Major Trends in Chabad Womanhood:
The Contribution of the Lubavitch Women’s Organization or N’shei Chabad
By: Dovi Seldowitz
It is impossible to discuss the work of Chabad without the specific mention of Chabad women. Women’s activism is one of the key features that distinguishes Chabad from other Chasidic movements as well as from other Orthodox outreach groups; it is incorporated within most major Chabad organizations where women serve as administrators, event organizers, program directors, writers, lecturers and editors. Chabad women have been involved in outreach activities for decades, and strong recognition should be accorded to the Lubavitch Women’s Organization, an organization which was founded for the very purpose of involving Chabad women in the movement’s outreach activities.
The Lubavitch Women’s Organization, Agudas N’shei Chabad in Hebrew (commonly known as N’shei U’bnos Chabad or simply N’shei Chabad), was founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the early 1950s. The Rebbe had sought the inclusion of Chasidic women in the Chabad movement’s outreach activities and local community life; at the time of its founding, N’shei Chabad stood out among other Orthodox women’s groups for focusing not on fundraising or auxiliary activities, but on Jewish education for girls and women both in local communities as well as in outreach settings. Today, very much as a result of the N’shei Chabad’s activities, Chabad women are very much a part of communal life and the Chabad movement’s outreach activities would be incomplete without their participation. This trend stands out as few religious organizations and movements in the United States boast high numbers of women in leadership roles. Chabad is among the few religious groups in America with a high percentage of women in leadership roles.
While the women of Chabad, their community standing and participation, have been the subject of study for a number of social scientists and journalists, the N’shei Chabad organization was of particular interest to a young Jewish sociologist in the 1980s. Dr. Bonnie Morris wrote her thesis on the activism of Chabad women and has written on the activities of the N’shei Chabad, paying particular attention to the writings of the women activists in the publications of the N’shei Chabad. According to Dr. Morris, the activist role enabled the Chabad woman to become a real participant in Chabad communal life, its activism and the formulation of Chabad’s activist ideology.
The status of women in society is a matter that became a central and defining issue for American women in late 1960s and 1970s. For Chabad women, the Lubavitch Women’s Organization allowed them to not only be involved in community activism and outreach but to even take a unique stance on key feminist issues of the day. The N’shei Chabad resisted the “liberation” aspects of the feminist movement, instead, offered a unique position of religious female leadership to Chabad women, a role that was and is still very much evolving. Chabad women today are by no means bound by the limits of this one organization, instead they may assume a number of roles in the various existing Chabad organizations, and nothing prevents them from forming new groups to tackle whatever challenges they feel that need to be addressed.
Looking back, the activities of the N’shei Chabad organization has had a significant impact of the status of Chabad women today. The organization’s achievements has enabled women, both young and old, to become leaders, not only for their local Chasidic communities, but for the movement’s national and global outreach organizations as well.
Note: Over the years, the N’shei Chabad published a number of publications, below is a partial list of their works.
- Di Yiddishe Heim – a Yiddish/English magazine for Lubavitch women, published twice (later four times) a year, running from 1958 to 1994?;
- N’shei Chabad Newsletter – an English magazine for Lubavitch women, running from 1976-present;
- The Spice and Spirit of Kosher Cooking – a bestselling cookbook with multiple printings, includes educational material on kashrut, challah and the Jewish holidays;
- AURA: A Reader on Jewish Womanhood – a 1984 essay collection on the role of the Jewish woman;
- A Candle of My Own – a short illustrated work published in 1977 on lighting shabbat candles featuring a collection of poems and compositions submitted by a number of young girls to N’shei Chabad;
- Return to Roots – a 1979 book on the growth of N’shei Chabad in Europe;
- The Gift – a short paperback book of essays on shabbat and candle lighting;
- Body & Soul: A Handbook for Kosher Living – a 1992 book on kashrut;
- Shlichus: Outreach Insights – A two volume resource guide for Chabad outreach workers.
The N’shei Chabad was also behind a number of other Chabad publications such as The Modern Jewish Woman, a 1981 collection of essays on the role of the Jewish woman.
 See, Eli Rubin, “Lubavitch Women’s Organization: Chassidic Feminism 1951-1953,” Chabad.org; “The Woman in Lubavitch,” Chabad.org; Bonnie J. Morris, “Hasidic Women in the United States,” Jewish Women’s Archive – Encyclopedia, JWA.org.
 See, Tiffani Lennon, D. Spotts, and M. Mitchell, “Benchmarking women’s leadership in the United States,” Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver (2013); R. C. Berman, ”Chabad women on campus defy stereotype of ‘rabbi’s wife.’” Lubavitch.com, November 11, 2008.
 See, Bonnie J. Morris, “Agents or victims of religious ideology? Approaches to locating Hasidic women in feminist studies,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America (1995): 161-181; Bonnie J. Morris, Lubavitcher Women in America: Identity and Activism in the Postwar Era, SUNY Press, 2012.