What makes this Chabad emissaries’ conference different from all other years?

Gathering included speech from the grandson of the Chabad rabbi in Sderot; movement says the Oct. 7 attacks has sparked a 'massive spiritual awakening'

At first glance, the iconic photo of thousands of Hasidic rabbis dressed in traditional garb and posing in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s headquarters in Brooklyn, appears the same as it is every year at the annual International Conference of Chabad Rabbis, or Kinus Hashluchim.

From the photo, one wouldn’t be able to tell that this weekend’s 40th annual conference, which consisted of three days of workshops culminating in a gala on Sunday, came at a fraught time for Jews worldwide — just over a month after Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel on Oct. 7 and amid a subsequent rise in global antisemitism not seen in at least a generation. 

While 6,500 rabbis from all 50 U.S. states and more than 100 countries participated in the conference, 1,400 Chabad emissaries in Israel did so from their home communities and joined the event from a concurrent banquet taking place in Jerusalem.

Avraham Pizem, the nine-year-old grandson of Chabad of Sderot’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev Pizem, addressed the crowd in person at the conference gala in Edison, N.J., wearing a child-sized bulletproof vest and helmet — the same gear he could be seen wearing in a film documenting his family’s work in the hard-hit southern Israeli town, which was shown to the crowd before his speech.

Taking off the protective equipment, Pizem said he could remove his helmet and vest, “which weigh a lot,” now that he was with his “brothers, the Rebbe’s emissaries from around the world.” In his speech, Pizem shared his experiences of running for shelter in Sderot — located so close to the Gaza border that residents have just 12 seconds to protect themselves from incoming rocket and mortar fire — and sometimes not making it in time. “I’ve managed to make it to a protected area thousands of times, but thousands of times I didn’t,” he said.

The 9-year-old led the crowd in counting to 12 seconds. He encouraged the crowd to recognize the significance of 12 seconds and how much they could accomplish in even such a short time. “In 12 seconds, you can give a Jew a smile from ear to ear,” he said, drawing applause. “In 12 seconds, you can simply embrace a Jew, to bring them joy, you can support him, you can make him believe, you can give him life.”

Pizem was joined on stage by his father, grandfather and younger brother, he concluded by shouting: “chazak, chazak venitchazek”—“Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen ourselves.”

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the chief rabbi of Chabad in Bangkok, Thailand, told eJewishPhilanthropy that he has participated in kinus every year since 1993 — including when it was held virtually during the pandemic — said the message at this year’s conference was “really about reconnecting to our internal values and tradition and finding resilience and strength to be a source of light that is some sense engulfed in darkness.”

“Everyone recognizes we’re living in unprecedented times and this unfolding situation isn’t in the handbook for community leaders,” Kantor said. “There’s a great awakening and everyone understands we need to stand firm, proud and together.” 

Kantor said it was important to make the long trek this year because each rabbi’s presence can have a “domino effect” in the communities they represent.

“We are not just anti-antisemitism,” he continued. “We are also about connecting to our core Jewish identity and promoting Judaism for Jews and by being a moral compass. The message of the conference was light — adding light.” 

According to the Thai Foreign Ministry, there are 25 Thai citizens among the estimated 240 hostages abducted by Hamas from Israel and being held captive in Gaza. 

Typically, on any given Shabbat, Kantor’s Chabad house hosts dozens of Israeli tourists who visit Thailand after completing army service. Now, he said, “that’s gone down to a trickle,” as many have returned to Israel for reserve duty. On the other hand, Kantor said that Jewish tourists from Western countries who wouldn’t typically observe Shabbat have taken interest in Chabad of Bangkok. 

“People are coming to terms that they are Jewish and weren’t doing as much as they could,” he said. They’re getting the brunt of antisemitism but not getting the values and joys of Judaism, so we are in a unique moment in history where Jewish identity is becoming more important.” 

A survey of 211 Chabad rabbis in the U.S., released as part of the conference, echoed Kantor’s observation. It found that 98.6% of respondents said that since Oct. 7, they have seen an increase in personal practice related to Jewish traditions and observances among community members.

Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesperson, told eJP that the “massive spiritual awakening people are having” dominated rabbis’ conversations throughout the weekend. “People who were not connected at all are stepping up wanting to be part of the Jewish people in a way like never before. Some of them didn’t even identify as Jewish prior to Oct. 7. You’re seeing it in all kinds of ways, people wanting to wear something identifiably Jewish like jewelry or a yarmulke, or getting a mezuzah.”

Seligson said there are “broader implications” to that “awakening.” “It’s a different response to antisemitism than in the past,” he said. “The past was, let’s focus on Jewish persecution. Now, what seems to be happening is Jews are responding by leaning in and doubling down on being Jewish.” 

During the conference, rabbis reflected on a piece of wisdom that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who led the Chabad movement from 1951-1994, often shared. A statement from Chabad said, “When a house is on fire, the Rebbe would frequently say, there is no time for sermonizing — the firefighter must rush into the blaze and save those inside. This is the role of an emissary, wherever he or she is stationed, to place all else aside and fulfill the lifesaving mission they have been tasked with.”

The keynote address was delivered by Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Stern, who leads Sydenham Shul, the largest synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He quoted medieval Jewish poet Judah Halevi, “My heart is in the east and I am in the far reaches of the west.” Stern also spoke about his brother Duddie, who is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. 

Some 500 of the emissaries who attended the conference work on college campuses, which have seen the largest numbers of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. since Oct. 7. 

A Columbia University student, Eitan Feifel, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, spoke at the gala about the “rivers of hate” that have flooded the streets and how fellow Jewish students were considering taking down mezuzahs. “In Israel, our people have the IDF,” he said, “and around the world we have the Rebbe’s shluchim, who bring positivity and pride to the front lines.”

“Instead of taking down mezuzahs,” he continued, “our [Chabad] rabbi is going around campus putting up mezuzahs wherever a Jew can be found.”
In between speeches, the emissaries broke into song, belting out the words of Ani Maamin (“I Believe”) — a tune believed to have been composed in a cattle car en route to Treblinka, where nearly a million Jews were killed — and one that likely brought to mind the massacre of Oct. 7.