By Larry Gordon
This past Sunday was the 30th annual International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, or the Kinus HaShluchim. Some 5,200 people came together under one roof from the far-flung reaches of the world to advance their common goal of creating a G‑dly environment in this world of ours and connecting Jews of all stripes and patterns to their Jewish core. It was an awe-inspiring tribute to what one man’s vision—that is, the vision of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—has accomplished.
Today, there are 4,500 institutions that exist in every state in the U.S. and a great number of countries around the world, some in places that you would never imagine had a need for an organized Jewish presence. Places like Laos, Vietnam, North Cyprus, and Turkey, just to name a few.
And here’s a telling statistic that illustrates how worldwide Chabad is flourishing. From the time that the Rebbe assumed leadership of the movement in 1951 until his passing in 1994, 1,250 emissaries went out on shlichus opening up Chabad centers and schools around the world. Since 1994—that is, in the 19 years since the Rebbe passed away—2,997 emissaries have set up shop in locations around the world. This numerical reality has effectively silenced the critics who were quick to predict that Chabad would flounder without the Rebbe’s hands-on leadership.
When viewing the Chabad experience, there are two perspectives from which to see things. There is the big picture, which many can summarize or encapsulate in a few brief sentences, flippantly saying that Chabad is one thing or another. Then there is the person-to-person experience on the ground, which is detail-oriented and is changing the face of world Jewry on a day–to-day basis.
On Sunday night, in a converted 110,000-square-foot warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn docks, an empty space was turned into a world-class dining facility, designed and set up by the inimitable David Scharf of Cedarhurst, who made it look like a Waldorf Astoria ballroom. The catering was expertly done by Greenwald Caterers, which figured out a way to serve dinner to over 5,000 people in under a half hour.
The featured guest speaker that held this mass gathering spellbound for three quarters of an hour was former Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman. So many government officials, both foreign and domestic, had a close relationship with the Rebbe. Almost two decades after the Rebbe’s passing, now that Lieberman was retired from politics, we were keyed into the special relationship that existed between the Rebbe and the senator.
Senator Lieberman said that after being elected to a local position in his home state of Connecticut, he sought the Rebbe’s berachah, blessing for success. As you probably know, the unusual thing about Joe Lieberman was that he was a serious practicing Orthodox Jew. Despite the intense pressures of often needing to be available on Shabbos, and the additional pressure of a campaign to run for Vice President of the United States in 2000, as Al Gore’s running mate, his adherence to observing Shabbos and his scrupulous adherence to the laws of kashrut were uncompromising. And the senator, in his remarks, attributed a great deal of that ability and success to the assistance of Chabad shluchim around the globe. Mr. Lieberman’s key contact over the decades has been the leading Connecticut emissary of Chabad, Rabbi Yisroel Deren. The association between the two runs the gamut of all phases of life, from the seemingly uncomplicated to the more difficult, challenging, or complex.
For example, the senator said that when he and his wife Hadassah would travel extensively, during the presidential campaign and on other occasions, there was always the matter of tending to the needs of Mr. Lieberman’s elderly mother, Marcia Manger in Stamford (who passed away a few years ago). Amongst other things, he reported, Rabbi Deren visited the senator’s mother every Saturday night after Shabbos to make Havdalah for her and look after her welfare.
Somehow, Mr. Lieberman said, wherever he ended up for Shabbos, the local shliach would know he was there and would see to it that he had whatever he needed for Shabbos. He added that during the presidential campaign, one of the great challenges was to make sure that the Liebermans were settled in one place for the 25-hour Shabbos. Somehow, the senator said, the local Chabad shliach always knew exactly where he was.
He explained that one time his flight was diverted because of the weather and he ended up in an unscheduled city and hotel for Shabbos. Lo and behold, about an hour prior to Shabbos, the local Chabad shliach showed up with food for Shabbos, wine, challah, and candles for Mrs. Lieberman to light. Rather puzzled, the senator inquired of the emissary, “how did you know I was going to be here?” The shliach responded that he really wasn’t sure, but suggested that Mr. Lieberman might have told his mother where he was going (he did), and that she might have told Rabbi Deren (she did), and the rabbi alerted the local shliach, who jumped into action to prepare Shabbos things for Joe and Hadassah.
For Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, Chabad emissary to the Five Towns, the mere presence of the senator at the banquet dinner speaks volumes about the international recognition of the great contribution Chabad has made to the world and the esteem with which the movement is viewed. He says that he was especially impressed with the senator’s revelation that in the 1960s he used to travel from Connecticut to attend fahrbrengens in Crown Heights. He was additionally taken by the amount of time and attention paid to the young man by the Rebbe all the way back then. The Rebbe, Rabbi Wolowik says, recognized then that he was talking to a future leader and great advocate for the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
To Rabbi Wolowik, the Wednesday-through-Monday conference that brings over 5,000 men and women together to share notes and experiences, and to learn from one another, is not about 5,000 people; it is a matter of bringing 5,000 communities together, which is so enriching for the participants.
And that is a theme picked up by Rabbi Pesach Schmerling, the Chabad shliach in Far Rockaway. He says that indeed each of the shluchim receive inspiration from one another. “These are our friends, relatives, and classmates that we do not usually get to see unless we attend this annual convention,” he says. For him, on a more personal level, it was an opportunity to meet with ten of his brothers-in-law serving communities around the world. They are located in Chabad Houses in Memphis, Moscow, Little Rock, Manchester (NH), Emerald Hills (Fla.), Edgeware (England), Northbrook (Ill.), Minnetoka (Minn.), and Morristown (NJ).
For Rabbi Anchelle Pearl, the Chabad shliach in Mineola, the long Shabbos weekend culminating in the grand banquet on Sunday night was about being together and celebrating their accomplishments. He said that already over the last few days the shluchim had been discussing amongst themselves plans to reach every Jew on Long Island this year.
The catalyst of that call was twofold. First, there was the awareness that the Rebbe himself, despite his around-the-clock efforts on behalf of Jews everywhere, always felt that he and his emissaries were not doing enough, and that there was a need to reach more people and do more for them.
And then there was the recent Pew Research Survey, referred to several times on Sunday night, that essentially said that Jews—except for the Orthodox—were a disappearing population. The Chabad rabbis out there around the country and in touch with the people say it is just not so. They say they see a hunger and a thirst for Jewish spirituality unparalleled in history. Pew drew their conclusions based on a poll of a few thousand respondents. Chabad is out there interfacing with hundreds of thousands of American Jews.
An additional high point of the night was the address by Rabbi Dov Greenberg. He is the shliach on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. By the way, he says, over 86,000 students nationwide signed up last year for Chabad House Shabbos meals and programs. That is quite a solid and effective way to reach the future leaders of Jewish communities.
Greenberg said that his grandfather Louis Greenberg, when fleeing Nazi persecution on his way to America, threw his tefillin off the boat into the sea. He wanted a clean and complete break. His father and mother resided in a New Jersey town where they intended to raise their children. A local shliach, Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon (my uncle), made Stanley Greenberg’s acquaintance and asked him to put on tefillin. Mr. Greenberg insisted that he wasn’t interested. Rabbi Gordon was relentless and insistent. He asked him if he could put tefillin on with him again and again.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg explained that his father finally figured out that if he let the rabbi put tefillin on him, the rabbi would stop bothering him. The tefillin session led to a short study session, which led to the Greenbergs sending their children to yeshiva, which led four of their children to become Chabad shluchim around the country. Rabbi Gordon’s children and grandchildren are shluchim in another dozen cities.
It was all because one man would not give up. And that’s the mission that was marked and noted on Sunday night with this intimate dinner for 5,000. The night was capped off and feted with great dancing in the aisles between the tables. There was jubilation, celebration, satisfaction, and exuberance to do more. “When the shluchim dance,” Rabbi Perl said, “the whole Jewish world dances with them.” v
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