This weekend was the 30th anniversary of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (also known as Shluchim). It is a conference that gathers over 5,000 Chabad Lubavitch Rabbis, from over 84 countries.
Chabad Rabbis operate a network of Chabad “houses” which provide countless services to Jewish locals and travelers ranging from catered Kosher meals in Shanghai to a full fledged weekday Minyan in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
A couple of years back, the New York Times Blog remarked that the conference effectively hosts the largest sit-down meal in New York’s history with over 90 chefs and 340 waiters working.
This year’s attendance number was its highest with 5,200 people participating. While the event was held for the emissaries themselves, individual Rabbi’s bring their own congregants or supporters, both large and small and ranging from orthodox to non-observant to help provide a global insight of Chabad’s efforts and reach.
I attended the conference dinner as a guest of my local Chabad Rabbi (Chabad of Old Montreal’s Rabbi Nissi Gansbourg). I’ve never been to a place with people dressed so differently than me yet I felt just as welcome there as I am at my mother’s kitchen table. From the opening greetings to the dancing, I was floored at the inclusiveness and warmth that permeated the air. At no point did I feel the need to bust out my Yiddish (besides of course when speaking with Chazzan Helfgot).
If you’re familiar with the recent Pew research poll then you probably think Judaism in America is doomed. In stark contrast to the data that demonstrates the declining amount of reform, conservative and unaffiliated Jews; what I witnessed was a roll call of Chabad locations, efforts and initiatives, bent on growing Jewish outreach by leaps and bounds and quite successful doing so.
Predictably, Chabad’s response to the Pew poll announced at the conference is to double up and increase its outreach efforts. These efforts are materialized thanks to the support of countless donors, ranging from Lev Levaiev, a known Russian philanthropist who has trumpeted Chabad causes in the former USSR, to the Rohr Family whose commitment to the furtherance of Judaism worldwide is evident in the results. To date, Chabad on Campus is present at 80 universities establishing 40 permanent Chabad Student Centers. Last year alone 86,000 Jewish students visited Chabad student centers around the world.
I was happy that I wasn’t the only one in attendance with slightly different attire and a shaved beard. The event was also attended by Senator Joseph Lieberman and James Woolsey the former head of the CIA and their security personnel. Senator Lieberman spoke about his personal relationship to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his many experiences with Chabad houses around the globe, including the usual Kosher food delivery from the Local Chabad House on the road, or finding a morning Minyan attended by over 40 in locations such as Tashkent, Uzbekistan usually, at a moment’s notice.
I was all the more impressed when I was informed midway through dinner, that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Leader of Reform Judaism was in attendance as a personal guest of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky.
The underlying beauty of the event and what I believe is Chabad’s strength is the extent to which they go to achieve their signature themes of inclusiveness and positivity. In a speech by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky , Director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, emphasis was put on Chabad’s “No Jew Left Behind” approach, quoting the Lubavitcher Rebbe he said “if you have 1,000 Jews in your city and you only reached 999 people – you will be rewarded, but haven’t completed your mission.” –Chabad emissaries will not be satisfied with nothing short of increasing the practice of every single Jew.
The positive and loving approach which Chabad has always displayed was eloquently summarized by the financier and founder of Birthright Israel, Michael Steinhardt who was also in attendance and remarked that “Tonight was a unique event in the Jewish world, filled with spirit, enthusiasm and optimism.”