(JTA) — Thousands of women who serve as Chabad emissaries gathered this week in Brooklyn for a conference that’s meant to provide a mix of professional development and networking opportunities. But on the conference’s first afternoon on Thursday, many of the attendees came together not to meet but to mourn.
Standing under an overcast sky outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, the movement’s headquarters in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, the crowd of women formed the core of a funeral procession for a colleague, Henya Federman, 40, an emissary of the Hasidic outreach movement who died on Wednesday. Federman, who was based in the U.S. Virgin Islands with her family, had been on life support for nearly three months after trying unsuccessfully to save her 4-month-old daughter from drowning.
The women, who made up the vast majority of the attendees, many standing with strollers and small children of their own, pulled out their miniature prayer books, whispering psalms to themselves and words of comfort to each other as they embraced. The crowd was largely silent. Chabad funerals do not traditionally include eulogies, for fear of embellishing the life of the deceased.
Some women let tears fall quietly down their faces, while others wailed as their bodies shuddered. Still others focused on religious logistics: One woman asked another which psalms to say, in the absence of any other expressions of solace.
Although the conference attendees traveled to New York City from across the globe, some had a personal connection to Federman. Nechama Laber, a Chabad emissary based near Albany, said her husband grew up with Federman, who was originally from Milwaukee. Federman’s parents, Rabbi Yisroel and Bracha Devorah Shmotkin, opened the first Chabad-Lubavitch center in Wisconsin in 1968. Laber said the family “had a great impact.”
Like her parents, Federman and her husband, Rabbi Asher Federman, were the first Chabad emissaries in their adopted city. The couple founded the Chabad-Lubavitch of St. Thomas in 2005. She is survived by her husband and 12 children.
Laya Slavin, a Chabad emissary based in Sydney, had been praying for Federman’s recovery for the past two months.
“We were davening from Australia,” Slavin said. “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”