Finding Kinship At ‘Kinus’


New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Park City has Sundance and Newport has its jazz festival.

Crown Heights has Kinus.

Sure, the Brooklyn neighborhood’s annual West Indian Day Parade may get more press and draw larger crowds — but how many of those visitors stay for Shabbos?

Last week, almost 3,000 women — traveling from more than 60 countries — poured into Crown Heights last week for the community’s 24th annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchos.

Part professional development, part family reunion, part jamboree, the gathering — referred to as “KIN-us,” the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word for conference — brings together the women who, in partnership with their rabbi husbands, serve as shluchos or emissaries, running Chabad Houses around the world.

For four days and five nights, the sidewalks of Eastern Parkway and surrounding blocks pulsated with the sounds — in Brooklyn English, South African- and-British-accented English, Hebrew and other tongues — of thousands of modestly but stylishly attired women, a not insignificant number of them visibly pregnant, happily schmoozing with each other.

Clutching cell phones and in some cases pushing strollers, the women were coiffed in endless variations of brown-haired sheitels (the few blond and auburn ones stood out in the crowd), some newly purchased from the wigmaker who was holding court in the basement of Oholei Torah, a Chabad boys’ school that had been transformed into Kinus headquarters.

“I make a huge effort to come every year,” said Henya Federman, 29, who started Chabad Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas with her husband almost seven years ago.

This year she brought her 7-week-old baby and her 7-year-old daughter, who participated in a children’s event and got to meet for the first time her classmates from the online school that Chabad runs. (The other four children stayed at home with Federman’s husband, who went to the Chabad men’s conference in January.)

Federman, who grew up in Wisconsin, is a second-generation shlicha.

With each emissary couple responsible for raising enough funds to sustain its Chabad House — and expected to host classes, meals and other programs to engage unaffiliated Jews — it’s a demanding job. But the much larger number of emissaries, wide range of formal and informal networks, and tech-enabled developments like e-mail, Skype and the online school, make the job more manageable nowadays than a generation ago.

“Thinking about [the difference between] what my parents had as resources and what we have — it’s tremendous,” Federman said.

“A friend of ours wanted organic grass-fed kosher meat. I put a request out on the [internal listserv for emissaries] and within minutes I had five answers.”

Dini Freundlich, 37, another second-generation shlicha, grew up in South Africa and has run Chabad of Beijing with her husband for over 10 years. (As the center has expanded, three other emissary couples have joined them.)

In addition to the classes, prayer services, Shabbat meals and other programs that are staples of Chabad houses, the Beijing center also runs a trilingual (Mandarin, English and Hebrew) Montessori school, a kashrut office and a kosher restaurant serving American, Israeli and Chinese food, as well as sushi — “which is not Chinese, but everybody wants it anyway,” Freundlich noted.

With the exception of the 4-month-old baby, Freundlich’s six children, the oldest 16, all speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Mandarin.

Freundlich is grateful for Chabad’s online school and other high-tech tools.

“Thank God for the BlackBerry,” she said, when asked how she and her husband divide up and coordinate their numerous responsibilities.

However, she said, one thing was easier for her parents: the Lubavitcher rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) was still alive and a constant source of inspiration for the community.

“My parents used to bring us [to Crown Heights] to see him. We were raised with the idealism all around us.”

Rivkah Slonim of Chabad of upstate Binghamton recalled how when she and her husband started out as emissaries in 1985 “there were none of the chat rooms, forums or huge reservoir of programming” available nowadays.

“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves,” she said. “What worked in the ’80s or ’90s will not necessarily work today.”

Binghamton Chabad deployed a flash-mob, recently, to publicize a Shabbat dinner for students.

Nonetheless, “the need for acceptance and belonging hasn’t changed,” Slonim says. “A bowl of chicken soup with matzah balls is still a bowl of chicken soup with matzah balls.”