NEW JERSEY — Hundreds of Hasidic men swirled around a giant, dimly lit convention hall outside New York City on Sunday night, with groups dancing around celebrants embracing newly-inscribed Torah scrolls while music blasted and blue strobe lights raked through the crowd.
The event was the culmination of the Chabad Hasidic movement’s annual convention for its shluchim, or emissaries, who are posted across the US and around the world to support Jewish communities and perform outreach work.
Thousands of rabbis gathered for the conference aimed at connecting the group’s representatives and highlighting its rapid growth and global reach. The events drew 6,500 emissaries and some guests from all 50 US states and over 100 countries and territories.
“To sit all together in one room and to be able to learn from each other and spend a few days together really brings us tremendous inspiration to bring back to our own communities,” said Rabbi Levi Duchman, a native New Yorker who is posted in the United Arab Emirates.
“When you speak to each [emissary], you realize how similar we are, whether you’re a rabbi in the UAE or you’re a rabbi in Honolulu, Hawaii,” Duchman said.
The event gave the emissaries a chance to reconnect after the convention was canceled for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Outside the hall, a group of men smoking cigarettes chatted in French, Spanish, Hebrew and English, and friends took selfies together around the hundreds of circular tables arrayed inside the hall.
“When you all get together, you share ideas with each other, you learn from each other and you really plan for the year ahead about what are we going to do bigger, what are we going to do better,” Duchman said.
Chabad says it has 5,646 emissary couples active around the world. Only the men attended the convention; a women’s conference will be held in February.
This International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries also celebrated a hakhel year marking a gathering meant to be held every seven years as well as what would have been the 120th birthday of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late spiritual leader of the movement. A traditional birthday greeting in Judaism is “until 120” and Moses was said to have lived to that age.
Chabad is based in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, with the community centered around its world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, next to Schneerson’s former home.
In another highlight of the weeklong gathering, the emissaries gathered for a “class photo” in front of the headquarters earlier Sunday.
Along with the feverish dancing at the Sunday banquet, musicians performed and speakers delivered addresses to the crowd in the massive hall.
The event took place under heavy security, and the flashing lights of police cruisers lit up the night sky outside the convention center. A Jewish security group, the Community Security Service, was also stationed inside the banquet hall.
Over the weekend, authorities in New York arrested two men and seized their weapons over what police called a “threat to the Jewish community.” Earlier this month, New Jersey’s synagogues were put on alert due to a similar threat. At the beginning of the year, an antisemitic attacker went on a violent rampage, stabbing and running over several individuals in the Lakewood, New Jersey Jewish community.
The atmosphere indoors was festive though, as speakers saluted Chabad’s growth and outreach. The movement said it has established 120 new centers in the past year, about one every three days. Some of the new international posts include Zambia and Iceland.
Duchman said his community is flourishing in the UAE and that local authorities strongly support the community of some 5,000-10,000 Jews.
At the banquet, 36 religious scribes each completed a new Torah scroll simultaneously for Jewish communities that lack them. The number 36, as a multiple of 18, is considered fortuitous in Judaism and signifies life.
The movement released some other figures highlighting its reach and growth, including 284 campus centers; 200 young professional centers; 10 new Jewish day schools in the US in the past year; and a 199% increase in US congregations between 2001 and 2021.
The Pew Research Center said in a 2020 survey that 38% of Jewish adults in the US have engaged with Chabad.
The movement also announced a program to open new Jewish overnight camps with a $2.5 million donation from the Rohr Family Foundation and Project Rina. The philanthropist George Rohr was a speaker at the convention.
Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau delivered the opening address. He called on the incoming government to revoke the so-called “grandchild clause” from the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent who does not practice another religion.
“For 10 years I have been asking to try to change this mistake of the third generation in the Law of Return — to fix it, to ensure that Israel will be a Jewish state, a state of Jews,” Lau said. Changing the law would keep those not Jewish according to Torah law from emigrating to Israel.
If the expected incoming right-religious government revokes the law, it will inflame tensions with liberal US Jews, the majority of the American community.
Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has also pushed for a more strict adherence to religious law. He had planned to travel to New York to attend the Chabad convention but canceled the trip amid ongoing coalition negotiations.
Lau’s comments also echoed a statement earlier this month by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. The two Israeli chief rabbis are public officials whose salaries are paid for by the state and who are not supposed to intervene in political affairs.
Lau also boasted of his intransigence on the issue of conversions to Judaism during his speech.
The war in Ukraine was another recurring topic at the convention. Chabad was established in Russia, Schneerson was born in today’s Ukraine and the movement has played a central role in reestablishing Jewish communities in eastern Europe following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Chabad has also been heavily involved in the response to the war, including by providing support to Jews in Ukraine and refugees. A slickly produced video depicted Chabad’s relief efforts as trays of fruit came out for dessert.
There are 202 Chabad couples in Russia and 177 in Ukraine, and representatives from both countries attended the convention. Both groups earned big applause from the crowd.
The Russian community has also come under pressure due to the war. A Russian security official last month called Chabad a supremacist cult, drawing fierce criticism from the country’s chief rabbi and raising concerns of institutional antisemitism among Russian Jews. He later apologized.
Toward the end of Sunday’s event, a roll call recognized the Chabad outposts around the world, from the 2,222 couples based in the US since 1940, to the 16 families in China and the single couples in countries like the Ivory Coast, Ireland and Kyrgyzstan.
There are 1,353 emissary families in Israel, based there since 1788. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan and Consul General to New York Asaf Zamir were both in attendance.
At the close of the event, some of the 36 new Torah scrolls circulated in the hall as the crowd broke out into dance. Attendees stood on chairs to snap pictures of the proceedings as young emissaries and older rabbis took turns embracing the Torahs as dancing crowds swirled around them.
— Luke Tress (@luketress) November 21, 2022