NEW YORK — When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994, there was no concern that his Chabad-Lubavitch movement might die along with him. The movement is not just a reflection of the Rebbe’s principles, but also his unparalleled spirit — that gallant hutzpa that few could replicate and fewer could top.
Twenty years after the beloved rabbi’s death, that spirit is still reaching thousands of new Jewish families and previously untouched parts of the globe.
That powerful vitality was on display on Sunday in a tremendous South Brooklyn warehouse that welcomed emissaries, or shluchim, from all over the world for the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries: In the dimly lit terminal, the chilly haze of the borough’s Gowanus Bay neighborhood faded into a world buzzing with the lyrical energy of 4,200 rabbis and 1,000 more laypeople, all gathered in the name of Judaism.
The conference has evolved to be, as Binghamton, New York’s Chabad Rabbi Levi Slonim called it, “the world’s biggest family reunion.”
With 80 countries represented — including new recruits like Angola, Ghana, Jamaica, and Kenya — and 49 American states (South Dakota being the sole holdout) — you wouldn’t expect such an event to manage any degree of intimacy. But despite its numeric grandeur, the conference does actually bear the ambiance of a gathering of old friends. In fact, when Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky addressed the emissaries with stories about the Rebbe’s late-in-life elation, the room felt almost like a circle of chums celebrating a cherished member of the unit. It is perhaps this personal relationship with the essence of Schneerson that helps to keep his legacy so vibrantly active.
“Year after after… I felt a discernible change, a palpable elatedness, in the Rebbe’s disposition,” Krinsky said, likening the gathering of Schneerson’s schluchim to “children coming home to visit their father.”
With such immediate access to the man and his ideologies, it is no wonder that the community feels prepared to complete the charge to bring the Chabad mission all over the world.
“The Rebbe wanted every Jew in every nation to have access to Torah and mitzvahs,” Israel’s Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said to the congregation. “He knew that reuniting Jews by connecting them with their heritage would bring redemption to this world.”
‘The Rebbe wanted every Jew in every nation to have access to Torah and mitzvahs’
Echoing those sentiments was Rabbi Asher Federman, emissary at the Virgin Islands’ first and only Chabad house, which set up camp in 2005 and has grown to offer a daily minyan (prayer quorum) and welcomes tens of thousands of Jews every year. According to Federman, Jews living in the Virgin Islands look to Chabad for what he calls their “real home.”
“They smell in the challah their grandmother. The chicken soup reminds them of childhood,” Federman said. He asserted that even visitors to the island who were not entrenched in Jewish custom, nor knowingly seeking it, would find comfort in his Chabad house. The rabbi has seen travelers wear tefillin for the very first time while under his roof; many go on to carry the tradition back home with them — an unexpected souvenir of their vacation to the Caribbean isle.
But Chabad isn’t banking on heart alone. Federman articulated an old advertising technique behind the location of his house — “It’s a very visible product in a very small market,” citing the diminutive size of the Virgin Islands.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the popular Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor, a shaliach from one of the seven existing houses in Thailand, who detailed a time-honored maxim of the Chabad-Lubavitch business model.
“[Chabad] should be like Gimbels. For any Jew, for anything he needs…they know what they’ll get here,” said Kantor.
‘[Chabad] should be like Gimbels. For any Jew, for anything he needs…they know what they’ll get here’
Clearly, Chabad-Lubavich employs business savvy in getting out its message. Perhaps that is part of the reason why optimism for the future of Chabad was so high in a country where Judaism has been hard-pressed to find a purchase for many decade — Germany.
“Nowhere is there a greater contrast of the dark of the past and the light of the future,” Berlin emissary Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal said. Through Chabad, Teichtal said, he’s seen hope return to that country.
Ultimately, the spirit of Chabad and the Rebbe himself boils down to a mentality that will never go out of style: the warm welcome of any and all Jewish men, women, and children.
While the Rebbe might have commanded the lion’s share of the room’s affection, love for one another was also dispersed throughout. It seemed impossible at first, for instance, to win a minute with the unbelievably popular Kantor, who received more excited salutations in the span of a few moments at the conference than the average person collects over a lifetime. But Kantor has time for everybody, too.
Sticking out like a sore thumb among the emissaries, I found myself engaged in lengthy, animated conversations, ushered into circles of ecstatic prayer, and wrangled into a colossal dance to close out the night. You haven’t truly cut the rug until you’ve done so with 4,200 rabbis.