Having spent a full month working intensively under intermittent rocket fire, Rabbi Yossi Friedman was tempted to leave Ashdod for a few days to visit his native United States and attend the annual gathering of Chabad envoys from around the world taking place in New York.
“I was debating going to the last minute,” Friedman, 48, told The Times of Israel about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s Kinus, Hebrew for gathering, which is the world’s largest rabbinical reunion which about 6,500 rabbis attended this weekend.
“My argument for going was to recharge so I have more to give my community in its great hour of need. My argument for staying was that this is my community’s great hour of need,” said Friedman, a father of 14 who has missed a Kinus only twice in his life.
Ultimately, Friedman stayed because of the war, as did the vast majority of about 1,400 Chabad rabbis who live in Israel.
Their choice reveals the priorities of a movement that expects its emissaries to never abandon their congregations, but that also strives to keep those emissaries connected in a vast international network whose strength is key to Chabad’s phenomenal growth.
The first Kinus was in 1984 in New York, and it comprised only a few dozen rabbis.
“The Kinus is a big deal,” said Friedman, noting it was instituted by the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the last spiritual leader of Chabad whom many followers of Chabad revere intensely.
“It’s where Chabad rabbis go to draw strength for the whole year,” Friedman added. “You need that energy to instill it in your congregation, to trudge through the challenges and disappointments and difficulties we all face. To learn new ideas and discuss them. To remind yourself what you’re a part of.”
This is especially true for Chabad rabbis living in places like Iceland or Saint Lucia, which have very few Jews, Friedman said, “but it applies to everyone, even rabbis here in Israel,” he added.
The Israeli rabbis on Sunday had their own local Kinus, including at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Parts of the Israeli gathering were live-streamed to the main one in the States and vice versa. The two Kinusim interacted, singing Chabad melodies together.
Israel Defense Forces commanders furloughed multiple Chabad rabbis who were serving as reservists in the war to participate in the local Kinus, according to Motti Seligson, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s director of media relations.
“I came out energized,” said Friedman, whose team of 18 Chabad rabbis and their wives in Ashdod is focusing on helping reservists and holding activities for children who are spending many hours indoors because of rockets, which Palestinian terrorists have been firing them on Ashdod each day since October 7. On that day, 3,000 Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and killed some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, triggering a war that has brought Israeli troops into the heart of Gaza in a bid to topple Hamas.
“We drive around in a car with large speakers and play music outside the apartment buildings,” said Friedman. “Sometimes we arrive right after a siren so the kids come out to dance with their parents.” He also organizes barbecues for soldiers, and helps get food and prayer accessories to them and others, he said.
A departure to the United States by hundreds of Israeli rabbis at a time of war would have “looked bad, even if it was only for a few days,” Friedman said. “The optics were also a consideration, yes.”
Although the Israelis were absent from the main Kinus in the United States, Israel and the war loomed large at the event, which is generally meant to be an uplifting celebration of Chabad’s Orthodox Jewish outreach work across the globe.
This year, the Kinus included mournful elements within the festive atmosphere. It featured the recitation of biblical psalms for the victims of the attack and hostages, whose names scrolled on a screen as the verses were read aloud by Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. The Israeli emissaries who gathered in Jerusalem related their experiences on the ground in the past month.
“We are davening for your release every day,” Helfgot said regarding some 240 hostages that Hamas terrorists took into Gaza, as the screens showed photos of the captives. At least one soldier from the movement was killed in the Oct. 7 attack, and some Chabad members from Brooklyn flew to Israel to serve in their reserve units after the war started.
Chabad’s rabbis are Haredi Orthodox but, unlike many members of more insular Haredi streams whose members avoid the army, Chabadniks practice outreach to all other Jews in order to bring them closer to Judaism — and especially Chabad’s brand of it. As a result, Chabad has many more followers and rabbis who are part of the army and other secular frameworks than many other Haredi movements and denominations.
“While the shluchim [emissaries] of Israel stayed to be with their communities, we felt their presence in the room with us,” Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky of Chabad HQ, who was among the Kinus’s organizers, told The Times of Israel.
On Monday, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement brought from Israel 170 family members of hostages. They visited and prayed at the Ohel, the resting place of the Rebbe, as Menachem M. Schneerson is known. The relatives came on a chartered flight, organized by the Terror Victims Project of the Chabad Youth Organization, the umbrella arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Israel.
But alongside the grief, the Chabad representatives, known as shluchim, who hailed from college campuses in North America to the Australian outback, reported an outpouring of Jewish engagement since Oct. 7. According to a survey by Chabad.org that garnered responses from 211 of the movement’s rabbis, 86% reported increased attendance since Oct. 7. The rabbis also overwhelmingly said community members had increased personal religious practice, felt “scared,” and felt a stronger connection to other Jews, to Israel and to their own Jewish identity.
“We’ve seen the community has grown more together than ever before. So many people are asking, ‘What can we do?’” said Yossi Swued, rabbi at the Chabad of Western University in Ontario, Canada. “I feel like the whole world is shaking, everyone wants to do something. I think everyone should tap into that.”
Chabad says there are 5,813 families serving as emissaries in more than 100 countries around the world, from hundreds in places like the United States and France to lone representatives in locales such as Zambia.
That reach has put the emissaries at the forefront of the global reaction to the Hamas attack and subsequent surge in antisemitism, both in areas with significant Jewish populations and those without. The emissaries said Jews approached them after the attack to get mezuzahs for their homes, attend services for the first time, or study Torah.
“We’re angry but we’re not scared,” said Rabbi Menachem Aron, who lives in rural Australia. “People want to increase their Judaism. They want to put on tefillin, they want to light the Shabbat candles.”
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