They are angels in black coats for the downtrodden and broken. Doctors treating the ills of faded Jewish values. PR men, ice cream scoopers, school directors, tefillin wrappers, psychologists, scholars, Chabad representative are a breed apart. To whom do they turn to for advice, for reassurance, new ideas and insight into the way forward, for strength?
To each other.
Though they live and work in cultural norms as divergent as communist China, straight laced Germany, and anything goes Brazil, they are united by a common mission: to awaken Jews to their richness of their heritage. When Chabad representatives fly, drive, truck, train and bus themselves into Brooklyn, NY, for the nineteenth annual International Conference of Shluchim November 15-20, they will be bringing their questions and experiences to share from the heart, brother to brother.
Among the sessions expected to draw the most rapt crowds at the five day conference is a panel discussion led by senior Chabad representatives. These were the men who left the cozy confines of Brooklyn, NY, with step-by-step direction from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory. The newer generation of representatives step into the paradigm these men created cushioned by the Chabad brand of Jewish outreach they created. In many ways, the young generation has it easier. Kosher food is widely available. The sight of bearded rabbis brings admiration, not a cringing self-consciousness. But they do not have the access to the Lubavitcher Rebbe like those of the early years, and that is what they crave most. “Younger shluchim are inspired by the older shluchim. These are the people who set the system up under the specific guidance of the Rebbe,” said Rabbi Yehuda Weg, shliach in Tulsa and a conference coordinator. Conversely, “the older shluchim look with awe at the younger ones. They are impressed with their total commitment to the Rebbe’s program at how far they have taken the Rebbe’s message.”
Indeed this year showed just how far Chabad-Lubavitch has expanded into the off-off-beaten track with new centers in Vietnam, Bariloche, Argentina, and Cusco, Peru. Chabad’s explosive growth around the world is mirrored in the convention’s logistics. Session and lecture options, once summed up with a few photocopied sheets, now fill an 88-page booklet. Four years ago, the Brooklyn Marriot ballroom was large enough to hold the convention’s banquet. To fit more than 3,000 Chabad representatives and guests this year, the 70,000 square foot Garden State Exhibit Hall was booked.
Convention workshop and panel content has expanded to cover Chabad’s multiple roles in the wider Jewish community. For instance, answers to the perennial question “How to keep Jewish kids interested in Judaism?” are offered from every angle. Getting kids into the synagogue, interested in Hebrew school, involved in Jewish life after bar mitzvah, after graduation, during college are the subjects of multiple sessions. Now that Lubavitch centers have grown large enough to hire rabbis specifically for youth programming, they will have sessions of their own reflecting their issues such as “What to do in room with 30 twelve-year-old boys?” In sessions for college campus rabbis, the mysteries of fraternities and the Byzantine ways of college administrations will be unraveled.
Chabad rabbis all seem to come with a beard, black hat, and black jacket. But their roles, the dimensions and backgrounds of the people they serve are anything but uniform. As Chabad’s reputation for generating Shluchim with the drive to invigorate communities has grown, Chabad rabbis have been hired to lead non-Chabad synagogues. Sephardic congregations, especially in France and Israel, are hiring Chabad-educated rabbis in growing numbers. Sessions on respecting the established customs of the community and where Chabad wisdom fits into the equation are scheduled for the convention.
In the days that follow, airport sightings of Chabad rabbis, rolling their luggage, tefillin bags in hand will multiply. They arrive speaking French, German, Hebrew, Spanish. They have tans from southern hemisphere summers and wan pasty pallor from the early onset of Siberian and Norwegian darkness. They are third generation representatives with dozens of rabbinical cousins and newbies who’ve scratched together a community on the backwaters of nowhereville. They are different, but Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim are one, and they’re coming together as family.