Daily Israel Report

What's Behind a "L'Chaim Toast?"

Some reflections from the point of view of a reporter covering the Chabad Shluchim conference.
By Elad Benari, Canada
First Publish: 12/2/2011, 10:09 PM

Giant Chabad dance
Giant Chabad dance
Israel news screenshot

Yoni Kempinski, Arutz Sheva’s video reporter, has never been a Chabad Chassid, but the few days which he spent covering the annual gathering of Shluchim (emissaries) in New York helped him understand who the hundreds of emissaries around the globe really miss.

Yoni shared his experiences from the conference in a personal column in this week’s Besheva Hebrew magazine, and the following are some translated excerpts:

10:30 p.m., the Ben Gurion Airport. One by one, the journalists arrive at the meeting point. We’re on our way to the Chabad Shluchim conference in New York, attended each year by Chabad’s emissaries from all over the world.

We go through the check-in and wait by the security inspection station. Our Chabad contact person asks us to wait, and says we need to do one more important thing before we take off. Looking for a convenient spot, he takes his bag and pulls out an impressive bottle of liquor. This would be our first “L’Chaim” toast. We drink and burst into a spontaneous melody. At this point it becomes clear to us all: this assignment is going to be different than usual.

On Thursday morning it starts. We are picked up from the hotel and go to 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, New York (never say "seven hundred and seventy", but rather “seven seventy”). This is the world center of Chabad and the place which served as the Beit Midrash of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.

We meet Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch and the man who is behind the huge gathering. He is the one who looks after the needs of all the Shluchim, and there are many. He speaks of the emissaries who are scattered all over the world and says that there are places and programs of which he cannot speak. Wherever there is a Jew, there is also Chabad, he explains.

“We sell the Torah, we sell the commandments,” said Rabbi Kotlarsky. “It’s a great product. If properly packaged and presented correctly - it is certainly possible to market it.”

Here too, at the great gathering, we see the Israeli angle. Israel does not have isolated communities, there are no roaming backpackers and no need to build ritual baths from scratch. In general, it seems that in Israel more people are exposed to religion and tradition. But apparently that’s exactly the challenge. “We also deal with the image that Israeli society attaches to the hareidi-religious society,” says Rabbi Moni Ender of the Chabad youth movement. “Our job is to show the beauty and the truth in the world of Torah and Judaism.”

Many “L’Chaim” toasts accompanied the meals, the Kiddush and the gatherings, and sometimes it seemed that the alcohol played a bigger role than I expected. The Chabadniks explain this by quoting the words of our Sages that a sip which connects people is a great one, meaning that the situation is what connects the hearts and not the alcohol itself. I think about this and in the meantime raise another glass - "L'Chaim!".

Many stories are heard over Shabbat, all of them without exception about the Rebbe. I raise the question of what would happen if the Rebbe was alive. It is impossible not to feel that there is a behavioral pattern of an entire community that is still in deep mourning for a great leader, and all share with one other stories like the ones that are told when sitting shiva for the deceased.

In the last hour before the flight back, when I find myself running from store to store doing last-minute shopping, I think about the Chabad emissaries who come to New York for four to five intense days of “spiritual shopping”, during which they chase after every story, every gathering and every “L’Chaim” toast in order to have the most powerful experience possible. From New York, each of them returns separately to his own mission and to dealing with his daily atmosphere which is very different from the one in Crown Heights. From what I saw, they were properly equipped for the journey. And not just them. L’Chaim!

(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)