Now in 100 nations in every time zone, the sun never sets on Chabad’s chasidic empire. With every sunrise, doors open for morning prayer in more than 3,500 Chabad Houses; as far south as Tasmania (the last shul before Antarctica); as far north as Siberia’s Norilsk, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. From across the planet, 5,600 Chabad shluchim (the emissaries of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson who died in 1974) and community leaders came together for a “kinus” (gathering) last Sunday to Bayonne. Yes, Bayonne, N.J., seemingly one of the few towns in the world without a Chabad, where a vast and emptied Port Authority terminal near the docks was transformed into a banquet hall. They had to come to Bayonne because after more than 30 of the gatherings (there were “only” 1,200 emissaries when the Rebbe died in 1994) there was no longer any space in New York large enough for so many emissaries to enjoy a fabrengen, that uniquely chasidic evening of singing, storytelling, l’chaims and dancing around tables.
Last Thursday, when we spoke to Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chair of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s governing group, he had just gotten off the phone regarding Chabad’s newest emissary to Iceland, bringing the number of countries with a permanent Chabad presence to 96 (up from 86 countries two years ago). That was Thursday. On Sunday, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who with Rabbi Krinsky co-chairs the gathering, announced the sending of new shluchim to the Bahamas, Curacao, Uganda, and “Let us welcome Rabbi Ari Edelkopf, who will be taking up residence with his wife in Montenegro!” There were now 100 countries with a Chabad.
Although Rabbi Krinsky told the gathering that it’s been “a good year for shlichus” (the emissary experience), the year was not without shadow. Earlier in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin, after decades of a particularly close alliance with Chabad, expelled Rabbi Edelkopf (and his wife and seven children) from Russia for unspecified security violations. Rabbi Edelkopf had been Chabad’s man in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. With 174 other shluchim working in Russia, Chabad protested but decided that Rabbi Edelkopf’s deportation, without too much fuss, was the better part of valor. (None of the remaining shluchim in Russia filed for a transfer, because shluchim rarely quit their posts. For example, the two shluchim in Turkey also had reason to fear, but they weren’t leaving either.)
There are only a few hundred Jews in Montenegro, but one was enough. As Rabbi Kotlarsky told the shluchim, “We should be in every country, in every community, in every city in the world, so there should not be one Jew who is not touched by a shliach.”
And so last month, Rabbi Edelkopf found himself inviting Jews to his sukkah in Podgorica, Montenegro, the first rabbi to live there in 100 years. At the banquet, the only hint of his drama came when Rabbi Kotlarsky’s booming voice, in the “international roll call,” welcomed “Russia,” and the banquet’s orchestra burst into a jaunty “Nyet, Nyet, Nikovo,” a song popular in Chabad after the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe was released from Soviet prison and happily exiled in 1927. Thousands of shluchim sang along, vigorously clapping to the beat, some rising from their seats, dancing defiantly. About Putin, nothing was said.
With 100 countries, there were plenty of local situations that rankled, but nothing political was allowed to “foshter the simcha” (ruin the celebration). As Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted after Edelkopf’s exile, “Chabad is … apolitical [focusing] purely on Jewish renewal.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said of the Rebbe and his shluchim, “How can you redeem a world that had witnessed Hitler? The Rebbe said, ‘If the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.’” On a video at the banquet, the Rebbe himself explained: “The [chasidic] rebbes were involved in the loftiest spiritual pursuits, teaching the inner dimensions of the Torah and bringing it into comprehensible terms. But where did they place the greatest emphasis? On doing a favor for another Jew.”
“Chabad has a very unique approach that seems to be working well,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesman. “Chabad speaks in a soft voice, but ultimately that soft voice — especially in the divisive time that we’re experiencing in America — is really coming through.”
In Bayonne, security arrangements were as tight as for a visiting head of state. The site, an empty Port Authority warehouse, was rented without working electricity or plumbing, requiring that electric lines and eight bathroom/washroom trucks be brought in, as well as water-tank trucks for the kitchen. Pressure-cleaning the floors took three days, and then 12,000 yards of carpeting were laid. Aside from cooking and serving 5,600 catered meals of beef and chicken, enough water was needed for 11,200 hands to ritually wash before eating.
Shluchim once came primarily from Brooklyn but now they are increasingly natives of the regions they serve. For example, Rabbi Eliyahu Riss, the shliach to Birobidzhan, grew up in that Russian province. “In the United States, as well,” said Rabbi Seligson, some young Jews influenced by Chabad emissaries at their college (there are 150 college Chabad houses, mostly in the United States) “are now going back to those campuses as shluchim to serve a new generation.”
Shluchim from big cities who had numerous colleagues (there are 36 shluchim in Manhattan, 51 on Long Island) were intrigued by shluchim who worked solitary, overcoming loneliness; the difficulties of getting kosher food — even kosher dairy food; or the difficulties of raising chasidic children in isolation; let alone adapting to a radically different culture in places such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
One shliach, who asked not to be named, told us, “Look, it’s not always easy to be a shliach. You can be stuck in a place with a difficult language, without a shul, without a minyan, without a mikveh, without a school. We need to come to this kinus to get recharged, to get a refill of energy, a refill of inspiration, to be reconnected to the Rebbe, so when we go back, we go back feeling that all of Chabad is by our side.”
Rabbi Asher Federman, emissary to the Virgin Islands, told the banquet he would soon be returning to help the Jews on his island continue their recovery from Hurricane Irma. After the hurricane, there was a small boat, in turbulent waters, ready to depart with Rabbi Federman’s wife and children. “I asked, ‘Should Tati [Daddy] come with you?’ One of our children looked at me, surprised. ‘Ta, no way! Who will take care of our Yidden?’ … Those words carried me through the loneliest, yet the most profound [month of] Tishrei I ever experienced.” He stayed.
Rabbi Krinsky, who was present at the first kinus with the Rebbe in 1983, with 65 emissaries in Crown Heights, and now was addressing more than 5,000, said he felt “elated.”
With that kind of growth, he ventured that this is “the most successful Jewish organization in the world,” Rabbi Krinsky told the shluchim.
After all, to send young couples to 100 countries where they were often alone, yet emissaries who loved other Jews so much that nothing was greater than doing another Jew a favor, that love, said Rabbi Krinsky, was “a success story unprecedented in Jewish history.”