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Big Night

Partying in Brooklyn, with 4,000 Chabad rabbis

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Sunday’s Chabad-Lubavitch dinner. (Marc Asnin/Chabad.org)
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Last Sunday evening, as the sun set over a pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn, nearly 4,000 Lubavitcher rabbis from across the globe arrived for a gala dinner in a cruise-ship terminal, part of the international conference of Chabad Lubavitch emissaries. The rabbis, plus more than 500 Chabad supporters and funders, came by Porsche and Range Rover, Town Car and white stretch limo, by charter bus and on foot. At the entrance, against a pink and lavender sky, the Statue of Liberty was in plain view, as was a substantial police presence that both alleviated and heightened security angst, with checkpoints, sniffing dogs, and trunk inspectors.

A multibillion-dollar empire known for its exuberant and global outreach to secular Jews, Chabad has become familiar to even the least observant Jews through its giant public menorahs, Mitzvah Tank vans, and Purim parties on college campuses. But while Chabad eagerly seeks Judaism’s more wayward lambs, its growth depends heavily on the affability and zeal of the bearded, black-hatted shepherds who checked their coats and washed their hands in the foyer of the event venue, many of whom had eschewed material comforts for their missions as emissaries, or shluchim. This army is charged with spreading the word of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died 16 years ago and remains the movement’s most venerated figure.

Champagne was served. Inside the main room, heavily draped in a golden palette, 12 enormous video screens hung on the four walls, and several cameras on 15-foot cranes swung and lurched to capture both intimate and sweeping views. The stage was dressed in “rabbi-study-style”—floor-to-ceiling books, an electric chandelier, and an oversized portrait of the rebbe.

“It is up to you to see that there is no Jew not affected by the mitzvahs of the shluchim in their communities,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the conference, said early in the night, his clenched hand rising and falling like a conductor keeping rhythm. “We will not rest until every Jew is brought one step closer to the divine!”

An eight-piece band provided mood and interlude; a children’s choir was milked for hopefulness; and a handful of major philanthropists appeared by video to send their best wishes. (The keynote speaker, the handsome Ukrainian billionaire Gennadiy Bogolyubov, who was there in person, has given more than $10 million to Chabad in recent years, according to a Chabad spokesperson.)

Next up: Roll call, when shluchim from 76 countries were asked to stand for recognition. A feverish pep-rally-like environment ensued: Moldova! Ghana! Kazakhstan! Estonia! Rhode Island! Finland! Ecuador! Panama! Saskatchewan! The Israelis won the biggest applause from the crowd; the South Africans were the rowdiest.

It can’t be easy to seat so many people for dinner, but the event organizers have a history of tackling complicated logistics. The most frantic moment of the evening came when the thousands of slightly sloshed shluchim stood up, linking arms and torsos, rosy-cheeked and singing heartily along with the band, to dance incautiously around their tables; meanwhile the staff attempted to clear the appetizer, an architectural salmon-olive tapenade-cucumber dish, and serve the entrée, a less-memorable plate of beef and chicken with rice and veggies. The waiters and waitresses ducked, they swerved; they were very brave and they did their very best, but, alas, a tray of plates crashed nearby—surely others elsewhere in the room were meeting the same fate. Once the music ended, most of the shluchim returned to their tables for the next course, with the exception of the South African contingent, who continued to dance and sing a cappella after several requests that they be seated.

Like other rabbis I spoke with, Shea Harlig, 45, who presides over five Chabad houses in Las Vegas, described the conference as an inspirational experience that reinvigorated his sense of purpose. “We remove the sin from sin city,” he said, elaborating with a description of the $10 million, 65,000-square-foot day school Chabad opened in Las Vegas in August. He and his Sin City colleagues also do work in jails, with chapel visits, and buy bus trips out of town for “Jews who have gotten in trouble,” Harlig said.

For some, such as Yosef Kantor, 41, Chabad outreach is the family business. Kantor, who grew up in Australia as the son of a shliach, now runs the four Chabad houses in Thailand, which collectively serve Friday night dinners to 1,000 people each week. His eight brothers and brothers-in-law are all schluchim in different parts of the world, including Lugano, Switzerland, Skokie, Illinois, and Ranchos Santa Margarita, California. “Mom is very happy,” he said, to have the whole family in one place for the weekend (although she wasn’t there to say as much, for as a woman she wasn’t invited).

Chaim Danziger, 30, moved from Pasadena, California, to run a Chabad house in Rostov, Russia, about 1,000 miles from Moscow. Rostov, he approximated, had 10,000 to 15,000 Jews but no rabbi before he settled there with his wife. “Are there days when we reminisce about living in an easier place?” he said. “Of course. But it’s a very fulfilling life to be where we’re needed.”

Schmuli Cohen, 36, from Perth, Australia, found Chabad when he most needed it. A self-described “very complicated person,” he credited his rabbi with “bringing me back from the brink of destruction.” Quickly finishing his glass of champagne and reaching for another, he described the process by which he achieved greater peace of mind through the steady “niceness and openness” of his rabbi, who he characterized as “a real man who has heart and has soul and he knows how to put them together.” For Cohen this process is still ongoing, and he estimates he spends between 10 and 20 hours a week studying with and volunteering for his rabbi. The best thing about this conference? “The 30 hours I’ll get alone with him to talk on the ride back,” he said.

Lizzie Simon, the author of the memoir Detour, lives in Brooklyn.

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terry g werntz says:

Good reading YAY

good morning Lizzie,

I very much enjoyed your piece, especially “slightly sloshed shluchim”.

Sincerely,

Alan D. Busch

Although the women were not at this conference, they have they’re own conference around the 22nd of shevat
(late January- early February)

Liberal Judaism must emphasize the following if it is to survive.

1. Soul Realization ,
2. Creativity,
3. Meditation,
4. Prayer,
5. Living deeply in The Present.
6. Proactive lovingkindness

Failure to do this will virtually guarantee that Spiritual Souls will find their home elsewhere. Chabad !

I’d like to read a follow-up article on the Shluchos’ Convention (Kinus) which brings together the wives of the men in this article. They have something to say, too, about living in far-flung locations and nurturing the “pintele Yid” in the people they touch.

Mark Berkley says:

How can we see the festivities on video?
M. BERKLEY, esq

If a man dressed as a Nazi walked into this hall what would 4.000 Jews do? Chances are other than yelling at him “For Shame” they would do nothing. Jews are The Perfect Enemy and our enemies know they are in no danger. How many cops protected the rabbis? Probaby hundreds.
Jews allowed the Holocaust to develop without cutting off the heads of the haters before they became powerful. The hatred is still there and it just takes another maniac to put Jews in peril again.

Am I crazy? You think so but I’m a student of history.

Bill Levy

While there is no denying the remarkable accomplishments of Chabad there certainly is never, ever enough discussion in the Jewish media of the damage Chabad has done to many Jewish communities.

1. Too many less traditionally observant Jews look at the Shlichim through sentimental eyes and believe they are the surviving remnant of “authentic Judaism. And don’t think for a moment that Chabad rabbis don’t consciously use vapid nostalgia to discourage people from attending & supporting other synagogues, schools and Jewish institutions.

2. Synagogues are heavily dependent on dues-paying members for their survival. If a marginally Jewish family simply wants their kids to learn a little something about Judaism and have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, why go to the expense of belonging to a synagogue paying religious school tuition? Chabad Houses & their schools are dues & tuition free.

3. For all their many notable skills and talents, most Chabad rabbis are very unsophisticated about and indifferent to, healthy social developmental changes in society. One of the Chabad rabbis quoted in this article wrote a column some years ago in his local Jewish paper about the evils of gay people and their “agenda.” In a published response in which I challenged him for words that did more harm than good, he responded that as a rabbi, it was his obligation to say such things. Tell that to a despondent, frightened gay teen

4. The whole Rubashkin debacle exposed some of the most despicable shortcomings of Chabad theology & internal loyalty. For years kosher consumers believed that meat from the Rubashkin plant was kosher. Even after it was exposed that underpaid, mistreated illegal aliens and minors were were working there, even after PETA exposed some the inhumane ways in which animals were treated, the Chabad establishment (and the OU)never wavered in their assurance: “but the meat is kosher.” So much for ethics, morality and civil law if the demands of ritual Judaism are satisfied.

Mitch,
1. They are.
2. Most Jews don’t pay dues, what do you propose we do with them.
3. Maybe you have a point, the Torah does call gay sex an abomination.
4. Rubashkin, while a Chabad chasid is not part of the Chabad “organization”. Don’t confuse the two. Nonetheless, it was a difficult line to tow for the Chabad community, I’m sure.

LARRY MALITZKY says:

This was the fifth Kinus that I have had the privilege to attend.I was surprised and dismayed by your comment “when the thousands of slightly sloshed shluchim .”At no time during this evening or at any of the other Kinusim did I witness any sloshed shluchim.Perhaps you may have witnessed some but were there really thousands?Why is it necessary to demean the entire group and evening with such an apparent disregard for the truth and honest journalism. Perhaps one apology to the thousand sloshed shluchim would suffice!

Chana Batya says:

Oh, how quaint, how lovely, are our shluchim. I have met the women en route to their kinnus, and they were indeed lovely, warm, gracious to me, a pants-wearing, Torah-studying woman they met on a plane. However, permit me, as Shabbat arrives, a bissl cynicism:

1. All Chasidic men, it seems, are rabbis. They all seem to have smicha. 4000? 20,000? Who know? They don’t work, after all, but are “students” forever.
2. Who is supporting these people? Who is paying for this kinnus? Do these rabbis have jobs?
3. A Jewish renewal movement that included women along with the men, that suggested that a paying job was part of a full life, now THAT’s something I could enjoy.
4. Do these guys have a paying job? Why not? I mean, according to a Chasidic story (I think it’s Chasidic, and if it isn’t, never mind; maybe it’s Pirkei Avot or even (God forbid) Midrash), when a person dies and arrives in heaven, the first question that s/he will be asked is: Were you honest in business? Now, I think this is an excellent question, which every single one of these rabbis will get to answer, “I wasn’t in business, I lived off the generosity of others so I could be a shaliach.” Not that they don’t do good, feed people, offer a warm and safe haven for Jewish travelers and searchers, but come on, do a little of both.

Very interesting and worth reading more than once. Replies leave the door open for deep thought. Who are we to judge which Jew is right and which is wrong. There were twelve tribes, not all agreed with each other, but all are regarded as Jewish. Just a thought.

Great article!

Chabad rabbis are “students forever” who don’t have jobs?

Yeah…I guess if laboring around the clock to develop innovative Jewish programing, teaching Torah classes for adults, organizing minyanim, managing pre-schools and groups for teens, maintaining mikvahs, arranging for the catering of events, facilitating at bris milahs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, planning and organizing services for shabbat and holidays, delivering sermons, endless fundraising to keep afloat (congregants don’t pay dues), and informally counseling congregants is not work I guess your points would be legitimate.

Being a Chabad rabbi is a full-time job that requires enormous amounts of sacrifice. I’d even venture to say that is much harder work than being a normal pulpit rabbi at an average orthodox shul considering that most Chabad shluchim set up their congregations in far-flung places around the globe often where there are few Jews and little to no kosher food available. They have virtually no time for vacations and have to make a concerted effort to squeeze in any Torah-learning time for themselves. The amount of sacrifice shluchim give on behalf of klal Yisrael is something that one cannot fail to appreciate or at least admire.

Chabad rabbis do all this in stark contrast to those who stay learning (not teaching, ONLY learning) in kollel for their entire lives relying on others for support.

This blog is really good n informative.Keep up the good work

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Big Night

Partying in Brooklyn, with 4,000 Chabad rabbis

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