a few months later gave birth to our twins, Chaya Mushka and Menachem Mendel, and a few years later, to our son, Yosef.
“Dear sister shluchos, family, friends,” Shemtov concluded, “This is a giant and yet intimate chassidic farbrengen. Tonight is the Rebbetzin’s yahrzeit and we are all her children. The incredible energy in this room is simply a manifestation of the immense power and potential we have to bless one another. … May … our prayers and supplications, our l’chaims and heartfelt wishes to one another pierce the heavenly gates.”