Imagine the possibilities if every synagogue, every organization, acted with the urgency that the Jewish future depends on them.
By Bryan Schwartzman
I must look lost wandering among rows and rows of set tables in the cavernous South Brooklyn Marine terminal, searching for my assigned seat. I’m at the 30th annual Kinus, the worldwide gathering of Chabad-Lubavitch (emissaries). This isn’t exactly where no non-Orthodox man has gone before, but I can’t, at first, help feeling a bit out of place. Before long, a Chabad rabbi leaps out of his seat and points me to the vicinity of where I needed to go. Before I reach my destination, a rabbi from Florida asks if I have put on tefillin. I hadn’t, and figure, why not?
With 4,200 rabbis representing 80 countries and 1,000 lay leaders in attendance, the Chabad Kinus is just one of those events in the Jewish world that deserve to be experienced by anyone with a strong interest in Jewish life. (It sure helps if you’re a man. Almost everyone in the room is male. I’m told there are two tables of women, but I never see them. A separate, annual conference for rebbetzins is held at another time during the year.) Like an AIPAC conference, which I have attended, or a Reform biennial, which I haven’t but hear is incredible, the Kinus is one of those events that makes a statement of solidarity and purpose by its size and spectacle.
Thousands of Chabad rabbis are served kosher meals in a warehouse-like structure, several football fields in length, that’s been converted into an elaborate, high-tech banquet hall. The proceedings are displayed on numerous giant screens. The podium stands in the center, beneath four huge photos of the late Rebbe – Menechem Mendel Schneerson – seemingly looking out at the festivities. When the speeches end, ecstatic, unbridled Chasidic dancing commences. It reminds me of my days of being swept up in a mosh pit, but the vibes are friendly and welcoming, even if I accumulate a few bumps and bruises along the way.
The scope of the security presence is also both reassuring and a bit intimidating, as hundreds of New York City police officers are on the scene. Security for the event was already expected to be tight, but then the NYPD announced it was stepping up its presence at Jewish sites and events after the brutal murders of four rabbis in Jerusalem last week. Waiting in line to park, at least four separate officers ask me to open my trunk. Finding my credentials and getting inside the building requires a bit of work, but in the end, it works out. Later, when I arrived home, I lifted the suitcase from the trunk and all of my clothes fell unceremoniously to the sidewalk.
To be sure, this gathering is first and foremost for the schluchim. Surely, those who perform the sometimes lonely and difficult work of trying to connect Jews with Judaism, those who leave their communities and live and work in difficult places like the Ukraine or Malmo, Sweden, need some encouragement, inspiration and rejuvenation. And the speakers and video presentations all deliver on that count.
“We, the schluchim, must be strong and proud Jews,” said the keynote speaker, Nissan Dovid Dubov of Chabad of Wimbledon. But the charismatic speaker also had a message for the lay leaders and guests who had traveled to the event and were perhaps overwhelmed by the experience. Chabad’s benefactors, said the British rabbi, need to be viewed “as equal partners” and not simply as “donors of funds on this dance and journey of life.”
With those words, Dubov reinforces what I have been thinking all night, that the Kinus seems to be as much for the guests, and those who have given their time and money to Chabad, as it is for the schluchim. The limited use of Yiddish and Hebrew by the speakers is clearly for the benefit of the donors, guests, and other dignitaries in attendance. As an event meant to showcase Chabad and make outsiders feel welcome, the Kinus manages to hit a home run.
A year ago, after the birth of my second daughter, Rabbi Yisroel Kotlarsky of Chabad of Layfayette Hill showed up, unannounced, and delivered soup and challah to my door just before Shabbat. Since then, he has hosted my family for Shabbat dinners on several occasions. At the Kinus, Kotlarsky takes me under his wing for the night, introducing me to an assortment of brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins, who are spread throughout the world, performing the work of the Rebbe. But even with this personal guide and plenty of warm welcomes from other Chabad rabbis, I’m naturally drawn to the other outsiders in attendance. (Full disclosure: I have written a few feature stories for Chabad.org.)
During the course of the evening, I converse with an Uruguayan businessman whose life was transformed by a Chabad rabbi. A few minutes later, I meet a secular Canadian businessman – the son of Holocaust survivors – who for years has helped support Chabad programming in Montreal. The donors I talked to spoke of supporting Chabad for all kinds of reasons, ranging from a total embrace of the teachings of the Rebbe to a desire to remain connected, somehow, to Jewish life, despite a life lived mostly at a distance from the Jewish community.
With so much doom and gloom in the Jewish world – the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewish life offered plenty of reason to be worried – it is a welcome change to be exposed to an exuberant, almost triumphant attitude. As different as the context was, the confidence evoked for me the early, largely secular Zionist pioneers who were determined to succeed despite the odds – both motivated by the feeling that failure could spell the end of the Jewish people.
This doesn’t mean I left the evening ready to embrace the Chabad lifestyle. And like many outsiders, I remain unsure of what to make of the reverence for the Rebbe – even as I recognize that he was a visionary and one of the most influential Jewish leaders of modern times.
In his address to the room, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who heads Chabad’s international educational organization, told the schluchim and their supporters that, in essence, the fate of the Jewish future is up to them. I know this has been said before, but if only all our clergy and community leaders had the same kind of passion, intensity, and can-do spirit that many of the schluchim do, miracles could happen. Imagine the possibilities if every synagogue, every organization, acted with the urgency that the Jewish future depends on them.
As a Jew who cares about the Jewish future, I’m truly heartened by the fact that so many Chabad families are out there in the world, making connections and inspiring Jewish journeys. To be sure, the differences between the Chabad approach and the more liberal interpretation of Judaism are real. Chabad isn’t, and can’t be, the only ones doing this work. As another guest said to me, “The Jewish future depends on all of us.” That is a great weight to take on, but if our current generation doesn’t, will the next generations have their chance?
Bryan Schwartzman is manager of marketing and communications for the Evans Consulting Group, a suburban-Philadelphia-based firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their fundraising and strategic goals.