The Lubavitcher rebbe is alive. And while some panic at anyone talking like that, the fact is that since the rebbe’s 1994 death, more than 400 Lubavitcher couples have gone out into the world as his emissaries, establishing 370 centers on every continent, in every time zone.Including emissaries — shluchim, as they’re called — who had gone out before his death, the rebbe lives on in 3,500 of his best and his brightest. They operate with an international budget of $400 million. Actually, the number of shluchim is closer to 7,000, as both husbands and wives are considered equally working emissaries.Since the rebbe’s death not only have 800 gone out but not one has quit. The empire is expanding, according to administrators, at an annual rate
of 27 percent.
Last weekend, the shluchim came home. It happens every year, a five-day conference scheduled around the Shabbat preceding Kislev. The 19th day of Kislev is the chasidic “New Year,” a mini-holiday marking the yahrtzeit of the Great Maggid, heir to the Baal Shem Tov. The Maggid sent out 36 disciples at the end of the 18th century to disseminate chasidism in Eastern Europe. Among the 36 was the first Lubavitcher rebbe.On late Thursday afternoon shluchim began ascending from the Kingston Avenue subway, suitcases in hand, suit bags flung over their shoulders.
They saw old friends. Rabbi Mendel Rivkin had stories to tell from his post in Metairie, La., home to Robert Livingstone, the next speaker of the House.Rabbi Levi Wolff, from Perth, Australia, told friends how Perth turned on every light when John Glenn’s space shuttle flew above. Perth’s mayor invited Rabbi Wolff to turn on the highest ceremonial light. Quite an honor, but it was Friday night with honors all its own.Some talked real estate, of spending $1.2 or $2 million for Chabad Houses in chasidic centers such as Fairfax, Va.; Blue Ash, Ohio; Las Vegas; Tijuana, Mexico.
Rabbi Shlomo Uminer, 28, was hurrying to the check-in at the Chabad banquet hall. Uminer was among the novices, only a few weeks into the job as emissary to Florida’s St. Lucie County, where there are two Reform temples and his Orthodox shul will be the first.In the last two years, he says, friends of his have built Chabads in Tulsa, Okla.; Augusta, Ga.; Shanghai; and Santa Fe. Meanwhile, he’d been working in Chabad’s educational office. There are nearly 1,000 Chabad schools around the world. Chabad’s betting that Jewish continuity will come from education. When emissaries establish a foothold, one of the first things they do is start serious classes, a kindergarten, a day care center, a day school, a high school.Then Uminer was recruited by Rabbi Avraham Korf, Chabad’s man in Miami. When Korf went out in the 1970s, he was the only Chabad rabbi in Florida. He now coordinates 50 Chabads there, and he wanted Uminer to chart new territory.“When you grow up in Chabad, with the rebbe’s teaching, you’re brought up with the idea that life is about giving,” says Uminer. “My life here was good, but there’s an expression in Yiddish: A tzaddik in pelts, a holy man in fur. If it’s freezing cold I can sit warm in a fur coat, or I can gather wood and build a fire so other people can keep warm, too.”Before he left town, he went to the Ohel, the rebbe’s grave in Queens. There were other jobs open. “I went to the Ohel to let the rebbe know what was going on and what I was feeling, to ask his blessing.
Although Uminer never ran a Chabad House before, he’s been around. He apprenticed in Russia, running a seder near the Crimean Sea. He led a summer congregation in Italy, helped Chabad rabbis in Scandinavia, and assisted in Fort Lauderdale.He’d get more training at the conference. There were workshops on developing a board of directors, financial accountability, creating a web page, and how to have a “productive and respectful” relationship with employees.Elsewhere, 50 emissaries to the former Soviet Union had other discussions. Rabbi Zelig Ashkenazi told of leading a thriving minyan in the very same Yaketirenburg shtetl shul where little Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the rabbi’s son, early in the century.
It was noticed that in the “Hayom Yom” (“This Is The Day”), a calendrical collection of teachings compiled by the rebbe, the entries for the days of the conference include: “Divine Providence leads everyone to his place of residence for the purpose of strengthening Yiddishkeit and disseminating Torah. … Have affection for a fellow Jew and God will have affection for you. Do a kindness for a fellow Jew and God will do a kindness for you. Befriend a fellow Jew and God will befriend you. … The aggregate of all individual acts brings to completion God’s grand design.”Messianism remains a dream for every emissary, but as one shliach explained: “The important part is not who it is. The focus is bettering ourselves, bringing about sweeter feelings for Yiddishkeit, and improving the world. It’s not about waving flags. It’s about knowing that any and every mitzvah can change the world.
At the banquet, addressed by Ambassador Jamie Darenblum — Costa Rica’s emissary to the United States, and a Jewish activist who helped bring Chabad there — the real treat for the shluchim was a video of the rebbe.It was filmed at a 1972 fabrengen celebration for his 70th birthday. Some non-chasidim had suggested the rebbe deserved a good retirement.On the contrary, insisted the rebbe. He was approaching 71, so, “This year we should establish at least 71 new institutions! I am a partner with everyone who will undertake these projects,” said the rebbe. “We will cover at least 10 percent of the expenses of [their] founding. … May blessings be bestowed on all those involved.”The rebbe, looking into the vast fabrengen, warned, “We are not calling for [new institutions] in order to provide another place to create the position of chairman and treasurer, and honorary chairman and all of these titles, to merely print stationary … to declare that so-and-so merited the honor — this interesting innovation of the United States — ‘man of the year.’ … But if it can be used for Torah and mitzvahs, honor him with man of the year. Make him man of the month. As long as the institution is established on a foundation of Torah and mitzvahs, including the commandments relating to how we treat other people.”Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky watched the rebbe on the big screen. The rebbe’s closest aide, and now an administrator of this global enterprise, Rabbi Krinsky told The Jewish Week how the childless rebbe “regarded the shluchim as his children.” When it came to this annual gathering, “you could feel the holiday atmosphere in the rebbe’s presence, with the warmth and brightness, his questions about the preparations and later about the event itself. The rebbe would always fabreng with the shluchim, sometimes on Sunday as well as on Shabbos.”What was responsible for Chabad’s phenomenal growth? “I can’t really attribute it to anything other than the rebbe’s blessing,” mused Rabbi Krinsky. “It says in the Zohar that tzadikkim can sometimes prevail in this world even more after their death than in their lifetime, as the confines of the body are removed. There isn’t a shliach in the world who doesn’t feel the rebbe looking over his shoulder.”