Thirty-three miles into the Arctic Circle, in the village of Kotzebue, Alaska, where more than 70 percent of the people are Eskimo, the local elementary school had guests one day: two Chabad shluchim (emissaries) from Anchorage, some 550 miles away. The children showed them Eskimo dances from the Inupiat tribe. The shluchim danced chasidic dances. Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz asked, “Did any of you ever meet a Jew?”
One girl raised her hand, yes, and she pointed to her mother, the fifth grade teacher. The mother had intermarried with a native man. The mother asked if the visitors could tell something to the daughter so she’d be proud of being Jewish, a daughter who might never see another Jew again.
In Alaska, with its midnight sun and Yom Kippur fasts that end after 9 p.m., the Jews are conscious of the sun’s coming and going. “Where,” asked one chasid, “is the first place in the world where the sun sets?” The girl knew, New Zealand or Australia. Yes, said the chasid, and Jewish women in the South Pacific are the first in the world to light candles Friday night. And then, he said, as the sun sets, moving west across the sky, candles are lit “bringing peace and light,” in India, in Israel, in New York, in Chicago, in Anchorage. But even then, there is still one place where the sun hasn’t yet set, in the Arctic village of Kotzebue. After all the Jewish women around the globe have said their blessings, said Rabbi Berkowitz, “God and the Jewish people are still waiting for you, the last Jewish girl in the world, to light the Shabbos candles.”
They’ll be coming back to Brooklyn this week, from all over the world, from New Zealand and Australia, India, Israel and Anchorage. Such are the stories that will be told at the annual Kinus HaShluchim (international convention of the emissaries) in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, featuring more than 4,000 shluchim and some 800 balabatim (lay leaders) from 81 different countries. (This group is represented overwhelmingly by those who do not believe that the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the Messiah.)
The chasidic “new year” (commemorating key events in chasidic history) is celebrated on 19 Kislev (Nov. 22), so this kinus also marks the 20th year since the death of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Aside from workshops and advisories on running Chabad centers in places as different as Vietnam or West Virginia or Berlin, for many shluchim a big part of the kinus will be visiting the rebbe’s grave, known as the Ohel, in Queens. Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, based in the Congo, e-mails, “It goes without saying that being in the vicinity of the rebbe’s resting place is the essence of our travelling to the convention. It boosts us and helps us regain spiritual vitality.” (A convention for the women emissaries, the shluchos, will be held in January. Emissaries are only sent out if married).
Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the director of (Chabad) Lubavitch Jewish Center in Alaska, says by phone, “My main reason to come to the kinus is to reconnect with that same inspiration I got when I first was with the rebbe, talking about Alaska. Probably the most important time of the kinus is going to the Ohel, with all the shluchim together. And after all the official events, I love the chasidic fibrinogens (gatherings, often around a table, with spiritual stories, schnapps, old Chabad songs) that take place in the evenings, when we re-live those moments with the rebbe. That’s the real kinus. Everything else is important, of course, but if I get that, that feeling of reconnecting, of spiritual inspiration, that’s worth everything.”
It’s often a family business, but a long-distance one. Alaska’s Rabbi Greenberg, for example, has a brother who’s a shliach in Shanghai, and another in El Paso.
To be a shliach, even in a big city, isn’t easy, says Rabbi Greenberg, and in a small and far-off city, it’s even harder. And yet, “to draw on the rebbe’s spiritual inspiration every morning when I wake up, I’m the luckiest. The rebbe made us shluchim feel that our job is the most important thing in the world. The rebbe spoke to us and it’s very clear. We are the generation after the Holocaust,” says Rabbi Greenberg, who was born in Moscow. “It took away not only six million of our best but it took away the Yiddishkeit, the Jewish life, as we knew it, from so many of our Jews.” Just as the Nazis would go to every last village in any country they entered, to find even a single Jew hiding in a barn, “we have to go to every single place, to find, love and help a Jew,” and sometimes in an Eskimo village in the Arctic, who knows what you’ll find?
After the rebbe died in 1994, The New York Times reported that there were 800 shluchim at the kinus that year. Everyone wondered what would happen to Chabad, particularly the shluchim, without the rebbe. Rabbi Yisrael Deren, the shliach to Connecticut, was quoted, “What we are beginning to realize is that we have nobody to turn to but ourselves. Now it’s showtime.”
Showtime, indeed. Not only have more than 3,500 shluchim established new Chabad centers since 1994, but they continue to be dispatched at a dizzying pace. Asked how many shluchim were in the field, a Chabad spokesman hesitated, “The number I have is only from two weeks ago. The number keeps growing.” Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a former member of the rebbe’s secretariat and today one of Chabad’s most influential administrators, and twice-named America’s “most influential rabbi” by Newsweek, confirmed that 85 new shluchim have been sent out in the last six months.
Each of the shluchim will return to the kinus with their individual stories and issues. Rabbi Bentolila, director of the Chabad of Central Africa, was sent by the rebbe to the Congo in 1991. Aside from the problem of obtaining kosher food, and staying out of the way of local warlords and outlaw militias during the Congo’s brutal and endless civil war, things are looking good. He e-mails from the Congo (where he gets 30 or 40 Jews every Shabbos) that he now plans, with the support of Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck, who recently returned from a state visit to Israel, to open the first Chabad branch in Nigeria. (A young Chabad couple is already there doing the advance work). Rabbi Bentolila writes that he is also operating a rabbinical college in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), “and we just got our third group of rabbinical students from New York who arrived here for a year.” And for those who wondered, back in 1991, if there was any work for a Chabad rabbi in Central Africa, Rabbi Bentolila says, with success in the Congo and Nigeria, “we are on our way to opening up a representation to Ghana.”
Asked what inspires the young couples who never saw the rebbe to now be the rebbe’s emissary, Rabbi Krinsky says, “What inspires them? They inspire me. They come to us and ask, ‘Where are we needed?’ And we’re not talking six months or a year; we’re talking a lifetime commitment to a community. I don’t think there’s a shliach or a shlucha in the world who won’t say that they feel the rebbe looking over them, 24/7. There’s something about the power of the rebbe’s inspiration.”