The Chabad movement’s emissaries in cities and backwater villages throughout the
world are often described as an army. This week I had a rare opportunity to
observe their field officers at ease. I was one of a few women reporters invited
to the banquet of the International Conference of Shluchim in
Once a year, the more than 4,000 men, called shluchim, who
serve as outposts of Judaism around the world are called into headquarters for
five days of R&R and training. They take part in practical seminars, study
together and get updates on current issues. They network with fellow emissaries.
Their wives/co-emissaries, the shluchot, who arrive for a women’s International
Conference in February, keep the Chabad House fires burning while the men are
gone. At the end of the intensive five days, they gather together with select
financial supporters for a banquet that recognizes their work.
it. By car, by bus and by foot, men in black suits, untrimmed beards and pinched
and tilted black Borsalino fedoras converge on Pier 12 in Brooklyn just as the
sun is setting over the water. They are all dressed the same, but conversation
among the emissaries flows in English, Hebrew, Russian, French and
Dozens of New York police and security officers on land, and
even a sea force including police boats and reportedly frogmen, secure the area.
After the terror attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008 no one is taking
chances. I’m stopped by a plainclothes security woman wondering what I could
possibly be doing among them.
The banquet keeps outgrowing its venues.
This year, seats have been oversold at a port warehouse the size of an airplane
hangar transformed into a banquet hall with carpets and chandeliers. Speakers on
a rotating stage are projected on huge flat screens. Together with the
supporters, there are nearly 5,000 men in the room.
A few men like my
husband are wearing light jackets and knitted kippot. There are also a number of
representatives of other hassidic sects, wearing the “wrong” black hat. The vast
majority are Lubavitchers who suddenly look so much alike I keep thinking I see
someone I know but realize I’m wrong.
I’m seated with the techies, most
of whom are Israeli, working the sound, lights and cameras, but in the break I’m
escorted around the floor to conduct a few interviews. No one seems to
mind. Unlike some other religious Jews, Lubavitch emissaries are accustomed to
being in mixed company as they invite everyone into their homes.
Yehuda Krinksy, chairman of Merkaz L’Inyanei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational arm
which sponsors the conference, says the conferences are mainly aimed “at
recharging the batteries” of the emissaries. “It’s very hard and lonely work and
it helps to share experiences with others,” he says.
The women emissaries
are considered equal in every sense, he stresses, and even the children are
viewed as having an important role in the work Chabad sets out to do in the
Jewish world. The emissaries share pragmatic ideas for running their centers,
but there’s more emphasis on the spiritual: how to inspire, how to best
celebrate Jewish holidays, how to answer thorny questions.
idealistic couples are dispatched to distant shores with a few contact numbers.
Who of us has not witnessed their heroic efforts or benefited from their
presence? They are rabbis, cantors, cooks, ritual slaughterers, bath builders,
drug counselors, teachers, principals, social workers, hurricane victim
aid-givers, husbands and parents all at once.
THE EMISSARIES have to
raise the funds to keep their Chabad houses open, whether they are in Alaska or
Cambodia. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the evening’s key speaker, tells a joke
about his concern about getting lost on his honeymoon trip to the Swiss Alps.
“I’ll just sing Chabad niggunim
[traditional melodies],” he told his puzzled
“Wherever there is a lost Jew, Chabad never fails to rescue
It turns out that Baron Jonathan Henry Sacks, chief rabbi of the
United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, owes his life trajectory to
Chabad. He was a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s when early
emissaries dispatched there by the Rebbe catalyzed his Jewish
He traveled to the US and wanted to meet the renowned Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He was in Los Angeles visiting an aunt when the
invitation came through. He rode 72 hours on a Greyhound bus to keep an
appointment that would change his life. He was prepared to engage the rebbe in a
discussion of theoretical issues but soon found himself at the other end of a
discussion of why he wasn’t engaging more students in Judaism at Cambridge.
Subsequent meetings and correspondence directed Sacks to becoming a
congregational rabbi and eventually chief rabbi.
“Wow, double wow,” said
the usually hyper-articulate Rabbi Sacks, at the sight of the sea of emissaries.
“A good leader has many followers. A great leader creates many leaders,” said
Sacks of his mentor Schneerson. “He wasn’t only one of the greatest Jewish
leaders of our time. He was one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all
The impact of Chabad extends beyond the Jewish community, he
said, noting the rebbe’s concern in promulgating the seven Noahide Laws among
non-Jews. Insists Sacks: non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.
banquet isn’t self-congratulatory, says emcee Rabbi Moshe J. Kotlarsky, vice
chairman of Merkaz L’Inyanei Chinuch and the conference chairman. The
banquet does celebrate achievement but the spotlight is turned inward on the
experience of each hassid. Indeed, there are no emotional testimonials by
wayward Jews who have found God in Katmandu or Berkeley. The theme, “There walks
a hassid,” reflects the need of each Chabad follower to demonstrate character
that makes him conspicuous in a positive way.
“He eats like a hassid. He
sleeps like a hassid. When you see him you can tell he’s a representative of his
rebbe, no matter what environment he lives in,” says Kotlarsky.
evening proceeds with astounding order despite the huge number of men who are
having an elaborate dinner. At the tables closest to me, the emissaries look
tired. They are no longer starry-eyed newlyweds out to conquer the world.
Transforming the world is still their goal, but they know how hard it is.
Tonight they don’t have to interest Israeli backpackers in the week’s Torah
portion in Laos or make sure there’s enough matza for a Seder in Brazil. They
have each other.
The energy in the hall picks up as the roll call of
Chabad emissaries is read out. Special praise is lavished on the team that has
made Chabad so popular in cyberspace.
Then each continent is announced by
emissary children who come along with their dads for five days of
There are 15 emissaries in China alone, dozens of others in India,
Thailand, Russia, Argentina and Ukraine. At least a dozen black-hatted men leap
to their feet as “La Marseillaise” is played to salute French-speaking
Chabad. You’ll find Chabad in Nigeria and the Congo, on Mount Everest and
the Virgin Islands. I think of Sacks’s joke.
On a more serious note, he
has speculated that the rebbe’s urgency in calling for the Messiah was because
he was the first rebbe to serve after the Holocaust. “If the Nazis sought out
every Jew in hate, we must seek out every Jew in love,” he said.
friend has explained to me that emissaries are so caught up in the challenges of
their everyday work that they can’t always appreciate what a remarkable movement
they are creating until they get to this banquet. Suddenly they
understand how their daily hard work, their life’s work, is a necessary building
block of the entire structure.
Everyone is up dancing now, large circles
and small, duos and trios, weaving around the huge room, dancing to the beat of
Lubavitch niggunim. Tonight they don’t have to inspire, they just have to dance
like a Hassid. What a sight. To borrow Sacks’s words: Wow. Double
wow.The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories
of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns
are her own.