(lubavitch.com) Chabad representatives are givers: of time, of advice, and a home-cooked meal. More commonly known as shluchim, the representatives—also referred to as emissaries or envoys—teach Judaism on a global scale. Now, an innovative program is turning the tables and putting them on the receiving end.
Merkos Mentors, developed by the Chabad-Lubavitch educational division, will pair young shluchim with experienced colleagues for individual phone consults designed to hone their skills and offer guidance in areas of specific interest to them.
Set to launch next month, the pilot program, which will begin with 60 mentor-mentee relationships in the United States, had its start at the International Conference of Chabad Shluchim last November. At the time, organizers added a new dimension to the traditional round-table and lecture format. Veteran representatives met with those younger to discuss issues in a one-on-one setting. Over 250 personalized sessions took place that weekend, and many participants asked for more.
“As the world of shluchim grows, the possibilities for creative programming grow commensurately. The idea, for shluchim with experience and expertise to serve as mentors, is an excellent way of maximizing our most valuable resource,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos.
Indeed, experienced shluchim know intimately what new recruits are facing. The program builds on the success of MyShliach, a mentoring program for the children of shluchim, which to date has more than 600 children of shluchim connecting with mentors who act as big brothers or big sisters.
Similarly, shluchim will look to mentors who’ve achieved success navigating some of the trickier terrain that others encounter as they start out in communities new to them.
“While each Chabad center must fend for itself financially,” says Rabbi Shalom Zirkind, director of the program, “we are always looking out for each other.” Whether in Bangor or Bangkok, the issues representatives face on the field are similar, with challenges of fundraising—often in transient communities or newly developing ones, childrearing—often in communities where there is no suitable social life or schools for the children of shluchim, among some of their top concerns.
The program will also call upon shluchim who, for example, have skillfully straddled a delicate balance in their own communities to consult on interacting with other Jewish organizations in a city.
Rabbi Levi Klein, Director of Chabad of Tennessee, will contribute time mentoring shluchim in “getting along without going along.” Having strong, even proud ideological differences should not be a barrier to building trust and goodwill among the various community organizations, he explains. Klein, who enjoys a good rapport with the local JCC, Federation, Jewish Family Services and all the Jewish organizations in Memphis, says an important tool in building relationships is to focus on the individuals who represent their respective organizations and build bridges of trust and cooperation and a sense of community.
“We’re all working to benefit the community, so instead of focusing where we differ, we need to focus on the 97 percent where we are in agreement.”
During the initial phase, Rabbi Klein, like other mentors, will commit to one hour per week for a period of two months. For that hour, their attention belongs exclusively to the mentee, not sermon preparation or family dinnertime.
Rabbi Zalman Leib Markowitz, an experienced educator, will be mentoring full time with Merkos Mentors in all areas related to the education of the children of shluchim. For most, the absence of a social and school environment to supplement the Chabad framework in which they want to raise their children, is a serious concern. Markowitz will also mentor in the areas of special needs children an children-at-risk.
“No one can make it through life on his own,” asserts Rabbi Yossi Korik, a young Chabad representative serving the Roseville, CA Jewish community for the last three years. “Everyone needs guidance and encouragement.” Korik was one of the many who availed themselves at last year’s convention. Now he is eager to see how Merkos Mentors can help him again.
The direct guidance that many shluchim had with the Lubavitcher Rebbe invests them with privileged insight to the individual whose legacy continues to inspire the passion for shlichut—or the mission—14 years after his passing.
When he had an issue that was troubling him, Rabbi Shmuel Lew of London would send a letter to the Rebbe seeking his advice. Those who take up shlichut positions today, “came of age when this was no longer possible,” he says.
Through Merkos Mentors, these new recruits can air their concerns with those who did have that intimate contact.
Rabbi Lew’s varied experiences as a shliach will help him mentor younger rabbis and develop relationships that, he says, allows for advice based on specific situations, unlike web-based guidance currently available.
Senior shluchim are willing to commit their time, says Rabbi Zirkind, because “they want to give back to the system. They were helped when they first started and now they want to pass on their experience to someone new.”
But they too, stand to be enriched by the relationship. To be honest, says Rabbi Lew, “I don’t know how much I really thought about some of these questions that the younger generation is now confronting.”
“Their questions force me to focus on various issues giving my own shlichut deeper dimension.”
As for Rabbi Korik, becoming a shliach, he says, was "the most exciting moment" of his life. "It is also a huge responsibility and a little daunting.”
Other new shluchim find that it takes a while to get in the groove. The lag time can be very lonely. The steppes of the former Soviet Union and the edges of the rainforest do not always jump to welcome new recruits. Many locals, in fact, don’t expect the new arrivals to last long.
They are wrong. Shluchim assume their positions keenly aware that they are embarking on a lifelong mission. The years of training and schooling fortified them with a sense of purpose enough to sustain them over the long haul, imbuing their calling with joy.
But having a mentor who can offer insight from his own experiences, says Korik, will make the bumps along the road easier to ride.