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Jewish Journal

Mrs. Matriarch

Miriam Cunin has her hands full as matriarch to both her large family and the Chabad community.

by Julie G Fax

August 15, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Miriam Cunin walks past the wall of books and the plastic-covered sofas in her living room toward a narrow table packed with photographs. Across the middle, there is a row of picture frames, each containing a black-bearded male and a bewigged woman, along with various numbers of children.

"This is Larchmont, Malibu, Cheviot Hills, Beverlywood, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood," she says, tapping each one as she goes down the row.

Cunin, wife of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the head of West Coast Chabad, is immensely proud of her children and the communities they lead. She can boast that all 13 not only stayed on the path of Chabad Chasidus, but that they themselves are already, or will become, leaders in Southern California communities.

It is a feat not many can boast, and to Cunin the formula is deceptively simple.

"We just shared our information about how wonderful it is, how fortunate we are to be connected to the Rebbe," she says of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his mystical approach to Torah and good deeds. Then, with the confident smile and accompanying shrug of one who has figured it out, she invokes a mantra that comes back several times in the conversation: "Once you know, you know."

This kind of clarity and faith seems to underlie much of how Cunin approaches her role as an educator and role model in Chabad.

She is a young looking 55, elegantly put together and much calmer than one would expect from a mother of 13 and grandmother of, knayne hara, many grandchildren (don't bother asking how many, she doesn't count).

She speaks quickly and quietly, a slight hint of her Parisian birth and Yiddish-speaking upbringing accent her speech.

She is as understated and gentle as her husband is bear-like.

Rabbi Cunin says his wife's equanimity, stemming from a reserve of deep faith, has balanced the family's energy level. He says he always tried to keep business out of the home, which worked well with Miriam Cunin's desire to maintain some privacy for her very public family.

"She is a calm bastion of strength and faith," Rabbi Cunin says of his wife, whom he married when she was 17.

Still, as is the case with most Chabad couples sent as emissaries, Miriam Cunin has been an integral part of building West Coast Chabad, the mission the Lubavitcher Rebbe entrusted to the young couple.

"We felt so privileged that the Rebbe would give us such a mission," she says.

The Cunins have built West Coast Chabad into an empire of myriad Chabad Houses, dozens of schools, camps and programs and the annual Chabad Telethon. Along the way, Rabbi Cunin has encountered his share of controversy.

"We believe in the same things, we have the same goals and ideals," she says of her husband. "It is painful that it has to go through a period of controversy, but I know we are doing the right thing, and truth will prevail. We've always felt that way," she says.

Her role in Chabad varies widely, but includes teaching classes on marriage and family, organizing monthly luncheons for Chabad women and occasionally the international convention for Chabad women, when it is in Los Angeles.

Her son, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, who publishes Fabrengen magazine for Chabad, always has his mother -- a gifted wordsmith, poet and artist -- read all the copy before the magazine goes to press.

She also ends up spending a lot of time on the phone, advising women who seek her help.

"I might make a call for a luncheon but all of sudden they need something, and it turns into a wonderful opportunity to help someone," she says.

Her son points to his mother's private accomplishments, as well. She spends every Friday afternoon going to old age homes, where she lights Shabbat candles with 70 or 80 patients who consider her a daughter (some patients with dementia actually think she is their daughter). She brings new mothers prayers and a care package.

And then, of course, there is the job of being a mother and bubbie to a family the size of a small company.

He says a day hardly goes by when his mother doesn't run into a grandchild somewhere -- and she always know what is going on in that child's life. She has a list of birthdays and anniversaries for her entire family, and on each occasion she calls the whole family to remind them to call each other. No birthday passes without a cake and a present from Bubbie.

Every Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Jewish month, the entire family comes for dinner to the Westwood duplex the Cunin's have lived in since they moved from the Fairfax area, soon after they arrived in Los Angeles.

"We grew up as such a team, such a unit," Rabbi Chaim Cunin says of his family: two girls, six boys and then five more girls, in that order.

Shira, 15, is the second to youngest and good friends with one of her oldest nieces -- who is in Shira's class.

"There's always something new going on, always a new talent and there's always an excitement to it, because of the love that is expressed, and because of the ways of Chasidus that give deeper meaning to everything," Shira says. "There is an inner joy of life that plays out in every detail."

She says her mother's pure faith helped pull the family through a three-year period when her father was in Russia, working to secure the release of the Lubavitcher library the government continues to hold.

Miriam Cunin's family goes back several generations in Chabad, hailing from the eponymous town of Lubavitch in Russia. Her grandfather was a rabbi in Communist Moscow, and she was born in Vienna, while her parents were en route from Russia to Paris after the Holocaust. When she was 7, they came to Crown Heights, N.Y., Chabad's postwar headquarters.

"My family has so many experiences, and we know this is the right way. It's wonderful when you can live in confidence that what you are doing is right."

After all, "once you know," she says with a smile and a shrug, "you know."

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