Twenty-five Chabad-Lubavitch representatives from cities across the United States and the former Soviet Union, are wrapping up the final day at the 72nd annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, which convened in Jerusalem, this week.
The number of Shluchim (representatives) who joined their local Federation missions on the five-day event is reflective of a new openness by Federation leaders to partner with religious Jewish institutions committed to the values of Jewish continuity. According to Rabbi Eric Lankin, Director of Religious and Educational Activities at the UJC, “Chabad has a unique message and we believe that it needs to be heard.”
The participation of 25 Shluchim is also indicative of successful working relationships between Chabad and local federations nationwide. “Local Federations are aware of the work and commitment of Chabad out in the field,” observes Rabbi Dovid Eliezri, Chabad Shliach to Yorba Linda, CA, who serves on the UJC’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar. For the fourth year in a row, Rabbi Yisroel Rappoport, Chabad-Lubavitch Shliach and rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob in Vineland, New Jersey, received the Federation’s award for “outstanding rabbinic leadership,” at an awards ceremony on Monday.
“There’s no question that on the local level, Federation leaders recognize what a vital force Chabad is for the Federation’s stated goal of Jewish continuity,” says Eliezri.
Evidence of a shift in Federation’s focus embracing greater commitment to Jewish education was noted by the inclusion of a well-attended Beit Midrash Torah learning program—a first ever on the GA’s programs– that ran all day, concurrently with the standard line-up of UJC lectures and presentations. “This was Torah learning lishmah,” observes Lankin.
Although Lankin cautions that there is a lot of misunderstanding on the part of Federation leaders regarding the goals and intentions of Chabad, he is optimistic about the prospects for an effective partnership between the two. “Chabad is often misunderstood by many, and one of our goals is to better integrate the priorities of Chabad and Federation.”
Two years ago, two Shluchim were invited by Federation to be scholars at the GA in Washington. That was a first, “and the two institutions were nervous about each other,” recalls Lankin. Since then, Lankin was invited by Chabad to participate at its International Shluchim Conference, and its Jewish Learning Institute Conference, creating opportunities for understanding between the two institutions and for the development of a personal rapport between Federations and many Shluchim. “The message is getting out that we are interested in working with Chabad. I know that I can call on Shluchim to help out where Federation has a problem, and the Shliach can do the same,” he says.
The Chabad Shluchim attended many of the sessions along with their community missions, and joined the GA Israel solidarity march in Jerusalem, on Monday. To the members of their local missions, the Shluchim continued to serve in the capacity of rabbi and spiritual leader. At the Friday night Shabbat session, Rabbi Dovid Eliezri addressed the theme of the “Spiritual Bond Between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.” Rabbi Mendel Katzman, Chabad Shliach to Nebraska, led a Shabbat afternoon Torah study session, and Rabbi Yisroel Deren, Chabad-Lubavitch Shliach in Stamford, CT, was one of the featured presenters at the GA’s Kabbalah and Mysticism Beit Midrash Seminar.
Eric Lankin sees the participation of 25 Shluchim at this year’s GA as “spectacular.” Yet he is ever mindful of the unique challenges that exist in the development of a strong relationship between the Federation and Chabad, conceding that this is only a beginning, and “we have a way yet to go.”
Rabbi Yossi Nemes, the Chabad Shliach to New Orleans who joined his city’s GA mission, says that while there will be areas where Chabad and Federation will agree to disagree, “there are a lot of areas where Chabad and Federation have common interests and the opportunities for working together effectively can be mutually beneficial to both and to the cause.” Nemes says that his participation at the GA engendered “wonderful feelings of camaraderie,” and was greeted with very warm appreciation by his local Federation leaders. “This was an important step in the direction of mutual cooperation. I think that Federation leaders in many communities realize what a loss it would be for their communities—for the vitality, Jewish identity and spiritual strength of their communities—were it not for Chabad.
Nemes says that it’s the translation of this good-will mission into practical terms, that matters most. “I’m hoping that when I get back to New Orleans, we’ll begin to work jointly on projects that are important to us both.”