For the Lubavitcher rebbe, the week before the wintry month of Kislev was a Thanksgiving, of sorts. It was the week when his far-away children came home.
The rebbe, without children of his own, thought of his shluchim, his emissaries to distant cities, countries and college campuses, as his children. He kept a photo album of the shluchim families on his desk.
A quarter-century after the rebbe’s passing, the emissaries of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement still gather this time a year. Last Sunday night, the International Gathering of Shluchim, known as “Kinus HaShluchim,” climaxed with a banquet in a massive convention hall in Edison, N.J. No place closer to New York had room for 5,820 men seated at 530 tables, each with candles and a floral centerpiece in glass vases.
Dispatched to grow or cultivate Jewish communities wherever they might be found, the shluchim came from 108 countries and territories, all 50 states, and more than 300 campuses.
(Only couples are sent out on “shlichus,” with husbands and wives considered co-directors of each Chabad. Men return for their mass gathering in autumn, women in winter, while the spouses stay home to mind the children and the Chabad House.)
Despite the festive atmosphere, these are difficult times, said Chabad’s Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who directs the shluchim office.
“We recognize the challenges facing world Jewry. And we find ourselves on the front lines many times,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is rearing its head again in many countries around the world.”
He noted the murder in April of a worshipper, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, at a Chabad shul in Poway, Calif. “And there are other challenges,” he added, but Jews “are capable of doing the seemingly impossible.”
After all, the rebbe taught his chasidim to have eyes that see in the dark.
Like Rabbi Yehuda Weg, the shaliach to Tulsa, Okla. “We were not going to a big place. We were not going to make Lubavitch famous. My specific dream was to go to a place that didn’t have Yiddishkeit,” he told the gathering.
He recalled receiving a phone call about a Jewish woman, “living completely isolated from the rest of the Jewish people” in Maysville, a small Oklahoma town of 1,200. “All anyone knew was her first name,” he said. He drove 150 miles to Maysville, and pulled into a gas station. Someone behind the counter knew of the woman and “dialed the phone for me,” said Rabbi Weg. Twenty minutes later the woman arrived in her pick-up truck, and cried, “My family came to get me! My family came to get me!”
Then, said Rabbi Weg, “She asked me: ‘Who sent you?’ I gave the simple honest answer. ‘The rebbe sent me.’ Because there was no other reason that I could think of why I was in Maysville.”
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik is the rebbe’s emissary to Turkey, everywhere from Istanbul to Haran, the 3,000-year-old village where Abraham, Sarah and Rebecca spent several Biblical verses. About two years ago, an old Turkish woman, in senility, started speaking irrationally, making sounds, unknown words. Her family recorded it, and brought it to Rabbi Chitrik: “She was speaking Yiddish. Yiddish!”
It turned out the old woman was born in Lodz, Poland. Her mother was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war, the orphaned daughter moved to Turkey, said Rabbi Chitrik, “married a Muslim man, and never told anybody where she came from.”
This year, said Rabbi Chitrik, that woman’s 16 children and grandchildren, Jewish according to rabbinic law, “for the first time in their lives” sat at his seder table and ate matzah.
Not every Jew touched by Chabad is on the fringe. A few years ago, David Friedman was a Modern Orthodox bankruptcy lawyer in the Five Towns of Long Island, whose firm represented Donald Trump. Today he is the United States Ambassador to Israel.
Friedman was the evening’s keynote speaker, but spoke about Chabad, not politics. He said it was his eighth kinus.
Among the “millions of Jews helped by Chabad, I include myself as a very grateful beneficiary, both physically and spiritually,” he said. Twenty-two years ago, soon after a Chabad storefront opened in the Five Towns, he found himself in serious pain. “I tried every therapy and medication on the market but nothing seemed to work.” His wife went to the Chabad storefront. “She asked if somebody could come and check on our mezuzot. Thirty minutes later I met for the first time Rav Zalman Wolowik,” who checked Friedman’s tefillin, as well as the mezuzahs, and gave him a pair of tefillin to use while the other pair were getting checked (and found to be no longer kosher).
“The next morning,” said Friedman, “I think you can guess, I woke up 100 percent pain free for the first time in two months. From that point forward, I decided to study with Rabbi Wolowik.”
It was Rabbi Wolowik, said the ambassador, who “delivered the opening prayer at the inauguration and dedication of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.” The mention of the embassy move from Tel Aviv brought the hall to its feet.
He reflected on the sad truth that “there were 18 million Jews in the world in 1941,” but said that Yiddishkeit is in the “midst of a major resurgence,” spiritually, culturally and institutionally.
“There are many good and important reasons for this renaissance,” said Friedman. “But let me tell you something. And I hope it doesn’t go to your head. The most important factor behind the rebirth of traditional Jewish life is you — the worldwide network of Chabad shluchim… And you do it all with a beautiful sense of optimism, inclusion and yes, style.”
“Like the former British Empire, the sun never sets on Chabad,” said Friedman.
From Malta to Myanmar
Around the world, indeed. Chabad’s Moshe Kotlarsky, in his commanding foghorn of a voice, was about midway through the roll call of shluchim.
“Malta… Martinique… Mauritius… Mexico… Moldova… Monaco… Montenegro… And we announce now the opening of a new country,” boomed Kotlarsky: “Myanmar, formerly Burma, Rabbi Schneur Rapport has just moved out there.” Two months ago, a Chabad opened in Rwanda, and another just opened in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
As he read each of the 50 American states, the band played a caffeinated Ufaratzta, the jaunty Chabad anthem, taken from a Biblical verse about spreading out to the East, West, North and South.
“And,” concluded Kotlarsky, “a round of applause for the whole wide world!”
The room erupted into dancing: It was muscular, sinewy, stomping, hundreds of circles, arms around shoulders, fingers entwined, men jumping in place, up and down, up and down, chasidic elders two-stepping while holding the hands of middle aged sons, younger men kicking the air, cries of Hoy! Hoy! Hoy! Ties were loosened. Suit jackets were unbuttoned.
When the lights came on, it was time for evening prayers, praising the God “who loves His people Israel.”
How could He not?