I had dinner Sunday evening with a group of Chabad rabbis in Brooklyn.
Several thousand of them, actually. Wearing their traditional black suits, black hats and long beards they filled the cavernous Brooklyn Marine Terminal with their ebullient enthusiasm. It was said to be the largest dinner of the year in New York, and I don’t doubt it.
For the sheer magnitude of the event you can look to the numbers: more than 4,000 rabbis representing Chabad in 80 countries and 1,200 additional guests, all male. The roll call of those countries, one at a time, from Angola to Ukraine, was one of the highlights of the dinner, along with the passionate speeches and spirited chasidic singing and dancing at evening’s end.
But that’s not the real story to me on my first visit to what must be one of the Seven Wonders of the Jewish World. What I took away from the annual international conference of Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim (emissaries) was the passion, commitment and joy of these men: for their beloved Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, even 20 years after his death; for each other, bound together in service; and for their fellow Jews, to whom they dedicate their lives in the hope of bringing them closer to Yiddishkeit.
Journalists are known to be skeptics, if not cynics. Our attitude tends to be “we’ve seen it all,” and if you show us a good deal of kindness, it tends to get our antennae up. But what I saw the other night, and what has helped make Chabad such an international success story, in reach, in depth and in resources, is a genuine love of one’s fellow Jew. Period.
The happy buzz in the great hall was palpable as the shluchim greeted each other with smiles, hugs and L’chaims. They listened respectfully to the speeches, a few of which went on way too long. They seemed most impressed with the keynote address by Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein — not because of his title in the Israeli government but because of his very personal story. He spoke of how he found Judaism through Chabad in his native Communist Russia and how it sustained him during the dark years he spent in a Siberian hard labor camp after being arrested for teaching Hebrew and seeking to emigrate to Israel.
He recalled putting on a pair of tefillin that had been smuggled into the prison and secretly praying in them for several weeks until they were discovered and destroyed by guards. His punishment was 15 days in solitary confinement.
“I am here today because of a debt I can never pay back,” Edelstein said. “A debt I owe to the Rebbe and to the shluchim,” past and present, he said. “You are the best Torah ambassadors in the world.”
The challenge today is very different from that of 30 years ago under Communism, he asserted. No longer are Jews forbidden to pray, but there is much disinterest and ignorance regarding Jewish history, rituals and traditions among Jews, even in Israel. He called on the shluchim to continue their holy work, “lighting the candle” of Judaism and spreading its warmth.
Several shluchim from various parts of the world spoke on the conference theme, “The Rebbe Is With Us,” testifying that even when they felt alone in remote corners of the world, they sensed the presence of the Rebbe and were strengthened and inspired.
Their spiritual leader’s presence was evident throughout the evening, with several large photos of the Rebbe smiling down from posts high above the slowly revolving podium (so that the speakers could be seen throughout the room) and in film footage. In one eerie sequence, the thousands of rabbis were asked to join in and sing a well-known Chabad melody, and as they raised their voices, the large screens around the room showed a clip from a decades-old farbrengen, a joyous chasidic gathering, of the Rebbe clapping his hands and smiling. It was as if he were participating in real time.
To his chasidim, of course, he was. And is.
There was no talk about the Rebbe as Moshiach on this night. Instead there was satisfaction in his continued influence as a source of faith, energy and inspiration. Two decades after its leader’s death, Chabad calculates that the movement has grown 236 percent. It now operates in 49 states as well as throughout the world. And at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, Israel is increasingly embattled and what’s left of Jewish unity seems frighteningly frayed, the Rebbe’s army is on the march, seeking to instill traditional practice and pride, one Jew at a time.