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“Me Time” That’s More Than Just a Manicure

It took two years of intense work to bring WINGS to life


Name: Esther Rubinfeld
Location: Lakewood, NJ
Dream: Create opportunities for women to tap into their inner greatness

I grew up in Boro Park in the house of what the newspapers like to call “a noted askan” but without any of the hype. 

My father, Mr. Chesky Kauftheil, has founded or been involved in over 30 community organizations to date, because when he sees a need, he fills it. My parents raised us with the bedrock understanding that any talents or gifts we have are nothing more than a pipeline for Hashem’s shefa, to be used on behalf of others. 

While both single and as a young married, I taught, directed plays, and gave workshops, with a goal of building girls’ self-esteem and showing them their limitless potential. You could say that giving women tools to live their best lives is a passion of mine.

When I moved to Lakewood as a newlywed, I found myself surprisingly bored. Though I kept busy with work,  I had no siblings or friends in the area, and no way to meet new people. Socially, I was at loose ends.

Together with an aunt and a friend, I started a group called PENIMA, where we hosted a weekly shiur in a local retirement home. It was beautiful, but it petered out. We were all feeling pulled in too many different directions by our work and family commitments.

I’d just decided to stop directing school plays and reduce my teaching load when a fellow teacher asked if she could introduce me to Rabbi Shmuel Chaim Weisberg, a man who had an Idea. At first I said no way, I’m trying to scale back, not take on new projects. But she got me to agree to “just a meeting,” and I found that Rabbi Weisberg and I shared an identical dream.

The vision that Rabbi Weisberg had, and that he hired me to bring to life, was an oasis for women — a place for them to come hear shiurim, but so much more than that. WINGS, as it came to be called, is also a place to socialize, learn new skills, and build community — a community based upon a shared desire to learn and grow.

We didn’t rush to open a good-enough product; our philosophy was that if we wanted women to feel the gift we were giving them, it had to be done right. 

We developed custom software, so that each new member receives a membership card, which is also a key-card to the building, and a library card for our expansive library. Each member isn’t just coming to shiurim, she’s becoming a card-carrying member of a community. She’s buying into a concept: that every woman, no matter how busy with good things, can elevate her life through high-level Torah wisdom.

I chose colors to reflect our vision and was involved in the decor, aiming to  project just the right welcoming air. Our lobby has comfortable couches, armchairs, computer kiosks and refreshments, where women can linger and make friends. One woman even wanted to know if she could stay to knit (she could). 

In my ninth month of pregnancy, just before opening day, there I was, frantically supervising the paint crew to make sure they got it right. “Are you the foreman?” asked one Hispanic worker.

It took two years of intense work to bring WINGS  to life. Along the way, I got my fair share of discouragement. Well-meaning acquaintances had no shortage of predictions about why WINGS wouldn’t take off: “People are too busy.” “Lakewood doesn’t need this.” “Are you sure it’s wise to give up your teaching job?” But I never stopped believing in the vision. I knew it would be successful. It had to be.

What strengthened my resolve, ironically, was the all-out campaign the yetzer hara waged the year we prepared for opening. In the span of a few months, I was forced to move (with a newborn) due to a gas explosion, I broke my foot, and dealt with numerous other mini-crises. It was so clear to me that the yetzer hara didn’t want this to happen, so I doubled down and worked even harder.

Today, in our second year, we have 450 members, and over 100 women come and go throughout each day. I find that women initially hesitate to walk through the door — maybe they’re shy, or feel self-conscious about having enough time to actually do something for themselves? — but once they do, 99% come back again.

Our group is a real melting pot. At our recent Rosh Chodesh event, we had a kumzitz with songwriter Dina Storch, and I looked around and saw retirees from the 55+ adult communities singing their hearts out alongside young stay-at-home mothers and busy professionals. Every demographic was represented. Our on-site babysitting means even young mothers can participate.

Every quarter, as we finalize the class schedule for the upcoming months, I get calls and texts from working women who want to build their schedule around their favorite classes. More than once, I’ve been told, “I wish I could move in here.” 

Thanks to our program director, Mrs. Leah Lustiger, it’s like school but without the politics, or the boring teachers or homework, just the best teachers, most stimulating learning, and warm social atmosphere. We complement each other’s style; I dream and she makes it materialize, and together we create a balance of classes that will appeal to everyone.      

Some women who haven’t had an opportunity for serious learning since high school are thrilled and energized to be challenged by rigorous textual learning, while others love the relationship classes or art workshops. Some love the interactive discussion groups and the chance to connect with mentors. Me, I’m humbled and grateful to be able to use my talents to provide the women of our town with “me time” that’s so much more than just a manicure or going out to eat: it’s about filling ourselves with Torah that can spill out into all areas of our lives.

The sky’s the limit as we plan the new initiatives we want to bring to Lakewood’s women. We’ve already piloted a new program, WINGS@ Work, where one of our teachers goes to an office to give a mini-burst of inspiration during the lunch break. We also rolled out a singles program, and hope to host a Shabbaton one day.

Though WINGS is my dream job, it’s an all-consuming calling. When I’m here, I’m fully on, greeting people and engaging with them non-stop. I love it, but sometimes I need to retreat to get some work done from home. 

Being home refreshes me to continue giving my all, which is really a microcosm of what we do at WINGS — creating an environment that provides a respite from the breakneck speed of our hectic lives, and nourishes the mind and spirit.

What superpower do you daydream about having? An automatic shut-off button for the buzzing in my brain. I’d come home and push a button to turn off any lingering preoccupation about work, schedules, or logistics.

If you could visit anyone, alive or dead, whom would you meet? I’d sit down with Rebbetzin Zehava Braunstein a”h. Things were simpler when I was a teacher. Now that I’m sort of still in the chinuch world, but in an administrative, almost corporate role, I work hard to balance my drive and ambition while still retaining the feminine quality that’s so important for a mother. Rebbetzin Braunstein was such a doer and still such a woman, and I’d want her perspective on how to balance my roles.

What is your dream vacation? Anywhere quiet, by the water, just me and my husband. 

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 678)

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