Yud-Alef Nissan 5732 (1972), was the Rebbe’s 70th birthday. The Rebbe asked his chassidim to establish 71 new institutions around the world to correspond to his age. 770 seethed like a cauldron as chassidim tried to think of ideas for new mosdos. A committee was formed in the U.S. and Eretz Yisroel to serve as a clearinghouse for the ideas for 71 new mosdos.
Mrs. Sara Labkowski, a young mother of two children, heard the Rebbe’s sicha from her seat in the ezras nashim, and was deeply affected. With the ardor of youth and with unusual daring, one can say, she sat down to write to the Rebbe about her idea for a new mosad: a school where women and girls who wanted to learn about Judaism could do so. Back then, this idea was radical.
This was the beginning of the 70′s, at the tail end of the hippie era. Self-indulgent American youth had rebelled and were searching for meaning in life. They yearned for spirituality, and anarchy prevailed.
Religious Jewry was a world unto itself, and it feared contact with the outside world. The only movement that opened its doors to these thirsty neshamos was Chabad. Chabad actually went on the offensive in order to be mekarev the “lost ones in the land of Ashur and the outcasts in Egypt.” Slowly, more and more young men and women were seen in Crown Heights schools. They had come for answers.
At that time, 770 was frequented primarily by Anash from Russia and Poland, old-time chassidim. Baalei t’shuva were not a common sight, and suddenly longhaired hippies had appeared and wanted to know what Chabad was all about. It was definitely a unique phenomenon.
N’shei Chabad in the U.S. asked Mrs. Labkowski to give a class to women once a week on Sunday. Mrs. Labkowski relates:
“We started small. I gave a halacha class and a young man gave a class in chassidus, in the small shul on Montgomery St. That winter, the man left, so I gave both classes. I moved the shiur to my house. We served coffee and cake and the atmosphere was homey and warm. Despite the limitations we had great success. One woman brought another, and the group began to grow. We had quality in addition to quantity. We had a student who attended N.Y.U. who progressed at an amazing pace. Whatever topic was raised, she immediately implemented. We spoke about kashrus and she began keeping kosher. When we learned about tznius and the separation between men and women, she immediately left the co-ed dormitory. Thanks to her, I suddenly realized the vast potential that lay in these classes. By the way, today that student runs a beautiful chassidic home and is assistant principal in a school in Chicago.”
“So it wasn’t surprising when the Rebbe called for new mosdos that I thought this was the time to expand our horizons. I didn’t know how or what, but I dearly wanted to do something. The Rebbe’s answer to my letter arrived shortly thereafter, and it showed me how the Rebbe took women’s education so seriously: “This mosad, its importance, and perhaps even its responsibility, is greater than that of the men.” Then the Rebbe went on to lay down a number of founding principles: to take a representative from N’shei Chabad (that’s when Mrs. Leah Klein joined); not to open a dormitory at that time; and to be particular about the social milieu of the girls.
AM PARTIAL …
This was the small beginning of a mosad which grew to an impressive size, both in quality and quantity. The beginning was difficult but there was lots of enthusiasm and excitement. They were all volunteers and saw this as a great z’chus. Classes were held on Sundays, plus two evenings a week, and they used different shuls in the neighborhood. There was no funding, and when the founders wrote about this to the Rebbe, they were told to devote themselves solely to the ruchnius, and that they should turn to the Merkaz L’Inyonei Chinuch for the gashmius. Thus, every month, Rabbi Chadakov covered the bill he was given.
The mosad still didn’t have a name. A month after they had begun, the founders asked the Rebbe for permission to name the school after the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, a”h. The Rebbe asked that they wait until the mosad had proven itself and was firmly established. The school was more firmly established after two months. There were three classes on different levels, with 80 students. They asked about the name again, offering three suggestions (“Chana,” “Beis Chana,” and “Machon Chana”), and the Rebbe chose “Machon Chana.”
From that point on, the mosad enjoyed a warm and fatherly relationship with the Rebbe. The Rebbe often inquired about even the smallest details, and received detailed reports about the school. Not a move was made without the Rebbe’s approval. The Rebbe once said, “Der vos iz mir choshed az ich bin a nogei’a b’davar tzu Machon Chana iz gerecht” (Whoever suspects me of being partial to Machon Chana is right).
Things picked up speed in the summer of 5733 when Rabbi J.J. Hecht (who ran the men’s school for baalei t’shuva, Hadar HaTorah) suggested that Machon Chana join their summer program in the Catskills.
At that time, the Rebbe was asked how they should proceed being that things had to be formalized and teachers had to be paid. The need for a dormitory had grown, and they had the opportunity to buy a beautiful four-story home on President Street. The Rebbe responded with a detailed two-part letter (Igros Kodesh, vol. 27, p. 343). The first part spoke about working with Rabbi Hecht. In the second part, the Rebbe suggested that they plan a dinner for the school. Rabbi Hecht also received a letter from the Rebbe in which the Rebbe asked him to take on the “Z’vulun’ role.” Upon receiving the Rebbe’s answer, Machon Chana bought the building so that the girls could live in a Jewish-chassidic environment 24-hours a day. The house cost $90,000, a fortune at that time. Members of the committee (which included Mrs. Tema Gurary, Mrs. Rivka Chitrik, Mrs. Sara Katzman, Mrs. Kurik, and Mrs. Riva Teleshevsky) worked on a dinner.
The dinner took place on Vav Tishrei, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Chana, and as the Rebbe had promised, “it would certainly pay,” it was a great success, and by the end of the evening, they had the money to buy the house.Most of the money came from members of the kollel who lent their wedding money, while Rabbi Avrohom Parshan of Toronto guaranteed the loans.
Once the dinner was over, the committee turned to the second part of the letter and established a working relationship with Rabbi Hecht. Rabbi Hecht rose to the challenge and enabled Sarah Labkowski and Leah Klein to devote themselves to the ruchnius with peace of mind. Rabbi Hecht’s tremendous devotion to the school contributed towards the school’s progress on all fronts.
On 10 Shvat 5734, the purchase of the building was completed. Five days later, the Rebbe surprised the hanhala of the school. Mrs. Labkowski relates:
“On Chamisha-Asar B’Shvat, Rabbi Chadakov called my mother, Mrs. Tema Gurary, and asked whether I felt strong enough to host the Rebbe at the new building (I had given birth two weeks before). My mother called me immediately, and naturally, I said yes! R. Hecht received a similar phone call, and of course he said yes, too. The pressure was enormous. I got together a group of ladies who were connected with the school, and we ran over to the building to prepare it for this special visit. We hadn’t yet entered the building, which had been neglected. Snow covered the path that led to the entrance. We began to clean up and someone ran to get a picture of the Rebbe, while another woman brought a picture of Rebbetzin Chana.”
“In the meantime, there was another surprise at 770. In the afternoon, with no prior warning, the Rebbe came out to the large shul, washed his hands for a meal, and began farbrenging. There was great excitement, and some of those present went out to inform their friends and family of the farbrengen. The place was quickly packed with people. Right after the farbrengen, the Rebbe left 770, accompanied by Rabbi Hecht, and instead of turning left, as he generally did on his way home, the Rebbe turned right and walked towards Kingston. The men and Tmimim standing there were curious about this, and they followed behind the Rebbe and Rabbi Hecht to see where they were going. So an impressive parade of men accompanied the Rebbe on his visit to Machon Chana.”
“In the meantime, we had finished cleaning the building and we waited at the window to see the Rebbe arrive. The Rebbe came in and looked around and gave us many brachos. He wished us mazal tov on the acquisition of the house, and before leaving, he gave a packet of dollars for me, and a packet of dollars for R. Hecht (which we used to buy a bookcase and a chandelier) and said, “This is for the ruchnius and this is for the gashmius.” The dollars were distributed to the girls at the end of each year. When the dollars were used up, I asked the Rebbe for more, and got them every year.”
Right after the visit, the Rebbe wrote a letter addressed to the group of women mentioned above and to Rabbi Hecht in which he expressed his great pleasure in the visit.
NIQUE TREATMENT FROM THE REBBE
It was the first visit, one of many at Machon Chana. Over the years, one could see the special relationship the Rebbe had with the school. The Rebbe was involved with the smallest details, and insisted on the school being dignified and elegant, and said that all expenditures for this purpose were worthwhile.
When the library was established, the Rebbe contributed a Chumash, Tanya, Tehillim, Kesser Shem Tov, and Magid Devarov L’Yaakov. A tradition was established among kallahs from all over to come to the dorm on their wedding day to daven in the Tehillim the Rebbe gave them.
When the furniture arrived, the Rebbe came to inspect and said the chandelier wasn’t elegant enough. The Rebbe went through the building and commented. He suggested that there be a door dividing the dining room and the living room, so the girls would have privacy. He also asked why there weren’t any mirrors and radios in the rooms. We saw that despite the emphasis on ruchnius, the Rebbe wanted the girls to have both feet firmly planted on the ground.
The concern and caring for the girls themselves was also unusual. One Friday night on his way home, the Rebbe stopped by the dorm and went in unexpectedly. The door wasn’t locked, so the Rebbe walked towards the dorm parents ( Chana Kurinsky’s) apartment, and alerted her to the importance of ensuring the girls’ safety and to making sure the door was always locked.
Each year, the Rebbe came before the seder in order to bless the girls. The Rebbe visited other mosdos too, like F.R.E.E., Hadar Hatorah, the orchim and the kitchen of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim. One year, when he went to Machon Chana after visiting the other mosdos, the Rebbe said to Rabbi Hecht with a smile, “Now, I’m going home.”
The Rebbe insisted that each girl have her own cup for Kiddush, and a matza cover. Each year, the Rebbe gave a package of matzos to Mrs Labkowski to be distributed to the girls. When the Rebbe visited the seder at the school, he blessed the girls that they should have the privilege of making a seder in their own homes the following year.
The line that best expressed the Rebbe’s feelings about Machon Chana was what he said to the devoted housemother, Mrs. Gansburg, “Thank you for raising my daughters.” After inspecting the kitchen The Rebbe asked Mrs. Mera Galperin obm, the cook, whether she prepared food for the girls like she prepared at home.
Each year, on Erev Yom Kippur, the Rebbe sent lekach for the girls, matzah on Erev Pesach and on Chamisha-Asar B’Shvat, the girls received a basket of fruit. The Rebbe requested that they send him a picture of the girls each year. The Rebbe once said that his mother’s presence is constantly at Machon Chana because the girls follow in her ways.
EEP, PERSONALIZED HASHPO’OH
The new dormitory was a breakthrough in the development of the school. It enabled the girls to study without concerns, and to be in a holy atmosphere 24-hours a day. Mrs. Gita Gansburg runs the dormitory. She and her husband, R. Itche Gansburg obm, lived in the dormitory, and are the girls’ “father and mother.”
Mrs. Gansburg is always there when a girl doesn’t feel well or needs sage advice. With her life experience and innate wisdom, she is able to help the girls overcome the difficulties inherent in the transition to a new life. The girls reciprocate her love and greatly respect her.
The teaching staff is always available to the girls, ready to listen, advise, and to provide direction on this new path. The staff models what a Jewish-chassidic life is all about. The fact that the students are in a chassidic neighborhood, the Rebbe’s sh’chuna no less, also contributes its share in shaping the girls. The girls are invited to different homes on Shabbos, where they can see a chassidic life being lived.
Mrs. Adelman is a former student of Machon Chana. She studied there in 5636, today is the mother of ten children, and runs a Chabad house in Amherst. She wrote the following and it was published in an article by Richard Greenberg under the heading, “A Spiritual Garden of Eden”: I was amazed by the tremendous spiritual wealth bestowed upon me at Machon Chana. From the special atmosphere, the chassidic light and warmth, from the friends in the dormitory with whom we dealt with the various difficulties together. I realized that every good thing I do connects me to G-d, to my people. The special image of Mrs. Labkovski was a model and example as opposed to the usual stereotype of a chassidic woman who is always in the kitchen with the pots. We saw an amazing woman with great power who was the driving force of the place, who identified a need and filled it.”
PARKS THAT BECAME A TORCH
The school experienced great hardship, but it continued to expand from year to year regardless. Dozens of girls who come from homes bereft of Judaism find their way each year to the school. Most of them ultimately build chassidic homes. Shluchim around the world know about Machon Chana’s success, and when they discover a girl who is interested in Yiddishkeit, they send her to Machon Chana, where she learns about a whole world previously unfamiliar to her.
Over one hundred girls attend the school each year for the two semester program, which prepares them for a full chassidic life, including a recognized teaching certificate. The curriculum includes a wide variety of topics such as Chumash, Navi, Halacha, T’filla, and the Jewish Home, with the primary emphasis placed on p’nimius ha’Torah and the teachings of the Chabad Rebbeim.
Some of the best lecturers have considered it a privilege to take part in this important work. Rabbi Shmuel Wudowsky, a’h, was a beloved figure to the girls. He was one of the school’s mashpiim who was completely devoted to the students.
Rabbi Shlomo Majeski leads the teaching staff as the menahel ruchni. He joined the school in 5741, and has since become an integral component of the school. Today, twenty-two years since he joined the staff, it is clear that Rabbi Majeski is one of the most sought-after speakers on chassidic subjects in the U.S. Rabbi Majeski noted that a special program exists for those intellectual girls who need instruction on a higher level. He also stressed that any girl who wants to pursue a particular topic is aided in her research and is provided with a private tutor.
Rabbi Majeski would like to dispel the myth that baal t’shuva schools in other circles emphasize study, while Chabad emphasizes action and neglects study. It’s just the opposite, for the facts, which speak for themselves, prove that those girls who want to enrich their knowledge are particularly satisfied when they encounter Chabad. As to the emphasis on action, the goal is to instill the girls with the truth which lies within Torah, so that the concepts of Judaism are translated into practice and become part of one’s daily conduct.
Rabbi Majeski relates: We once had a girl here from a Chabad house in the U.S. who was very bright and talented, and who had studied at a university and had excelled. She expressed an interest in learning about Judaism. The shliach, aware of her level of accomplishment, was apprehensive about referring her to Machon Chana, and thus, didn’t mention it to her. She began searching on her own, and discovered a program for baalos t’shuva in a non-chassidic school in Yerushalayim. She decided to attend it, but Divine providence had other ideas, and the Gulf War began and her parents were afraid to send her to Eretz Yisroel. She cancelled her plans and looked for a school in the U.S., and finally arrived at Machon Chana. At first she joined the program, but after she surpassed the pace and it was felt that she needed special attention, we arranged private lessons for her in Gemara and other subjects she wanted to learn. She loved it so much that she realized early on that this would be her home for the next two years. She felt she had come to the right place, and that she would be taught about authentic Judaism, which is what she sought. She quickly began taking on mitzvos too, and by the time she finished her studies, she was a full-fledged chassidic woman. She married a Tamim, and today they are shluchim.’ Needless to say, that shliach who had been afraid to refer her to us, was amazed by how it all worked out and by the unexpected success. Today he puts in great effort to send girls to our school.
Mrs. Labkowski: Over 15,000 women from around the world, have learned in our various programs. Baruch Hashem, most of them have established chassidic homes, including many who devote themselves to the Rebbe’s work in various mosdos or on shlichus. The shluchim around the world ignite the spark in their mekuravim, and then Machon Chana fans the spark into a huge flame. Looking back, we see how Chabad has grown tremendously, and I dare say that Machon Chana shares the credit for this.
What are your plans for the future?
Thanks to the generosity of the Gelman and Gurary families, the apartment building at 556 Crown Street’ building was purchased in 2001. One floor was renovated and serves as our school’ campus and the Levi Yitzchok Shul, founded by Machon Chana in honor of Rebbitzen Chana’s 30th Yahrzeit.
Plans for the building as a The Bayit Womens Community Center are underway with a state of the art mikvah, spa, children, teenage and womens centers, gym, swimming pool cafe, library with music & art centers will join the school and shul in offering the community a home and complete service center.
Once the campus is built, our work will expand, and will deal year-round not only with students, but with families and young girls from Chabad homes who need help and spiritual direction. We’ll have Shabbatons that we’ll plan in conjunction with shluchim who will be able to bring their mekuravim to Crown Heights, and we’ll provide them with a tailor-made program.
All this and more will be available to women and girls of all ages and all backgrounds, so that they can prepare themselves and their households to greet Moshiach. As the Rebbe said more than once, “In the merit of the righteous women our fathers were redeemed from Egypt, and in their merit we will be redeemed in the future.”
Machon Chana Womens Institute
Phone: (718) 735-0030
Fax: (718) 735-9175
556 Crown St
Brooklyn, NY 11213
1367 President St
Brooklyn, NY 11213