Over five thousand people attended the International Chabad Lubavitch Kinus Hashluchim banquet at the New York Hilton Hotel this past Sunday evening.
Three thousand shluchim (“emissaries”) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l attended the annual gala event. There are a total of 4,235 Chabad shluchim in the world today.
The banquet, which was moved from Pier 12 Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook due to the pier becoming badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, took place in the Hilton’s main ballroom, as well as three other large halls which were hooked up via an advanced video system and large screen displays.
The banquet capped off the three days of the International Chabad Shluchim Conference, which drew over three thousand Chabad emissaries from all over the world to various locations in Crown Heights to discuss, share and learn about shluchim activities and the inspiring teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
This year’s conference celebrated 200 years since the passing of the “Alter Rebbe” and founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and 70 years since the past Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson completed his writing of “Hayom Yom.”
The featured speaker at this year’s banquet, former Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, spoke emotionally about his visits with the Rebbe, including his first meeting in 1974 when he came with a delegation from the Israeli government. The meeting, which lasted an incredible 2 hours and 20 minutes, was dedicated to the crucial topic of Jewish education. Rabbi Lau recalled how the Rebbe told him how important it was for Rabbi Lau to help form the character of youth in Israel, as they would go on to establish Jewish homes and families in the Jewish state.
Rabbi Lau disclosed that he told the Rebbe a story about a fellow Holocaust survivor whose husband died in the Israel’s War of Independence. “The Rebbe did not know the survivor from Tel Aviv, but her story struck the depths of his soul,” Rabbi Lau stated. “Pearls of tears formed in his eyes and dripped onto the back of his hand which rested on my own.” The former chief rabbi stated that he learned a great lesson from the Rebbe – how the plight of every person has to “touch the depths of our hearts.’
As Rabbi Lau further explained, it was not until 1982, when he was serving as the Chief Rabbi of Netanya, that he again saw the Rebbe. He saw that various rabbis and lay people came to see the Rebbe and they each spoke with him for five minutes. Expecting that his visit with the Rebbe would similarly be for a short duration, Rabbi Lau approached the Rebbe. Rabbi Schneerson looked at his distinguished visitor and said in Yiddish, “Why have you not come to see me in eight years??” The Rebbe remained secluded with Rabbi Lau in deep conversation, once again for 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Rabbi Lau further related to his massive and rapt audience that he once told the Rebbe that he was involved with kiruv rechokim, “drawing near Jews who had strayed afar” from religious observance. The Rebbe responded to him, “Who are we to determine who is far and who is near – they are all close to G-d.” Separately, Rabbi Lau told a story of a trip on a plane where he met a woman from Latin America who appeared not to be Jewish. Intrigued by his tefillin, the woman got into a conversation with Rabbi Lau about the religious objects and the words inscribed within, “Shema Yisrael.” Suddenly, the woman related to him that she may be personally connected with those words, proceeding to tell a story about her grandmother who – on her dying day – told her family that she had hid from them the fact that she was Jewish. When Rabbi Lau asked her whether her grandmother was maternal or paternal, she answered, “She was my mother’s mother.” Rabbi Lau then informed her, “You are a Jew.” Driving home the message of the incident to the audience, Rabbi Lau emphasized how every one of the shluchim is deeply aware that by putting tefillin on strangers and reaching out to every Jew, they are bringing back lost souls to Judaism.
The banquet’s keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Ari Shishler of Chabad of Strathavon, South Africa. In attendance was the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel Danny Ayalon along with numerous other dignitaries. Rabbi Eli Goodman of Chabad – Bachurei Chemed of Long Beach, New York, was featured on a video talking about the unfortunate destruction of Chabad centers by Hurricane Sandy.
Many “non-shluchim” who had been inspired by the words and life of the Rebbe attended the banquet, including Richard Bernstein, a blind athlete and accomplished attorney who came back to his connections with Judaism through Manhattan Jewish Experience of New York. Bernstein gained new inspiration from Chabad when he suffered a serious accident while running in Central Park. After a cyclist slammed into Bernstein and shattered his hip and pelvis, Rabbi Chaim Alevsky, co-Youth Director of Chabad of the West Side, visited him every day during his ten-week stay at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The banquet broke out into lively singing and dancing on multiple occasions throughout the evening, and ended with the fervent singing of the “Alter Rebbe’s Niggun.”