Ask just about any shliach at the recent conference of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis about what they get out of spending five days with their fellow rabbis and he will say “recharging the batteries.”
“The shluchim conference is like the Rosh Hashanah of our outreach,” Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, director of Chabad of Owings Mills, said, using the Yiddish-inflected Hebrew word for emissaries. “It’s when we derive inspiration, recharge and are empowered to fulfill our mission to reach every single Jew in the community.”
Katsenelenbogen, better known by his supporters, students and congregants as Rabbi K, was one of a reported 4,200 rabbis from 81 countries and territories who attended the 31st annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in Brooklyn, N.Y. The five-day conference wrapped up Sunday night with a banquet attended by almost 5,000 people — supporters and other lay leaders joined the rabbis — that included speeches from international Chabad administrators and Israel’s Speaker of the Knesset, a lot of time to socialize and, of course, dancing.
The conference was a chance for the shluchim to share best practices, study together and revisit the teachings of the movement’s late leader, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who took Chabad-Lubavitch into the modern age by sending emissaries to college campuses and far-flung Jewish communities around the globe. In the 20 years since Schneerson’s passing, Chabad has seen a 236 percent increase in its emissary corps, with an average of more than two couples joining per week. These emissaries run Jewish centers, preschools, synagogues, yeshivas, drug treatment programs, prison visitation programs and other projects charged with bringing Jews closer to their heritage and tradition.
Just before the conference, the movement announced the establishment of a Chabad House in Mississippi, leaving just South Dakota as the only state without a full-time Chabad presence.
“The Rebbe’s dedication to outreach was so powerful, so intense, that as generations go on, there are new people that need to hear that message and there’s a new way to share that message,” said Chabad of Park Heights director Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, who is also director the Cheder Chabad day school in Baltimore. “We need to come together and say, ‘How do we do that this year?’”
For Lisbon, that meant networking with other day school leaders to talk about what’s working in different communities and continuing to share that information after the conference.
Rockville-based Rabbi Levi Raskin, who runs the JCrafts program, had a chance to learn about other ways he can make Judaism fun when he goes into schools in the Washington, D.C.-area. JCraft programs include making shofars with students before Rosh Hashanah, making olive oil using a press around Chanukah and teaching how a Torah is made.
“By getting together, we create more ideas and implement them,” Raskin said of the conference. To that end, he plans to bring a kosher chocolate factory idea back home with him so that students can learn about kosher animals and then make chocolate using molds of those animals.
For campus rabbis such as Rabbi Eli Backman from the University of Maryland Chabad in College Park, it was a chance to discuss the unique challenges of running a Chabad House in a continually changing community.
“My congregation is always 18 to 22,” Backman said. “You’re working with a crowd going through a very different time period in life. They’re not going to be there a long time.”
“There’s a lot of competing things for their attention and focus,” added Rabbi Mendy Rivkin of the Towson University and Goucher College Chabad. He said it can be somewhat isolating in the community when dealing with the struggle of helping reinforce people’s Jewish identities in a transient environment like a college campus. But the conference is a reminder that he is not the only one dealing with those issues.
“It allows us to refocus on the beautiful things that do happen and let the struggles fall by the wayside,” Rivkin said.
Campus rabbis also networked with representatives of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi to exchange ideas.
Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad-Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore also deals with a population that is very transient, so he works to keep those connections beyond Baltimore.
“You get to know people and they’re gone very quickly,” he said of the young professional population he caters to. “I put a lot of effort into staying in touch with friends, and I hope that the effect my relationship had on them while they were here continues, their growth in Judaism continues.”
One such person Druk has kept in touch with is Ron Reitman, who first joined the Chabad movement when he was 20 and got involved in the downtown Chabad House when he lived in Baltimore after college. Reitman, now 38, lives in Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y., and is active in a Chabad community there. His children were named at the local Chabad synagogue, and his son attends its day school.
“I’m so into it now. I love going to shul. My son loves going to shul,” he said. “I can’t put into words the impact Chabad shluchim have had on my life and my children.”
That impact was reinforced by the banquet’s speakers, including Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the director of the conference and vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s educational arm.
“The Rebbe wasn’t looking for complacency, he was looking for radical change,” Kotlarsky told the crowd. “We see on a daily basis how the world has changed.”
He cited public menorah lightings and the fact that there are shluchim in cities with only 500 Jews as ways this vision has come to light.
“The future will be bright … because of the unity of the Jewish people,” added Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset.
For Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland, it all goes back to Schneerson — his legacy, his teachings and his ideas.
“That’s what regenerates us to keep on driving to accomplish what we want to do, which is to reach every single Jew, educate every single Jew and to give them a chance to become acquainted with their heritage that they own,” he said. “We’re not selling them our wares; we’re trying to give them what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all the way back to Abraham and Moses left them.”