Last Sunday evening, as the sun set over a pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn, nearly 4,000 Lubavitcher rabbis from across the globe arrived for a gala dinner in a cruise-ship terminal, part of the international conference of Chabad Lubavitch emissaries. The rabbis, plus more than 500 Chabad supporters and funders, came by Porsche and Range Rover, Town Car and white stretch limo, by charter bus and on foot. At the entrance, against a pink and lavender sky, the Statue of Liberty was in plain view, as was a substantial police presence that both alleviated and heightened security angst, with checkpoints, sniffing dogs, and trunk inspectors.
A multibillion-dollar empire known for its exuberant and global outreach to secular Jews, Chabad has become familiar to even the least observant Jews through its giant public menorahs, Mitzvah Tank vans, and Purim parties on college campuses. But while Chabad eagerly seeks Judaism’s more wayward lambs, its growth depends heavily on the affability and zeal of the bearded, black-hatted shepherds who checked their coats and washed their hands in the foyer of the event venue, many of whom had eschewed material comforts for their missions as emissaries, or shluchim. This army is charged with spreading the word of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died 16 years ago and remains the movement’s most venerated figure.
Champagne was served. Inside the main room, heavily draped in a golden palette, 12 enormous video screens hung on the four walls, and several cameras on 15-foot cranes swung and lurched to capture both intimate and sweeping views. The stage was dressed in “rabbi-study-style”—floor-to-ceiling books, an electric chandelier, and an oversized portrait of the rebbe.
“It is up to you to see that there is no Jew not affected by the mitzvahs of the shluchim in their communities,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the conference, said early in the night, his clenched hand rising and falling like a conductor keeping rhythm. “We will not rest until every Jew is brought one step closer to the divine!”
An eight-piece band provided mood and interlude; a children’s choir was milked for hopefulness; and a handful of major philanthropists appeared by video to send their best wishes. (The keynote speaker, the handsome Ukrainian billionaire Gennadiy Bogolyubov, who was there in person, has given more than $10 million to Chabad in recent years, according to a Chabad spokesperson.)
Next up: Roll call, when shluchim from 76 countries were asked to stand for recognition. A feverish pep-rally-like environment ensued: Moldova! Ghana! Kazakhstan! Estonia! Rhode Island! Finland! Ecuador! Panama! Saskatchewan! The Israelis won the biggest applause from the crowd; the South Africans were the rowdiest.
It can’t be easy to seat so many people for dinner, but the event organizers have a history of tackling complicated logistics. The most frantic moment of the evening came when the thousands of slightly sloshed shluchim stood up, linking arms and torsos, rosy-cheeked and singing heartily along with the band, to dance incautiously around their tables; meanwhile the staff attempted to clear the appetizer, an architectural salmon-olive tapenade-cucumber dish, and serve the entrée, a less-memorable plate of beef and chicken with rice and veggies. The waiters and waitresses ducked, they swerved; they were very brave and they did their very best, but, alas, a tray of plates crashed nearby—surely others elsewhere in the room were meeting the same fate. Once the music ended, most of the shluchim returned to their tables for the next course, with the exception of the South African contingent, who continued to dance and sing a cappella after several requests that they be seated.
Like other rabbis I spoke with, Shea Harlig, 45, who presides over five Chabad houses in Las Vegas, described the conference as an inspirational experience that reinvigorated his sense of purpose. “We remove the sin from sin city,” he said, elaborating with a description of the $10 million, 65,000-square-foot day school Chabad opened in Las Vegas in August. He and his Sin City colleagues also do work in jails, with chapel visits, and buy bus trips out of town for “Jews who have gotten in trouble,” Harlig said.
For some, such as Yosef Kantor, 41, Chabad outreach is the family business. Kantor, who grew up in Australia as the son of a shliach, now runs the four Chabad houses in Thailand, which collectively serve Friday night dinners to 1,000 people each week. His eight brothers and brothers-in-law are all schluchim in different parts of the world, including Lugano, Switzerland, Skokie, Illinois, and Ranchos Santa Margarita, California. “Mom is very happy,” he said, to have the whole family in one place for the weekend (although she wasn’t there to say as much, for as a woman she wasn’t invited).
Chaim Danziger, 30, moved from Pasadena, California, to run a Chabad house in Rostov, Russia, about 1,000 miles from Moscow. Rostov, he approximated, had 10,000 to 15,000 Jews but no rabbi before he settled there with his wife. “Are there days when we reminisce about living in an easier place?” he said. “Of course. But it’s a very fulfilling life to be where we’re needed.”
Schmuli Cohen, 36, from Perth, Australia, found Chabad when he most needed it. A self-described “very complicated person,” he credited his rabbi with “bringing me back from the brink of destruction.” Quickly finishing his glass of champagne and reaching for another, he described the process by which he achieved greater peace of mind through the steady “niceness and openness” of his rabbi, who he characterized as “a real man who has heart and has soul and he knows how to put them together.” For Cohen this process is still ongoing, and he estimates he spends between 10 and 20 hours a week studying with and volunteering for his rabbi. The best thing about this conference? “The 30 hours I’ll get alone with him to talk on the ride back,” he said.
Lizzie Simon, the author of the memoir Detour, lives in Brooklyn.