Shoppers, fresh from the streets of a city mad with holiday glitter swept into the lobby of the New York Hilton and found themselves in a different world. Eddies of buddy groups, the boys who played basketball in the yeshiva gym and grew up into spiritual leaders the world over, who only saw each other over the four-day International Conference of Shluchim clustered alongside the lobby sculpture. Newlywed young, wise eyed sages, the thin, the not-so-thin. Ginger headed, blond, gray streaked, speaking a polyglot of Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Russian and French. Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim–2,769 representatives–had come to town and the night was theirs.
Catching up on family and community took a backseat when a woman approached a Chabad representative. She had a couple of questions and would the rabbi mind answering them. The shliach leaned in. Spoke with a smile. Never mind that former roommates and long lost friends waited to speak with him. A Chabad shliach is a Chabad shliach, always on mission. Finally, the woman smiled back. “Rabbi, I am glad I stopped by.”
Dr. Richard Lieberman accompanied Chabad of Santa Fe’s Rabbi Berel Levertov. “This is the greatest event in the Chabad world. It’s the real McCoy,” said Dr. Lieberman. He took pride in noting that a yeshiva student who roomed in his home for a month had grown up into Chabad’s face on an exclusive college campus. “It is beautiful to be part of this.”
What impresses a group who builds Jewish communities in towns where wearing a star of David necklace has once been sign enough of one’s Jewish affiliation? Enthusiastic applause followed the story that chief rabbi of Russia, Chabad representative Rabbi Berel Lazar, told of President Vladimir Putin’s experiences as a poor child with warm Jewish neighbors. But when told of Chabad rabbi’s refusal to abandon his community as a revolution erupted was recounted, a few lone claps echoed in the hall. Digging in during adversity is a dominant Chabad trait. Among the shluchim crowd, heroic dedication is an expectation not an achievement.
The night’s first standing ovation was reserved for a Chabad husband and wife team based ten hours outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. State authorities stepped in when a Jewish mother in their neighborhood, lashed by economic and emotional hardship, could care for her three children, ages 6, 4, and 2, no longer. A stable home–in a monastery –was found. Unable to bear the thought of children losing their mother and their Jewish identity in one fell swoop, the rabbi and his wife, parents of eight children of their own, took in the children. “That’s Lubavitch family planning,” said Rabbi Lazar. Everyone in the room, from table 81 in the corner to the rabbis-in-training on the far balcony–leapt to their feet, the tricolor fish appetizer forgotten.
Throughout the night blockbuster announcements, each meriting its own banquet dinner, rolled off the lips of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch. “Chavrusa J-Net” (www.jnet.org), a new telephone based study program, already has 3000 participants. Last year, a Chabad center opened at a rate of one per week. Sinai Scholars, an expansion of the adult education Jewish Learning Institute, have proliferated on college campuses. Twenty-five newlywed Chabad couples are packing their wedding album and linens in suitcases to become Chabad’s new Torah Shluchim, devoted to a lifetime of teaching. A Chabad couple is off to Warsaw, and Poland’s Ambassador to the United States was on hand to witness the announcement. Travelers expecting sand, sun and sarongs on the Virgin Islands now have the option of sharing Shabbat with a Chabad couple there. Even Luxembourg, whose name rarely fits into the freckle of space allocated to it on European maps, will soon have a Chabad house.
Once upon a time, way, way back in the 80’s, Chabad’s grand shluchim banquet fit into the hall across the street from Lubavitch Headquarters in Brooklyn. Then it outgrew the banquet facilities of the Brooklyn Marriot. Then the New York Armory. Now in one of the biggest New York City spaces, the banquet is seen by more eyes than before. Video feed streamed live on the web. Constellations of glowing phone faces hinted to a number of ongoing private cell-casts to wives and families in time zones no matter how late the hour.
On a staircase in the corner of the ballroom, overlooking the 258 banquet tables, Hilton’s waiter manager, snappy in his studs and bow tie, scribbled figures on a piece of notepaper. Serving elaborate multi-course meals to thousands is his job. But should those thousands get up and dance between the tables, his servers had to be ready to scurry. He has already been warned about the roll call that’s a centerpiece of the Shluchim banquet excitement.
Naming every Chabad House and program would take the night and then some. Roll Call, however, is a tradition and the organizers have it down to a Power Point science. Last night, it started with Asia and hit the big ones like China. Then the new Laos Chabad center was mentioned. Around the world the list wound from the Congo to barely pronounceable savannahs of Africa. La Marseillaise blasted after France’s hundred plus representatives accepted prayerful wishes for calm in their hometowns. Where some see the former Soviet Union as Russia, Ukraine and a blur –onia, and –ania counties, Chabad has representatives. The world tour concludes with a U.S. coast-to-coast listing from Alabama to Wisconsin, and you get the feeling children of Chabad representatives have a grasp of world geography that far outstrips their peers’.
And then the room exploded with joy. Every chair was pushed back. Hands grasped shoulders. Tables laden with Chabad’s latest publications and half-eaten main courses collided in the crush of men dancing, celebrating the amazing reality that all this–this dream and vision of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, exists. Black hatted heads bobbed and weaved as chains of dancers circled singing. High stepping. Clinging to this incredible feat of bringing Jewish identity back from the brink. Waves of Chabad representatives surged, leaping energetically like so many kernels of rabbinical popcorn.
It looked like the final scene in one of those movies where the home team wins and the crowd leaps to its feet as one. But in a movie, that’s when the closing credits win. At Chabad Lubavitch International Shluchim Convention Gala Banquet, that’s where the story begins.