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Graduate Student Embarks on Research Trips to Explore the Role of Gender in Chabad Culture


Chava Green is a doctoral student in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion (GDR), with a focus on Jewish Studies and feminist ethnography.   As part of her dissertation research – which considers the relationship between feminism and Hasidic mystical texts in the formation of gender discourse in Chabad Hasidic communities – Green received grant funding from the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies to visit such communities for herself. 

Chabad (an acronym for the Hebrew words chochma, binah, da’at – wisdom, understanding, knowledge), was founded in the late 18th century in the Russian Empire, and is today one of the largest and best known Hasidic movements. It is sometimes known as Chabad-Lubavitch, after its town of origin in contemporary Belarus. Like other Hasidic groups, Chabad is characterized by its strict adherence to orthodox practice and the traditions of Eastern European Jews, as well as by its emphasis on mystical philosophy. But it developed a unique profile in the post-World War II period when, under the leadership of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, it became a worldwide movement focused on outreach activities among secular Jews.  Green’s dissertation research examines a particular aspect of this outreach work: the role of Chabad rebbetzins (the wives of rabbis), who in their capacity as outreach workers are commonly known as shluchos (in English, “Emissaries”). By examining the role of the shlucha, she hopes to explore the interplay between Chabad’s textual tradition and contemporary gender roles, and how this engagement shapes Chabad’s spiritual life and mission.

Green’s ethnographic research has taken her to several locations along the east coast of the United States. Her initial focus was on interviewing and observing shluchos on college campuses, including the University of Pennsylvania and Middlebury College, where she thought their work would be most significantly informed and challenged by the juxtaposition of contemporary gender concerns and traditional Hasidic philosophy.  As her fieldwork unfolded, however, the realization struck Green that this interplay of influences and concerns is taking place in a broader array of settings—not just on the frontiers of Chabad outreach, but also within some of the movement’s core institutions and communities. This led Green’s scope to widen to consider the roles of shluchos who serve as rebbetzins in off-campus congregations and Chabad centers, as female educators, and as participants in the activities of Chabad’s hub community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

This broadened focus serves as an important benchmark as Green determines where to take her research next.  One question is how she might bring a greater consideration of the Chabad textual tradition into her work, something her advisor, Prof. Don Seeman, says she is particularly well positioned to do. “Chava is uniquely trained in both feminist theory and ethnographic method and knows how to read Hasidic texts,” he explains. “Her work promises to unsettle all three fields—women’s studies, anthropology and Jewish studies—by showing the subtle ways in which Hasidic women both adapt and transcend textual culture. She shows how the late Lubavitcher Rebbe simultaneously defended Hasidic tradition and opened up completely new forms of participation for women, and how women today understand, argue about or enact those teachings.”

As she considers the future contours of her work, Green remains intensely focused on conducting more interviews, currently scheduling three or four on Zoom each week and growing her list of those to reach out to. She is particularly enjoying her conversations with older Chabad women and has been surprised by their pushback against the notion that they are limited by a “traditional” model of gender roles within the movement.  “The women jump in right away and say ‘no, no, no’, there’s no traditional model,” Green reports. “The Chabad rebbetzins really see themselves as crafting their own experiences . . . I’ve seen a lot of individual variation in how people personally implement their value systems.”