Women Lead--But Not As Men


by Rivka Chaya Berman - SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

March 24, 2006

Aurah Landau of Juneau, Alaska, tinkered with the itinerary of her business trip to the lower-48 to sleep in Seattle for a women-only Shabbat retreat hosted by Washington Chabad’s Women’s Learning Circle.

Landau, who works in media relations for an environmental group, checked into the comfy suites at downtown Seattle’s Marriot Residence Inn. She joined a group of 50 Jewish women, an assortment pack of demographics: college students, grandmothers, mothers and teenage daughters of all shades of Jewish affiliation. Landau found “the whole weekend was characterized by warmth and friendliness,” and encountered ideas she “will talk about for the year to come.”

Providing breathing space and thinking time for harried Jewish women was the goal of the second annual Shabbaton, according to event organizer Esther Bogomilsky. As the director of the Women’s Learning Circle, Bogomilsky has planned her share of lectures, challah knead and braids, holiday events, and has found the retreat format “causes an unbelievable connection – almost a high. It’s not like a talk, where people come in and go home.”

That’s a good thing, according to Amy Eisinstein of Seattle, who attended the retreat with her friend Aurah and another buddy, because scholar-in-residence Shimona Tzukernik, an internationally acclaimed lecturer known for penetrating Chasidic insights and down-to-earth wit, shared powerful ideas that required time and quiet to mull over. “Everyone was riveted,” said Eisinstein. “Shimona gave us the perspective to approach situations in our lives with strength.”

Unpacking the intricacies of life as a woman, as Jew, as a citizen of an unraveling world, is a delicate operation, and the women’s work was aided by the absence of men. “It would not have been the same if I had to come home and change diapers,” said Eisinstein. “The focus was on growing myself.”

Not even Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, Esther’s husband, was invited. He insists he did not feel “left out, not at all. It’s very healthy for every marriage” when wives tend to their own spiritual needs. Chabad has “already received calls from husbands saying ‘thank you.’”

No men meant Esther Bogomilsky recited the Kiddush blessing on Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat prayer services were sung as a group. In lieu of Torah reading, local scholar Chaya Blaut delivered an analysis of the weekly portion. During meals, women from the community delivered stirring Torah thoughts.

What could be read as feminism triumphant at the Shabbaton is actually a natural outgrowth of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s respect for the power of women. Women lead, but in their own way, not as skirt-wearing men. “I was not going to hire a group of men to be a traveling minyan” to recite the prayers, said Bogomilsky. Girl power scented the air, Eisinstein agreed but, “There wasn’t a feeling ‘let’s all get together and overtake the men,’ but ‘let’s explore what we need to do as women.’”

Reveling in all aspects of femininity had its place at the Shabbaton. Pampering was on the agenda right there with all the deep thoughts. Gift bags brimming with personalized chocolates, bottled water, inspirational reading and still chocolate more truffles were handed out to the guests upon arrival. On Saturday morning, by eight a.m., the women opened their doors to retrieve breakfast-in-bed baskets laden with muffins, yogurt and fruit. Ideas for the special details came from Lubavitch of Wisconsin representative Rochel Leah Shmotkin, who recently hosted her own retreat for women in her area.

Sharing ideas, heartfelt discussions, voices lifted in song, were all elements that made the Women’s Learning Circle’s retreat, in Eisinstein’s words, “without a doubt an absolute success.”

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