“We can do the impossible” was the message implicit in every line spoken at last night’s banquet dinner of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchos. Representing Jewish communities of 65 countries, the Shluchos (female for emissaries) spoke with one voice of their allegiance to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s legacy in reaching out to Jewish people as long as there are Jews who need them.
But as anyone combing the banquet hall at the Brooklyn Marriott noticed, this was not a convention of cookie-cutter yes ladies. The lively diversity of individual styles was abundantly evident in Brooklyn’s largest hall, filled to capacity with some 1650 women—1350 of them shluchos, the rest, their guests who came from their respective communities in support of their Shluchos.
Maybe it is the unusual combination that marries collective fealty with individual boldness in the service of a great calling that is responsible for the success of Chabad-Lubavitch. Add that to the speculation offered by each of the speakers at last night’s banquet, on the hard-to-explain success of the Shluchim.
“After the Rebbe’s passing,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of the educational and social services divisions of Lubavitch, “everyone expected Lubavitch to fold. And yet, it has grown exponentially since then. No one understand this.” Rabbi Krinsky also recalled personal memories of the Rebbetzin, Chaya Moussia Schneerson, whose yahrzeit is honored at the conference, and who was an inspiration to the Shluchos for her noble devotion to the Jewish community.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of the educational division of Lubavitch, and chairman of the conference, spoke of the remarkable achievements of Shluchos in their respective communities, and updated the conference on the most recent Chabad House openings around the world and in the United States.
But this was a women’s conference, and those were the voices heard at last night’s banquet.
Guest speaker Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken Books), shared her observations on the widespread interest in Chabad-Lubavitch. Since the publication of her book, which explores the phenomenon of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim and how it plays itself out in disparate communities nationwide, Ms. Fishkoff has been invited to speak to Jewish organizations across the board. “And wherever I go, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox, everyone, it seems, has their own personal connection with Chabad.”
Fishkoff pointed to Chabad’s unique success in offering high level, text-oriented adult educational programs in a non-disparaging manner that makes people with no background in Judaism or Hebrew, comfortable to learn. She talked of commonplace disaffection with the “sanitized” form of Judaism offered at synagogues and temples that are losing people to Chabad, whose lively and intense adherence to Torah and mitzvot, coupled with a non-judgmental acceptance of Jews, offers them a far more compelling Jewish experience.
Pearl Krasnjansky, Chabad-Lubavitch representative to Hawaii, delivered the keynote address. She spoke of the emotional struggle she experienced when she made the decision to send her 8-year-old son away from home to study at a yeshiva in New York–not unusual for Shluchos serving in remote communities–and the rewards that came for her and her son, and Hawaii’s Jewish community in riding the challenge out.
Her self-reflective focus and the resolve to honor her mission were echoed in the words of every Shlucha who spoke. Mrs. Sara Pewzner, Chabad-Lubavitch representative to St. Petersburg, Russia, talked of the poverty she found when she arrived to Russia some 15 years ago. Supermarkets shelves were bare and everything including the most basic household staples, had to be shipped from her New York hometown. Undaunted, the Pewzners kept their eyes focused on their mission and have rebuilt the city’s Jewish infrastructure with shuls, yeshivas, mikvehs, in a remarkable revival of Jewish life.
Mrs. Pewzner spoke of the privilege she and her husband had when they hosted President and First Lady Bush on their last visit to Russia. The President and Mrs. Bush took a keen interest in the life of this young couple, curious to understand what might inspire newlyweds from Brooklyn, New York, to make a permanent move to an uncomfortable life in Russia. On the Pewzner’s subsequent trip to the United States, they were invited to visit with the President and Mrs. Bush at the White House.
Most of the Shluchos are typically mothers of large families, and leave their children in their husbands’ charge for the duration of the five-day conference. But for those with nursing babies, a highly efficient on site baby-care program allowed the Shluchos to attend all the sessions undisturbed.
The Banquet–the highlight session of the five day conference–ended with a roll-call of every country and state represented worldwide. According to Rabbi Kotlarsky, this was the largest Chabad-Lubavitch women’s conference to date—a parallel men’s conference in November draws over 2,000 representatives.
Also participating at the five day convention were 1,000 students from Chabad-Lubavitch seminaries and high schools from around the world. And 450 daughters of Shluchos traveled with their moms to attend a five-day camp program organized to run concurrent to the conference–an important experience for the budding Shluchos. In a moving song performance, the young girls sang to themes of the pride and privilege that comes with being part of the Rebbe’s army.