Barbara Sofer

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The Chabbad Army at Ease

December 2, 2011
Barbara 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 in Brooklyn.

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 and Spanish.

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 them.

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,” says Kotlarsky.

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 other.

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 in cyberspace.
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,” he said.

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.

 

 

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