Chabad gathering: Revelry and reunion


NEW YORK (JTA) – While leaders of the Jewish federation world prepared to descend on Nashville for their annual General Assembly this week, Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel, a Chabad emissary in the Tennessee capital, packed his bags and headed north for another major Jewish gathering.

The International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim, more commonly known as the Kinus, brought together Tiechtel and some 3,000 colleagues – Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, serving Jewish communities in the farthest reaches of the globe.

Part professional development, part reunion and part celebration, the six-day conference here allowed the shluchim to revel in a few days spent far from the isolation many endure in posts spread across 72 countries and six continents.

Though Chabad has labored to increase its partnership with the federation system in recent years, it was hard to escape the impression of two alternative centers of Jewry reflected in the concurrent conferences in Nashville and New York.

Tiechtel, who returned to Nashville on Monday to attend part of the G.A., brushed off the suggestion.

“What we do only adds to what they do,” he said. “I don’t see it as a competition.”

Indeed, most Chabad shluchim operate in areas where fellow Jews, let alone Jewish competition, are scarce.

Inspired by the teachings of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad shluchim have made lifetime commitments to bring Jewish life to areas where often they are the only established Jewish presence for hundreds of miles.

They regard themselves as the rebbe’s soldiers, a motif invoked again and again to describe the sacrifice and commitment of shluchim and their families, who spend their lives far from the centers of world Jewry.

“We are not climbing a career ladder,” Rabbi Nechemia Vogel, the London-born founder of the Chabad House in Rochester, N.Y., said in his keynote address. “We are the rebbe’s shluchim. We stay at our posts.”

For Tiechtel, it was also a chance to reconnect with his siblings, six of whom serve as shluchim in cities as far flung as Berlin, Coconut Grove, Fla., and Tempe, Ariz.

At the Kinus banquet on Sunday evening, the Tiechtels practically filled their own table. The evening before, they had a chance for a more private reunion at a Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn.

“We didn’t have a chance to do that in many years,” said Dovid Tiechtel, who runs the Chabad center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Kinus, which began in 1983 with about 60 rabbis meeting in a room at Chabad world headquarters in Brooklyn, has evolved into a major multimedia extravaganza broadcast live around the world.

This year it was held in a cavernous hall along the Hudson River in Manhattan, just yards from where the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, arrived in America 68 years ago.

At a time when much communal angst is focused on how to attract an unaffiliated and disinterested younger generation – topics that are high on the agenda for the leaders in Nashville – Chabad’s growth continues unabated.

Twenty new centers have been established this year in California and Florida alone, with five in France and four in Argentina, according to Chabad’s campus initiative added 17 new centers in the United States and elsewhere. A total of 278 new shluchim have joined the ranks.

Nearly 5,000 people attended the Sunday banquet, including 1,900 lay leaders and family of the shluchim, requiring 20 more tables than last year.

One of the evening’s highlights, the annual roll call, listed each of the 72 countries where Chabad has a permanent presence, and the number of shluchim families that live there: 187 in France, 117 in Russia, eight in China, two in Congo, and one each from Georgia, Bolivia, Norway and Puerto Rico.

On the sidelines of the Kinus, a children’s summit was held for the sons of the visiting shluchim, with 467 kids attending. The daughters and female emissaries have their own separate gatherings.

The Kinus also provided a chance to offer good wishes to departing shluchim like Osher Litzman, a 25-year-old Israeli who with his wife and infant daughter are departing for Seoul in the coming days.

They will remain in South Korea, Litzman says, “until the Messiah comes,” adding quickly, “We hope he is coming today.”

Like generations of Chabad shluchim before him, Litzman is headed for a country where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language, though the couple are studying Korean online. They expect to have their Chabad center up and running in time to host a Passover seder.

Asked how he intends to pay for everything, Litzman tilts his eyes skyward and smiles.

In fact, support for Chabad’s sprawling global operation is of a more earthly kind, coming from a cadre of benefactors that includes men such as Lev Leviev, the Uzbekistan-born mogul who immigrated to Israel as a teenager and is believed to be Israel’s richest man. Forbes magazine, which lists Leviev as the 210th richest person in the world, estimates his net worth at $4.1 billion.

Addressing the banquet in Russian-accented Hebrew, Leviev – known as Reb Levi in Chabad circles – said the shluchim were like soldiers operating “behind enemy lines.” Leviev also related a well-known story about a meeting with Schneerson in Brooklyn in which the rebbe encouraged him to do business in Russia, a decision that was instrumental to his business success.

More than a decade after his death in 1994 following a stroke, the rebbe’s legacy still looms large in Chabad. A banner with his portrait towered over the hall and videos of him exhorting his followers in Yiddish played throughout the evening.

Shluchim regard themselves as the rebbe’s personal emissaries and hold their conference each year on the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the anniversary of the rebbe’s recovery from a heart attack in 1977.

“There’s not a community in the world that’s not touched by the rebbe’s shluchim,” said conference vice chairman Rabbi Moshe Kotlarksy. “So we can say Am Yisrael Chai. Am Yisrael Chai.”

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