Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
Four Thousand Rabbis Make a Party
Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 12:03 PM
How many rabbis can you fit in a room? The organizers of the 27th International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries say about 4,000. The men -- they're all men -- flew in from 76 countries and sat down to a nice meal, some kosher wine and entertainment. The dinner, held this past Sunday, followed several days of conference workshops, as well as a big class picture.
The dining hall was a vast cruiseship terminal on the Brooklyn waterfront. Normally, it's used to process international tourists coming off fancy boats. However, for this occasion the room was rather lovingly decorated and lit to a soft, pastel glow. With great pride, an announcer highlighted the geographical diversity of the gathering: "The shliach to Japan! The shliach to Laos! The shliach to Nepal! The shluchim to Singapore!" (a shliach is an emissary; its plural form is shluchim)
Above the stage was a big photo of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe, as he's known, led the Lubavitcher movement for decades, until his death in the 90s. He's credited with taking orthodox Judaism global, in part by convincing his followers to live in the most un-Jewish places on Earth and connect with lapsed Jews while performing good works. For many in the movement, the Rebbe was considered a messianic figure. He was a charismatic figure, and many believed he was actually The Messiah. Some still do -- and are waiting for him to return.
The room was a sea of black -- men in black suits, dark beards, black hats. Why the hats? Rabbi Mendel Katzman of Omaha, Nebraska says they serve as an ego check.
"The hat is a reminder that there's a power above the highest point in our being -- a reminder of God," said Katsman.
But clothes also speak to attitude: proof that these men still haven't assimilated, despite decades of living abroad.
"We're taught that the uniform that the Jewish people kept when they were in Egypt, enslaved for so many years, was one of the magical tools that kept them from assimilating and getting lost into the Egyptian culture at the time, which was a very powerful force," he said.
Periodically, videos were shown, proclaiming the power of the Chabad network, and to that extent the event seemed calibrated to pump up the crowd. But it was also a family reunion of sorts. Everywhere you looked, there were rabbis embracing each other. Some hardly ever see their brothers and sisters, and don't necessarily like living in strange, exotic lands. But as many of them say, they stay put because it's their life's mission. Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila has lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, since 1991, despite revolutions and shootings in the streets.
"Chabad has a special mission that Rebbe entrusted us with," he said. "In 1950, when he took over the leadership of Chabad, he entrusted us to bring back the world to the state it was before the sin."
Rabbi Yosef Kantor runs a Chabad center in Bangkok. He says a lot of the people who come through are former Israeli soldiers who might not have been religious otherwise. He tries to give them a nice Jewish experience -- falafel, schnitzel, et al.
"But we also have some Thai dishes like chicken salad, spicy chicken salad," he said. "Sum tum, which is like a spicy papaya salad. We have gudiel, it's like a chicken noodle soup -- very different than the Jewish style chicken soup.
The keynote speaker was a Ukrainian philanthropist, Gennady Bogolubov, who has given $10 million to Chabad (the movement, according to a spokesman, has about a billion dollars in operating costs) and spoke of his ambitious plans to build a huge, seven-tower Menorah Center.
"Each one has a light on top," he said to much applause. "So all of the plane go from Europe to the East will see seven lights."
The high point of the event came immediately after the international roll call. As soon as the band started up, all the rabbis in the room rose and, with arms on each other's shoulders, started dancing around the tables, until the whole room convulsed.
"I come from Cape Town, South Africa, and I was sent there 35 years ago by the rebbe himself," said Mandel Popack, a twinkle-eyed, white-bearded rabbi who couldn't stop moving to the music, "and it's wonderful to see how we're all pooling together to do the same mission, and the mission is to touch and affect with love every single Jew."
And then, at last, the music ended and the dancers were implored to stop dancing. But just when it felt the party was over, dinner was served.