Naomi Rosenfeld threw herself into projects in a way that inspired others. “Naomi’s can-do spirit was infectious,” said Rivkah Slonim of Chabad of Binghamton, N.Y., with whom Rosenfeld forged a deep relationship while she was a student at Binghamton University; Rosenfeld graduated in 1997. She also had what Slonim called a “deep, real, and robust relationship” with God.
When Rosenfeld got sick, she tried everything medically possible and she also turned to God. “She prayed and said psalms and she ignited a firestorm of women and men praying, saying psalms, going to the mikvah, delivering challah,” said Slonim. “Her battle became everyone’s battle.”
Rosenfeld died from complications related to breast cancer in June 2017 at the age of 42, leaving behind her husband and four young children.
Throughout her illness, her tight-knit circle of friends, who considered themselves her “soul sisters,” stayed close, taking her to appointments and doing what they could to help the family, according to a member of that group, Toba Leah Grossbaum, Chabad emissary and codirector with Dara Orbach of Mikvah Chana in Livingston.
This coming Shabbat, they, along with women from as far away as Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., will head to the Westminster Hotel in Livingston for a Shabbaton in Rosenfeld’s memory. Dubbed “Spa for the Soul,” it is timed to coincide roughly with her first yahrtzeit, the 22nd of Sivan, which this year corresponded to June 5.
It is one of at least five major efforts afoot in her memory. Each recalls a facet of her dedication to Jewish learning, spirituality, experience, and community. In addition to the Shabbaton, they include a new community space at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, a bridal suite at Mikvah Chana in Livingston, a challah delivery program at Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, and a named lecture at Chabad of Binghamton.
“She was a fiercely intelligent woman who had an iron will, and she was ambitious in the best usage of that term,” said Slonim. Rosenfeld, who held an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was a marketing director at Mondelez International, and worked until six weeks before her death. Friends would take her to appointments at 6 a.m. so she could be at work on time, recalled Grossbaum.
But more than her profession, she loved her children, according to those who knew her well. As Slonim said at Rosenfeld’s funeral, they were the “four chambers of her heart.”
One of the biggest projects in her memory is taking place at JKHA/RKYHS, attended by all four of her children. The school is building a 10,000-square-foot space for communal gatherings, celebrations, and experiential learning.
“The children spend so much time in school, we wanted them to have something in a place that is a second home to them,” said Lauren Shapiro, the school’s director of development. The focus of the Naomi Rosenfeld Kehilah Center, as the space is being called, is experiential learning.
“Naomi felt that by experiencing Judaism — like the joy of dancing and singing and experiences that bring Judaism to life — the children would learn to love Torah and the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” said Shapiro. The space, located underneath the middle school wing, was formerly used for storage. It will be adjacent to the high school floor hockey area. The school raised $600,000 to renovate the space and work is expected to be both started and completed this summer.
Rosenfeld was particularly interested in the mitzvah of mikvah, a ritual bath used for observers of family purity laws and other rituals, and served as treasurer of Mikvah Chana from its inception. Grossbaum credits Slonim, who wrote a book on mikvah and often took students on tours of one in Binghamton, with inspiring Rosenfeld’s connection.
She pushed good deeds throughout her illness, according to Grossbaum. “People would say, ‘Can I make you a meal?’ She would say, ‘Don’t bring me a meal. Do a mitzvah. Go to the mikvah.’” The Mikvah Chana renovation, with a price tag of $50,000, will create a proper bridal suite in her memory. Grossbaum acknowledged they had a room for soon-to-be brides, “but it was the same as the other rooms.” The new one will include heated floors, new tiles and mirrors, rain showerheads, and free-standing tubs, among other luxury features.
At Rosenfeld’s congregation, Suburban Torah, the project in her memory grew out of one she had taken on while she was sick. Every week, she and one of her daughters would bake challah and deliver the loaves to seniors. After she died, the congregation formalized the effort as “Naomi’s Challah.” Every Friday, members of the congregation deliver challah to elderly residents of the community. The effort kicked off in September and has continued through the year.
“Sometimes an illness takes a great person and makes them greater,” said Rabbi Elie Mischel, religious leader of Suburban Torah Center. “She rose to the hardest challenge of life and shone in a way that was extraordinary.”
The idea for this weekend’s “Spa for the Soul” Shabbaton came from Rosenfeld herself.
Slonim recalled that after an alumni retreat at Chabad of Binghamton two years ago, Rosenfeld whispered in her ear, “You know what we have to do next? A women’s retreat.” Slonim agreed. Before they could launch the project, however, Rosenfeld’s health took a turn for the worse.
“The next year we were saying goodbye,” said Slonim. But she had a hunch she could hold the kind of weekend Rosenfeld had envisioned, in her memory, with the help of Grossbaum at Mikvah Chana and Rosenfeld’s tight-knit circle of friends at Suburban Torah Center and beyond.
Of the weekend’s plans, Slonim said, “It’s so Naomi.” It will include workshops, learning, singing and dancing, yoga and massages, even jewelry making. Sunday morning will feature a tribute to Rosenfeld, including a performance by a women’s a cappella group. “It’s going to be an unforgettable weekend to bolster the spirit, nourish the soul, expand our minds,” said Slonim. “It’s very in keeping with everything that Naomi was all about.”
Although it is too late to register for the full Shabbaton, the Sunday tribute, for women only, is open to the public from 9 to 10:30 a.m. For information, contact email@example.com.
On the spot, in the middle of her conversation with NJJN, Slonim was moved to add one more event to the growing list of tributes in Rosenfeld’s memory: that lecture, which is really an annual Friday night dinner for women to learn about the mikvah. From now on, she announced, it will be called the “Naomi Rosenfeld Ladies Night at Chabad.”
And in recognition of the uncanny way things sometimes play out, she recalled that when Chabad of Binghamton decided to commission a Torah in honor of its 30th anniversary, Rosenfeld was the first to donate to the effort, purchasing the first verse of Genesis. “She was always looking for every possible zechut,” or merit, said Slonim.
The Torah was completed the day of Rosenfeld’s funeral. “Nobody could have predicted that but God,” Slonim said.
Three letters were added at the end of the scroll representing Rosenfeld’s three initials.