From every corner of the globe, Chabad Rabbis highlight Jewish resilience

Chabad ‘Grand Event’ caps virtual international conference during pandemic

Aharon Loschak ,

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky addresses the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky addresses the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch
Bentzi Sasson / Chabad.org

(Chabad.org/news) Thousands of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and lay leaders gathered from every corner of the globe this afternoon to cap the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim). While in a regular year the conference culminates in a massive sit-down banquet—in 2019 it drew 6,000 emissaries and lay leaders to a 150,000-square-foot convention center in New Jersey—this year’s all-virtual Kinus concluded with the “Grand Event” instead, and was streamed at 1 p.m. Eastern Time and watched via Chabad.org from literally every corner of the globe.

The very fact that such a large virtual gathering took place underscored the theme of the weekend: the resilience of Jewish life and the unending push of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to view every challenge not so much as a difficulty, but as an opportunity to do more.

The dazzling program provided ample proof by featuring an array of inspirational stories and moving talks from locations as diverse as suburban New Jersey to war-torn Ukraine.

Emissaries from Johannesburg, South Africa; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and the Cayman Islands opened the afternoon program expressing how every year, they eagerly await the chance to gather together at the annual conference in New York and bask in the inspiration. With footage from the Rebbe boldly declaring that come what may, each and every individual must be nimble and adapt to circumstances, bringing the light of Torah wherever they go, the unifying message from these far stretches of the globe was crystal clear: though they may not be able to gather in person, they are all together in spirit, committed more than ever to powering through the collective mission of transforming the world, changing darkness into light.

Introducing light into the world was the central theme of keynote speaker Nathan Lewin’s address to participants. A preeminent American jurist based in Washington, D.C., who in his half-century career has litigated countless high-profile cases before the United State Supreme Court, Lewin recalled to tens of thousands of viewers the high point of his career: the opportunity to represent the Lubavitch movement in the 1986-’87 case over the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad.

On Hei Tevet, the fifth day of Tevet 5747, corresponding that year to Jan. 6, 1987, a federal judge ruled decisively that the vast and rare library collected by the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitschak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, and spirited out of the Old World, belonged—as the Rebbe himself did—to the Chabad movement as a whole. The euphoria that erupted among Jews the world over saw Lewin lifted on shoulders and hailed as a hero in the synagogue at Chabad World Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and remains etched in his mind forever.

But perhaps even more rewarding, Lewin related, were his victories in the Supreme Court and other courts of law regarding the fate of the public menorahs Chabad emissaries have been raising since the mid-1970s.

While the sight of a Chanukah menorah prominently featured outside the White House, state houses and city halls, in a shopping mall or town squares is ubiquitous today, it was not so in when the Rebbe first launched his Chanukah awareness campaign in the early 1970s. Eventually, Chabad was forced into litigation over religious freedom for the display, and on July 3, 1989, Lewin emerged triumphant in the Supreme Court, the justices enshrining into law the permissibility of the public display of religious freedom that is the menorah on public property.

Lewin noted that while the very essence of the public menorah lighting are the gathering crowds and the holiday cheer they bring, the lower numbers of this year’s lighting in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic should be depressed in numbers only—but not in spirit. After all, he exclaimed, the Rebbe taught the importance of the awareness the Chanukah lights bring, and this year more than ever, simply seeing the menorah outside—whether in person or even on a screen—will certainly bring the awareness that despite everything it is still Chanukah, and darkness will never win over light.

From War-Torn Ukraine to an Emotional Beginning in Germany

With the world still reeling from a pandemic that has struck in all too many places, striking fear and uncertainty in the hearts of many, emotions ran high all afternoon.

It was against this backdrop that much of the year’s Chabad activities around the world were viewed, highlighting the importance of the emissaries’ steady and reassuring presence wherever they are.

There was Rabbi Mendel Cohen, co-director of Chabad of Mariupl, Ukraine, who spoke with particularly deep emotion. Beginning in 2014, Cohen’s hometown, situated at the precipice of the war in eastern Ukraine, became a terrifying scene of destruction and bloodshed. Throughout it all, Cohen described, together with his wife and family, they defiantly stuck it out, assisting their small Jewish community and the city at large during the last difficult six years.

“Everyone in the community felt that we were not only there to teach them, but as a part of them; literally like family,” he explained.

Cohen vividly described a harrowing attack by an axe-wielding terrorist on his Chabad center just this past summer, and how he narrowly escaped death. If that weren’t enough, Cohen contracted COVID-19, and as matters deteriorated in Ukraine, fellow emissaries rallied to raise funds and airlift him to Israel for life-saving treatment.

Lifted in a special bubble to the Holy Land, Cohen described how the entire time, “I felt as if I was being hugged, and the one thing on my mind was: when will I be able to return to Mariupl to resume my post on shlichut!”

A Heart-Wrenching Memorial

In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, young Mendel Wolff of Hanover, Germany was shown composing a letter to his late father, Rabbi Binyomin Wolff, who tragically passed away earlier this year at the age of 43.

Describing his father’s warm smile and unwavering commitment to his community, young Mendel wrote of his own commitment to carrying on his father’s legacy. “Father, you taught us that shlichut is a gift, something to love, and indeed, I promise to continue your work until Moshiach comes,” the young shliach concluded.

Rabbi Wolff passed away in April, leaving behind his wife, Shterna, and eight children. Since that fateful day, Shterna Wolff announced that she and her children would remain in Hanover and continue the work her husband had dedicated his short life to. As the program continued, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch—the educational arm of the Chabad movement—and the chairman of the Kinus, could hardly contain his emotions as he announced the purchase of a brand new Chabad center in Hanover, to be named “Binyomin’s House,” fulfilling a life-long dream of the late rabbi.

The video concluded with a group of Chabad emissaries in Germany presenting the keys of the new Chabad center to Rabbi Wolff at his gravesite.

“How Are You?” “What Are You Doing?”

Through all the emotions it was a message of resolute defiance and optimism that rang above all else. This was brought particularly into sharp focus with a personal story of the Rebbe retold by Rabbi Yosef Rosenblum of Pittsburgh, Penn., dean of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh. His message? While the Rebbe indeed cared deeply and personally for every individual’s needs and wants, he also wanted to know “What are you doing about it?”

Shining a spotlight on our matriarch Sarah, about whom it is stated that, “All her years were equally good,” Rosenblum pointed out that while Sarah’s life story wasn’t a steady stream of positive events, what mattered was her attitude to those events—and from that perspective, they were, indeed, all equally good.

“Sarah’s attitude must be our attitude,” Rosenblum said, illustrating the many efforts of Chabad emissaries across the world to retool, reimagine and literally recreate the world of Jewish outreach in the face of a radically different world.

A COVID-19 Report

Chabad’s “COVID-19 Report” was delivered by Rabbi Dov Drizin, co-director of Chabad of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., and community member Stu Gold, who echoed Rosenblum’s words.

“The daily prayers conclude with a passage that reads ‘Don’t fear,’” Gold exclaimed. “Throughout this pandemic, there was much to fear, and it was difficult to say those words with conviction. But when we all stood as a community with Rabbi Drizin under a massive tent with social distancing on Rosh Hashanah, they were no longer just words for me. Looking at what Chabad had managed to accomplish even with a pandemic, months’ worth of anxiety dissipated, and I truly felt that there was, indeed, nothing to be afraid of.”

‘We Are Home’

Capping off the afternoon’s program were words of positivity from the person who literally wrote the book on it—Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, co-director of Chabad of Belgravia in London, author of the popular book Positivity Bias, and a regular contributor to Chabad.org.

He recounted a personal anecdote. One day he overheard a small child ask his parents “When will we go home?” and was met with the simple but life-changing reply, “My love, this is home.” Kalmenson vividly described how though 2020 might feel like a year upended, a temporary blip that’s uncertain as it is unclear, the Rebbe’s message from the very nascent days of his leadership was, and remains, that we must view every situation as a chance to make a home for G‑d. “The Rebbe taught us that pit stops can become Promised Lands,” he exclaimed.

Kalmenson drove home the message that now more than ever, Moshiach must be around the corner. The incredible success in the face of unprecedented challenges this past year only demonstrates just how resilient the Jewish people are, ready to completely transform the world for once and for all. “We are no longer waiting for Moshiach—Moshiach is waiting for us; for us to tell G‑d ‘Welcome home!’”

The afternoon concluded with the now-famous international roll call, Kotlarsky endearingly calling up each shliach from their respective countries, highlighting the tremendous multimedia effort invested in the inspirational event.

As the roll call rolled to an end, joyous music erupted, and from around the globe, glasses were raised, feet flew off the floor, and in a giant, virtual ensemble, the Rebbe’s army and their supporters experienced the euphoria of Jewish life once again.



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Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org



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