The secret gathering of Chabad rabbis: An inside look

The Zoom marathon was a farbrengen, a unique experience.

A SCREEN SHOT from the virtual ‘Kinus Hashluchim,’ the International Conference of Chabad Rabbis.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
A SCREEN SHOT from the virtual ‘Kinus Hashluchim,’ the International Conference of Chabad Rabbis.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few have not seen the annual picture of thousands of rabbis posed in front of “770”, Chabad World Headquarters in New York, taken every year at the annual Kinus Hashluchim, the International Conference of Chabad Rabbis. And thousands have attended the annual banquet that concludes the conference, which always ends with exciting hassidic dance. But few are acquainted with the insider’s event, the conference after-party, a hassidic farbrengen (gathering) that takes place inside 770 and starts late at night after the Gala Banquet concludes. There, hassidim tell stories, share words of Torah and inspire each other. It rarely ends before the morning light.
This year, the Kinus was virtual. The streets of Brooklyn were strangely quiet with the thousands of rabbis, friends and supporters staying home. There were virtual workshops, breakout sessions and main events. But what turned out to be the most remarkable event was but an asterisk on the official schedule. On Saturday night, shluchim logged on Zoom for a virtual Melaveh Malkah, post-Shabbat repast. The virtual session continued through Sunday, ended off with the virtual banquet (even virtual dancing!) and then unexpectedly morphed into the customary after-party farbrengen.
Farbrengens are a unique experience. There are no intricate Talmudic lectures, nor are their pompous rabbinical speeches. There are melodies, Torah ideas, and conversation is free flowing. A bit of l’chaim prods hearts to open. They are remarkably emotionally honest as the participants share their lives, anxieties, inspiration, and stories, and uplift their fellow participants. And for hassidim, its stories of their Rebbe. As a rule, they take place around a few tables in a synagogue or someone’s home, where there are no reserved seats or head tables, just hassidim sitting as equals, opening their hearts to each other.
And that’s exactly what happened on Zoom. But without the constraints of time and location, the farbrengen went on and on. Sunday evening became Monday morning, word spread and rabbis from around the world hopped on and off the Zoom when their schedule allowed. A rabbi in Oslo, Norway, Shaul Wilhelm, became the unofficial MC, prodding the participants to share a few words, say a l’chaim and open their hearts. As it became late in Oslo, others in earlier time zones helped lead, like Rabbis Berel Levertov in New Mexico, Mendy Lew and Avremel Kievman in England, Chaim Azimov in Cyprus, Zalman Deutsch in Russia, and Mendel Feller in Minnesota. As the time changed, so did the language. When it was late at night in the US and daytime in Israel, it was conducted mostly in Hebrew. At times it was in Yiddish. When the Israelis were sleeping, English dominated. Almost all of the over 5,000 Chabad Shluchim joined at some point. It was like an orchestra in a marathon concert, musicians and conductors being interchanged but the music continuing to go on, never stopping for a moment.
On Monday afternoon, as I was gearing up for my afternoon bike ride, I  heard that the farbrengen was still going strong. So I inserted my earbuds and tuned in as I pedaled down the bike lane in California. At that point, there were already some 500 rabbis farbrenging. My bike ride ended, but I could not stop listening, I continued watching at home. I shared a story in English but switched to Yiddish when the non-English speaking rabbi in Perm, Russia (800 miles east of Moscow) protested. Finally falling asleep over the iPad as farbrengen continued moving around the world. But when I awoke Tuesday morning, the party was going on full speed, with attendance numbers rising and falling finally reaching 1,000, the Zoom limit. It was addictive. Rabbis shared anecdotes, described the challenges in their communities, sang spirited niggunim, and uplifted the others with ideas of Torah. What was most inspiring were the stories of the Rebbe that continually flowed from all over the world as rabbis shared their special moments with the Rebbe, advice they received from him, and, at times, remarkable accounts that were nothing but miraculous. There were even some non-rabbis who joined and shared, primarily people who had had a personal interaction with the Rebbe, including some of the doctors who had treated him over the years.
LET ME share with you a few tidbits that I found personally touching.
Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf from Chicago told of a Black hassidic family in Brooklyn whose bar mitzvah-aged son was being bullied by some kids in his yeshiva class. Distraught, the father wrote to the Rebbe who then instructed the school administration to take care of the problem, warning them that if not, he will come to the yeshiva himself. Then the Rebbe told the father that they should not rush the boy’s Shabbat bar mitzvah celebration. On many Shabbats the Rebbe would conduct a farbrengen, starting at 1:30 p.m., some were set dates, others expected, but not announced to Shabbat morning. Jews would cut short their own personal celebrations in neighborhood synagogues and flock to 770 to hear the Rebbe. That shabbat most expected a farbrengen. The Rebbe was sending the family a message: Don’t rush. I’m not going to interrupt your celebration. He was clearly deferring his own anticipated event to ensure that the boy who had been mistreated enjoyed a full celebration.
Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet in London recalled how his father would translate letters written to the Rebbe in Dutch. With time, he began to edit the letters, stressing the vital points and leaving out the details so as not to waste a moment of the Rebbe’s precious time and make it easier to read. The Rebbe quickly caught on and reprimanded him, saying that to the person writing, every word is important.
Dr. Richter, a cardiologist in Brooklyn who knew the Rebbe well and had taken care of the Rebbe in 1977 when he had a heart attack, told his story. A local 13-year-old girl was hit by a car and was lying in a coma. The Rebbe asked him to check up on the case. At the hospital, Dr. Richter discovered she was clinically brain-dead and reported that back to the Rebbe. The Rebbe told him, “Go to the hospital every day and call her name. Then brief me daily on her condition.” The doctor asked, “Should I come even on Shabbat?” The Rebbe answered affirmatively. So, daily he went and called out her name, “Mushka.” On the tenth day, the clinically brain-dead girl shocked him by answering back. She eventually grew up to become a teacher, marry and have six children. “I saw a miracle,” Dr. Richter said. And then, to the astonishment of the thousand rabbis watching, one rabbi unmuted his microphone and told the doctor, “That girl was my mother.” Dr. Richter and his patient’s son, Rabbi Benzion Peason, had never met.
Rabbi Yossi Shemtov of Tucson, Arizona, told of the time his father, a businessman, was traveling in Taiwan a few weeks before Passover in the mid 1970s. He received a call from the Rebbe’s office asking if he could make a stop in Hawaii. An army chaplain and a Reform rabbi had written to the Rebbe that the soldiers did not have provisions for Passover and asked for help. Shemtov was planning on flying to Israel for the Seder but changed his plans and a day later, he walked into the office of the surprised chaplain, and said, “The Rebbe sent me. What do you need?”
The greatest trooper in the 120-hour marathon was Rabbi Yonason Golomb of the small Jewish community in Sheffield, England. In such towns, shluchim have it tough, being socially isolated even without COVID lockdowns, and lacking the Jewish infrastructure of a larger community. At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday in England, he told us how deeply touched he was by the spiritual warmth brimming from the screen. He spoke of the unique challenges of small-town Judaism and the special sense of mission he felt as a shliach of the Rebbe. Over the next few days, Golomb never logged off the Zoom. He was awake, then he dozed off, but he never left, sitting in this tiny community and absorbing the warmth of thousands of his spiritual brothers from across the globe.
Over the course of five days, thousands of stories were told and retold, melodies were sung, and all of us had a sense of living in a spiritual oasis. Never had a farbrengen gone on so long (it broke the world-record for the longest Zoom session!). At times, when the Zoom maxed out at 1,000 participants, it was streamed to other platforms so more could join. But as Shabbat drew closer, it was clear we had to end. With sunset approaching in Australia, on Thursday night in the US, Rabbi Berel Levertov in Santa Fe, New Mexico, led us in a chorus of hassidic melodies as we finished this farbrengen marathon of 120 hours. We all entered into Shabbat uplifted, inspired and charged to continue the sacred mission the Rebbe entrusted to his shluchim. Perhaps more than after every in-person Kinus, we were eager to continue to encourage Jews to connect with the Divine by observing mitzvot, teach Torah, to care for the welfare of the Jewish people, and ultimately transform the world to an era of sanctity, by bringing Moshiach.
The writer is a Chabad Shliach in California, author of the upcoming book Undaunted, the biography of the Sixth Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. His email is [email protected]