Chabbad Army at Ease
December 2, 2011
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
How the International Conference of Shluchim in Brooklyn turns the spotlight
inward on the experiences of each hassid.
The Chabad movement’s emissaries in cities and backwater villages
throughout the world are often described as an army. This week I had a rare
opportunity to observe their field officers at ease. I was one of a few women
reporters invited to the banquet of the International Conference of Shluchim
Once a year, the more than 4,000 men, called shluchim, who serve as outposts
of Judaism around the world are called into headquarters for five days of R&R
and training. They take part in practical seminars, study together and get updates
on current issues. They network with fellow emissaries. Their wives/co-emissaries,
the shluchot, who arrive for a women’s International Conference in February,
keep the Chabad House fires burning while the men are gone. At the end of the
intensive five days, they gather together with select financial supporters for
a banquet that recognizes their work.
Picture it. By car, by bus and by foot, men in black suits, untrimmed beards
and pinched and tilted black Borsalino fedoras converge on Pier 12 in Brooklyn
just as the sun is setting over the water. They are all dressed the same, but
conversation among the emissaries flows in English, Hebrew, Russian, French
Dozens of New York police and security officers on land, and even a sea force
including police boats and reportedly frogmen, secure the area. After the terror
attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008 no one is taking chances. I’m stopped
by a plainclothes security woman wondering what I could possibly be doing among
The banquet keeps outgrowing its venues. This year, seats have been oversold
at a port warehouse the size of an airplane hangar transformed into a banquet
hall with carpets and chandeliers. Speakers on a rotating stage are projected
on huge flat screens. Together with the supporters, there are nearly 5,000 men
in the room.
A few men like my husband are wearing light jackets and knitted kippot. There
are also a number of representatives of other hassidic sects, wearing the “wrong”
black hat. The vast majority are Lubavitchers who suddenly look so much alike
I keep thinking I see someone I know but realize I’m wrong.
I’m seated with the techies, most of whom are Israeli, working the sound, lights
and cameras, but in the break I’m escorted around the floor to conduct a few
interviews. No one seems to mind. Unlike some other religious Jews, Lubavitch
emissaries are accustomed to being in mixed company as they invite everyone
into their homes.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinksy, chairman of Merkaz L’Inyanei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational
arm which sponsors the conference, says the conferences are mainly aimed “at
recharging the batteries” of the emissaries. “It’s very hard and lonely work
and it helps to share experiences with others,” he says.
The women emissaries are considered equal in every sense, he stresses, and even
the children are viewed as having an important role in the work Chabad sets
out to do in the Jewish world. The emissaries share pragmatic ideas for running
their centers, but there’s more emphasis on the spiritual: how to inspire, how
to best celebrate Jewish holidays, how to answer thorny questions.
Young, idealistic couples are dispatched to distant shores with a few
contact numbers. Who of us has not witnessed their heroic efforts or benefited
from their presence? They are rabbis, cantors, cooks, ritual slaughterers,
bath builders, drug counselors, teachers, principals, social workers,
hurricane victim aid-givers, husbands and parents all at once.
THE EMISSARIES have to raise the funds to keep their Chabad houses open,
whether they are in Alaska or Cambodia. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the evening’s
key speaker, tells a joke about his concern about getting lost on his
honeymoon trip to the Swiss Alps. “I’ll just sing Chabad niggunim [traditional
melodies],” he told his puzzled wife.
“Wherever there is a lost Jew, Chabad never fails to rescue him.”
It turns out that Baron Jonathan Henry Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew
Congregations of the Commonwealth, owes his life trajectory to Chabad. He was
a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s when early emissaries dispatched
there by the Rebbe catalyzed his Jewish activism.
He traveled to the US and wanted to meet the renowned Rebbe Menachem Mendel
Schneerson. He was in Los Angeles visiting an aunt when the invitation came
through. He rode 72 hours on a Greyhound bus to keep an appointment that would
change his life. He was prepared to engage the rebbe in a discussion of theoretical
issues but soon found himself at the other end of a discussion of why he wasn’t
engaging more students in Judaism at Cambridge. Subsequent meetings and correspondence
directed Sacks to becoming a congregational rabbi and eventually chief rabbi.
“Wow, double wow,” said the usually hyper-articulate Rabbi Sacks, at the sight
of the sea of emissaries. “A good leader has many followers. A great leader
creates many leaders,” said Sacks of his mentor Schneerson. “He wasn’t only
one of the greatest Jewish leaders of our time. He was one of the greatest Jewish
leaders of all times.”
The impact of Chabad extends beyond the Jewish community, he said, noting the
rebbe’s concern in promulgating the seven Noahide Laws among non-Jews. Insists
Sacks: non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.
The banquet isn’t self-congratulatory, says emcee Rabbi Moshe J. Kotlarsky,
vice chairman of Merkaz L’Inyanei Chinuch and the conference chairman. The banquet
does celebrate achievement but the spotlight is turned inward on the experience
of each hassid. Indeed, there are no emotional testimonials by wayward Jews
who have found God in Katmandu or Berkeley. The theme, “There walks a hassid,”
reflects the need of each Chabad follower to demonstrate character that makes
him conspicuous in a positive way.
“He eats like a hassid. He sleeps like a hassid. When you see him you can tell
he’s a representative of his rebbe, no matter what environment he lives in,”
The evening proceeds with astounding order despite the huge number of men who
are having an elaborate dinner. At the tables closest to me, the emissaries
look tired. They are no longer starry-eyed newlyweds out to conquer the world.
Transforming the world is still their goal, but they know how hard it is. Tonight
they don’t have to interest Israeli backpackers in the week’s Torah portion
in Laos or make sure there’s enough matza for a Seder in Brazil. They have each
The energy in the hall picks up as the roll call of Chabad emissaries is read
out. Special praise is lavished on the team that has made Chabad so popular
Then each continent is announced by emissary children who come along with their
dads for five days of camp.
There are 15 emissaries in China alone, dozens of others in India, Thailand,
Russia, Argentina and Ukraine. At least a dozen black-hatted men leap to their
feet as “La Marseillaise” is played to salute French-speaking Chabad. You’ll
find Chabad in Nigeria and the Congo, on Mount Everest and the Virgin Islands.
I think of Sacks’s joke.
On a more serious note, he has speculated that the rebbe’s urgency in calling
for the Messiah was because he was the first rebbe to serve after the Holocaust.
“If the Nazis sought out every Jew in hate, we must seek out every Jew in love,”
A Chabad friend has explained to me that emissaries are so caught up in the
challenges of their everyday work that they can’t always appreciate what a remarkable
movement they are creating until they get to this banquet. Suddenly they understand
how their daily hard work, their life’s work, is a necessary building block
of the entire structure.
Everyone is up dancing now, large circles and small, duos and trios, weaving
around the huge room, dancing to the beat of Lubavitch niggunim. Tonight they
don’t have to inspire, they just have to dance like a Hassid. What a sight.
To borrow Sacks’s words: Wow. Double wow.