In a world where dressing provocatively constantly garners attention, Rivkah Slonim stands out in a different way. Her conservative dress is a way of showing that personality is more than fabric-deep.
Slonim co-founded Chabad at Binghamton 25 years ago in 1985 with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim.
On the outside, she is always covered to the forearm and calf by her clothing, but on the inside she has a fiery passion that never fails to release its warmth to others.
‘I definitely don’t think she is the norm ‘ she has some special energy,’ said Rabbi Levi Slonim, her first-born child and director of programming and development of Chabad at Binghamton.
She walked into the conference room on the second level of the Chabad house wearing a long-sleeve, maroon-colored T-shirt and a denim skirt that brushed against her ankles at the hem.
Apologizing for being a few minutes late to the interview, she explained that her son had just hurt his arm the night before, and she was planning to take him to the doctor a little later that morning.
Even through rough times, Slonim maintains the balance between mother, wife and Chabad’s education director.
She also apologized for her appearance, explaining that she had planned to go home and change before the appointment.
Even though she looked perfectly presentable, as someone so focused on modesty, dressing appropriately is of the utmost importance to her.
According to Slonim, modest dress is part of a Jewish ritual that has roots in the Bible and expands into more specifics in the Talmud and Code of Jewish law.
She explained that women who follow these traditions understand that to reveal and expose one’s mind and real persona, it’s necessary to cover that which may distract others.
‘It’s the same way that any serious female attorney is not going to try to argue a case in front of a jury in a bikini for very obvious reasons,’ Slonim said. ‘It’s about retaining one’s dignity and showing oneself in a way that’s whole.’
Slonim said she wonders if women might not do more to change the stereotypes about themselves.
‘We live in a society where women complain about being treated as sex symbols but don’t really do enough to discourage that way of thinking by presenting themselves differently,’ Slonim said.
According to Levi Slonim, practicing modesty allows them to focus on what’s really important in life.
‘It allows us to connect with people in a true way and focus more on the interior as opposed to the exterior,’ Levi Slonim said. ‘That being said, I think that Judaism leaves a lot of room for people to look good within the confines of modesty.’
Slonim does this in myriad ways ‘ with both her appearance and her actions.
She has compiled books, traveled around the world ‘ to Israel, South Africa, Canada and Panama to name a few ‘ and spoken to thousands as a part of her mission to promote Judaism.
Humble and modest, she still stands out.
‘People rush over to speak with her after public appearances,’ Levi Slonim said. ‘She just gives everything she’s got.’
That ‘everything’ gets stretched in many directions. On top of her family of nine children, she is mother to a family that includes hundreds of students.
‘She really treats all the students just like her own children,’ Levi Slonim said.
Slonim also balances many different roles at once in the workplace, from cook to counselor to nurse. She’s program director and dishwasher, too. The fuel for this woman’s fire is not hard to find.
‘I feed off of the inspiration of the students,’ Slonim said. ‘In many ways I’ve grown up here as a person.’
For students, the feeding comes every Friday night at Shabbat dinner. Students who go there every week have learned to expect baskets of Challah, sesame seed pasta salad, sweet Kugel and wonderful company. But perhaps the warmest addition to the dinner is Slonim herself.
Ariella Fineman, Greek liaison for Chabad’s student executive board, said Slonim is one of the people who most attracted her to Chabad.
‘Because of how welcoming and loving she was when I first got to Chabad, I felt like it was the right place for me,’ she said.
Fineman’s favorite Chabad treat is the pumpkin pie served during the fall months, but she also looks forward to the sense of community she takes away with her every week.
‘Ever since I’ve been there it felt like home,’ she said. ‘Rivky has a lot to do with that.’
Slonim also keeps it real. According to Levi Slonim, his mother went to speak in a community setting about strengthening Jewish observance. At a certain point in the talk she said, ‘Don’t think it’s easy, at times it’s difficult for me, but I know what I’m doing brings meaning into my life.’
When one woman heard this statement, she could immediately relate.
‘The statement had a big impact on this woman, and she felt for once that she met someone who was realistic and honest about things,’ Levi Slonim said.
Slonim’s main goal, she said, is to give every student the opportunity to find themselves within the Jewish community on campus.
‘I think I was intimidated at first by the size and the level of observance at Chabad,’ Fineman said. ‘But after being there and experiencing a true, real, full Shabbat dinner, I realized they were people just like me.’