How packed was this past weekend’s Kinus Hashluchim, the annual gathering for Chabad Lubavitch rabbis from across the globe? So packed that when the organizers received a last-minute video from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveying his personal best wishes, they were initially worried that they didn’t have time to air it at their dinner on Sunday. After some scrambling, they did—with the only hint that the Hebrew greeting was a late addition to the program being its lack of English subtitles.
That the program might not have had room for the Prime Minister of Israel should give you an idea of the scale and intensity of the Kinus, which was held from Nov. 7 through 11 in New York and brought together over 3,000 shluchim from 72 countries. These Hasidic emissaries—along with their wives, who have their own annual gathering in February—run Chabad Houses around the world, from U.S. college campuses to far-flung locales like Kathmandu, often providing essential Jewish infrastructure, from kosher food to a daily minyan.
For these rabbis, the Kinus serves as part boot camp, part family reunion, and part personal inspiration. To start with, there are days of training and brainstorming sessions on everything from the use of new media to balancing home life with communal outreach. Rabbis exchange ideas and share innovations with each other and learn from outside experts like Israeli communications professor Tsuriel Rashi. There is a resources fair, where various educational aids are marketed, like a new computer program that teaches individuals to read Torah (Chabad, which has already pioneered online Jewish education for children of shluchim abroad—a sort of Khan Academy for Hasidim—plans to launch such a tool for free online use). In this manner, the gathering serves as an opportunity for professional development.
At the same time, the Kinus also reunites old friends, classmates, and relatives who have been scattered around the world. The rabbis sing together and share Torah insights late into the night, relishing the company and camaraderie of like-minded colleagues. In their home communities, these shluchim devote themselves to furthering the spirituality of other Jews; at the Kinus, they have a chance to recharge their own batteries. Even Chabad rabbis, as it turns out, need inspiration. “It’s the time to refocus,” said Rabbi Yossi Deren, who has co-run Chabad of Greenwich, Conn., for over a decade. “We come to remind ourselves of who we represent.”
This can be a tough task, given that unlike other Hasidic groups, Chabad no longer has a living rebbe to guide it. The towering Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who launched many of the shluchim on their way, passed away in 1994. Nonetheless, for the shluchim, his legacy lives on. “The Rebbe is no longer here physically, but when you stand in front of that picture on Eastern Parkway,” said Deren, describing the annual group photo taken in Crown Heights of the shluchim, “and you turn and see 3,000 individuals, you see a physical manifestation of the agenda to bring Hashem to every corner of the world.” (The shluchim I spoke to strongly disavowed the messianism for which Chabad has been criticized and sought to distance themselves from those who expect the imminent return of the rebbe as the messiah.)
The capstone of the Kinus is the annual banquet, attended by the shluchim, their guests, and many VIPs—I spotted famed Jewish musical performer Dudu Fisher and Nextbook author Joseph Telushkin, among others—which took place Sunday evening. It is highlighted by a roll call for the over 70 countries represented at the Kinus—from Argentina to Zaire—followed by celebratory dancing in the aisles, as thousands of Chabad rabbis mark another year of the burgeoning movement’s growth. As Phil Rosenbaum, a local guest of one of the New York shluchim put it, “It’s like a rave for Hasidim, only they’re high on God.”
After a keynote address from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, the rabbis headed back to their particular corners of the world, carrying instruction and inspiration for the coming year. Their task is a weighty one, but one the shluchim clearly take pride in performing. As Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, a 20-year veteran of Chabad in Thailand put it, “Would you give your checkbook to a 23-year-old guy and say ‘here, go represent me in Bangkok’? The Rebbe did that to us—he empowered us and expected to hear back from us. It’s our job to live up to that eternal mission.”