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Sunday, December 16, 2018

(Many thanks to all those who commented online and in person over the weekend about the busy week I wrote about in last week’s edition. Yes, I have recovered and it’s now time for me to finish up what I said I was going to be writing about—my attendance at this year’s annual Kinus HaShluchim—Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, last Sunday.)

Over the past few years, I have had excuses to turn down invitations to the Kinus extended to me by various friends and contacts from within our local Chabad organizations and Friendship Circles here in northern New Jersey. I just wasn’t that excited to shlep out to Brooklyn for the event, although, as the Kinus has grown—along with the growing number of Chabad shluchim and branches worldwide—my interest in attending has grown as well.

As I am a former professional fundraiser who used to help oversee and run one of the largest Jewish community dinners out there—the annual OHEL dinner—which attracts between 1,000-1,500 people
annually, I knew from personal experience some of the challenges that the Kinus organizers faced in finding a place to hold a reserved-seating dinner with full waiter service. Almost every event organizer I know has lamented how relatively few good “big” spaces exist in the tri-state area for events for over 1,000 people. They really are hard to find.

But this year, with the Kinus in a converted Port Authority-owned warehouse in nearby Bayonne, my excuses evaporated and I said yes to an email invitation from my friend Motti Seligson, Chabad.org’s director of media relations. The subject line of his email to me read: “Dinner with 5k Rabbis?” How could I say no to that? It was time for me to attend the Kinus.

To prepare, I read up online about the Kinus and articles that had been written about the event in past years, so I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that the Kinus was not only a dinner for 5,600 people—Chabad rabbis/shluchim and their partners—but it was also the finale of a five day conference for Chabad shluchim from all over the world, from over 90 countries this year. I knew that among the highlights of the Kinus program is the annual roll call in which every country where there is a Chabad presence is named and the number of Chabad families in that country is listed. I also knew a highlight of the event for many was the music and dancing as the entire room joins together to sing and dance with arms linked and lines of men dancing their way across the floor and around tables.

Walking into the event space, I could not help but be overwhelmed a bit by how many people there were...and that was only at the portable charging booth, which was literally mobbed by the many shluchim from near and far whose phones were on life support or in severe danger of losing their charge.

Seriously speaking, while walking across the hall, which was hard to actually see from one end to the other, I passed by the slowly rotating center stage in the center of the room. Large screens nearly covering each side of the room—more than I could count easily—allowed everyone to see what was happening on centerstage, no matter where you were sitting. Perhaps most intriguing to me was seeing so many non-Chabad attendees there, ranging from chasidim from other chasidic groups to the many non-Orthodox Jews who were there, often at the behest and invitation of their respective local Chabad rabbi.

The first two speeches from Chabad’s leaders by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky (the vice chairman of the Kinus) and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, by video (chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch), certainly set the tone for the evening. In his opening remarks, Rabbi Kotlarsky noted that the room represents the entire Jewish people and went on to explain how important our individual missions are as Jews. Following that, Rabbi Krinsky noted in his video remarks that “as many of Chabad’s shluchim are the leaders in their respective communities, the Kinus serves as perhaps the largest Jewish leadership gathering anywhere in the world.” He was definitely right on that score.

All in all, I enjoyed the program quite thoroughly, enjoying the presentations made by some very special Chabad rabbis from around the world, such as Rabbi Asher Federman from the hurricane-devastated U.S. Virgin Islands, to name one. I also enjoyed the polished videos about the Chabad presence and people in places like Chevron, Ghana, Ho Chi Minh City and as far away and remote as Birobidzhan, Russia.

But perhaps two main highlights for me were the speeches by superstar attorney Ben Brafman and by Israel (Yummi) Schachter of Toronto.

Mr. Brafman, who is in the news again these days for representing Harvey Weinstein, explained what it was like to grow up in Crown Heights literally in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who lived next door. He explained that the popular song “Ufaratzta yama vakeidma...” (from last week’s parsha Vayetzei, which means, “And you will spread out to the east and west, north and south...etc.”) is literally burned into his memory after hearing it sung over and over thousands of times through the thin apartment walls next to 770 Eastern Parkway. He didn’t enjoy it as much then, and noted that there were many nights that he wanted to jump out the window after hearing it sung loudly again and again. Only later in life did he realize the power of this theme song as Chabad grew from its humble beginnings in the 1950s to the global reality of Chabad today. He closed his remarks by blessing and urging and encouraging Chabad to keep singing “Ufaratzta” and living its message of continued growth and expansion.

Just before Mr. Brafman took the stage, my old acquaintance, Israel (Yummi) Schachter, a son of RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rav Hershel Schachter, also got up and spoke about his interaction by text message with the Chabad shliach Rabbi Dovid Liberson in Barcelona shortly after the terrorist attack there in August in which 13 people were killed. Friends of his brother were on vacation there and had been scheduled to eat in the kosher restaurant Maccabi where the attack took place, but ended up in the hospital there for different reasons. They needed special kosher food as soon as possible but didn’t know who to reach out to in Barcelona, and started asking friends back in the U.S. and Canada for help. Yummi’s brother asked him if he knew anyone there in Barcelona who might be able to help, so Yummi texted Rabbi Liberson asking for help. He didn’t expect much back, given the current situation in the city and the fact that they had never met. Within seconds, however, he received a message back from Rabbi Liberson asking for info, and shortly afterward Rabbi Liberson arranged for food to be brought to them and texted back to Yummi: “Thank you for the mitzvah.” Yummi cried upon reading this.

Yummi’s next words were: “As beautiful as the story is, I hesitated sharing this story because while I have tremendous respect to Rabbi Liberson for what he did, I also know that every other shliach in this room would have done the exact same thing...with the same enthusiasm and love and generosity.

Is this the story to share with you?....After some reflection, I felt that it was important to share, as Chabad has set such a high standard of caring that we have come to take it for granted and expect it.

What better way is there to acknowledge the work of Chabad than to show what’s being done day in and day out by every Chabad shliach, whether we are paying attention or not?

Special words for sure.

I left the Kinus that night feeling deeply strengthened by the power of what I heard and saw all around me. Without question, what Chabad is doing for the global Jewish community is unique and also unprecedented in Jewish history. I left also more convinced than ever of how unique Chabad and its shluchim are...and I would never have felt this way without seeing it firsthand. I am glad I went and will look to return in future years.

By Moshe Kinderlehrer, 

Co-Publisher,
Jewish Link of New Jersey