Guest speaker at last night’s Gala Banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim, Professor Alan Dershowitz spoke glowingly of the work of Chabad. Looking out at the 2,769 Shluchim and lay leaders seated in the largest hall of the New York Hilton Hotel for the Conference’s highlight event, Dershowitz said: “Whenever I hear people talk about the diminution of yiddishkeit around the world, I wish they could be here to experience this.”
Dershowitz spoke of the critical importance of Chabad’s success in reaching the most vulnerable Jewish demographic in the world: “The enemies of the Jewish people,” he said, “focus on campuses . . . . that’s why Chabad’s presence on campuses today is crucial . . . to inoculate students against the anti-semitism and apathy, and to make young people proud of being Jewish.”
The world-renowned civil liberties lawyer recalled his personal meeting and correspondences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as “one of the great experiences of my life.” He reflected on the Rebbe’s model of Jewish outreach—the inspiration for Chabad’s unique contribution to Jewish unity in its almost singular ability to focus on the “90 percent that [Jewish people] we agree on rather than on the 10 percent that we don’t.”
“It’s a question of emphasis” that is responsible for Chabad’s ability to draw Jewish people from all backgrounds and all perspectives together, said Dershowitz. He spoke of the work of Rabbi Hirschy and Elkie Zarchi, Chabad Shluchim at Harvard, and of their success in drawing students to events of Jewish content. As an example, he pointed to a recent Shabbat dinner hosted by the Zarchis at Harvard Law School, where Dershowitz teaches. Four hundred students attended the Shabbat with Chabad, he noted.
Even regulars—those who’ve been attending the banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim for years now–were wowed by Sunday night’s affair. In terms of numbers itself, it was a record breaker. It’s not often that you get almost 3,000 seated guests at a dinner. It’s a rarer event yet when they hail from 70 countries, and are bonded by a cause so great that all conceivable disparities melt away, and unity morphs from an idea into a concrete factor.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, delivered the keynote address, and mesmerized the audience with reminiscent accounts of life in Russia only 15 years ago, when he and another three families of Shluchim were sent by the Rebbe to the Former Soviet Union. Lazar spoke of the Rebbe’s prescience in guiding him and the Shluchim to stay put, to continue their activities and programs in the Former Soviet Union in the face of impending revolution and when the future seemed, to all appearances, highly uncertain. “While other Jewish organizations were packing their bags and leaving Russia,” said Lazar, he and his family, who happened at the time to be visiting in New York, were instructed in unequivocal terms by the Rebbe to head back to Russia as they had planned with the blessing of “G-dspeed and good tidings.”
It was the Rebbe’s foresight, explained Rabbi Lazar, that has resulted in the 300 Shluchim that serve Jews across the entire Former Soviet Union today. “No one ever imagined flourishing life in Soviet Union today. The Rebbe’s shluchim have filled world with acts of kindness, and have undertaken on the Rebbe’s behalf the boldest mission to save Jewish life.”
Guests were treated to a moving video clip of the late Dr. Larry Resnick speaking at the banquet two years ago. Dr. Resnick was the Rebbe’s cardiologist, and as guest speaker to the 2003 banquet, he told the audience of the transformation to his life as a result of his involvement with the Rebbe. Dr. Resnick passed away shortly thereafter, but in an affecting denouement to his words, his son, Rabbi Raleigh Resnick, a new Shliach to the Tri-Valley, California, took to the podium Sunday night to deliver the customary dvar Torah. Rabbi Resnick illuminated the Shluchim’s awareness of the Rebbe as an ever-present inspiration in all of their activities.
All the speakers at last night’s event, the video presentation and the Lubavitch International Update presented to each guest, spoke to the theme of ahavat yisrael, the love of one’s fellow Jew, and Chabad’s commitment to the individual Jew and to the singular mitzvahs.
Rabbi Lazar, who enjoys a close rapport with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, described Mr. Putin’s early childhood experiences as a poor boy living next door to a Chasidic family who always treated him with warmth and generosity, at a time when it entailed a danger to the Jewish family. “This family had a profound impact on him—and thirty years later, as deputy mayor of the city of Leningrad, he granted permission to open the first Jewish school in the city.”
“It’s the one act of kindness that changes the whole world—though we don’t always see the results immediately,” said Lazar. “Act by act mitzvah by mitzvah, candle by candle, we can change the world.”
Though the numbers of guests would seem to preclude the possibility of a personal ambience, there was no mistaking the familiar feeling in the massive hall. While conducting the now famous “roll call” of Chabad Shluchim worldwide with new additions of Luxembourg, Warsaw and Laos, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, updated the audience with regards from their colleagues who could not be there. In the spirit of close family ties, he reminded everyone of those who needed their prayers.
Prior to the dinner, a private reception was held for lay leaders—friends and supporters of Chabad Lubavitch. Addressing the distinguished crowd, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky Chairman of the Lubavitch educational and social services divisions, reviewed the major events of the past year in the work of Lubavitch around the world, with particular emphasis on its humanitarian emergency relief efforts. Rabbi Krinsky thanked the lay leaders for their vital support of Chabad: “Your partnership with the Shluchim is a partnership for the benefit of world Jewry.”
Overall, the Conference serves to reinforce Shluchim in their sense of purpose and mission. That was implicit in the Banquet dinner–in all of the presentations and in the confirmation Shluchim get as being part of a dynamic phenomenon that is making dramatic changes in the modern Jewish realtiy. But it was very much an experience of joy that dominated the evening.
“Chabad,” said Professor Dershowitz in his remarks, “is not only responsive but also pro-active. Chabad is there in times of crisis, but we often neglect to talk about what Chabad does to bring the joy,” and coining a delightful sound bite that earned him a thunderous applause, Dershowitz said, “Chabad has taught us how to have Judaism without the “oy,” but with the joy.”