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Meeting of the Minds

Chabad’s massive growth rooted in several key ingredients, yet ‘defies logic’

By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org, Judie Jacobson contributed to this report

How do you go about feeding a crowd of 5,600 hungry rabbis and other guests, many of whom have just traveled across the globe? If you ask Greenwald Caterers, they’ll tell you to start with 2.5 tons of meat, 10 pallets of drinks and 40 cases of tomatoes. And don’t forget the 5,600 cups of coffee.

Greenwald was the caterer of November’s International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in Bayonne, New Jersey. The largest event of the year in the Chabad world, the 44th annual Kinus Hashluchim (gathering of emissaries) drew a record-setting attendance of 5,600, including 4,700 emissaries. The rabbis traveled from as far away as New Zealand, Thailand and the Congo.

The Kinus tradition began in 1983, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe,” appointed his longtime personal secretary Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (now chairman of the Chabad umbrella organization Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch) to chair a conference of Chabad’s North American rabbis. That October, some 65 of them gathered at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn to share ideas, solutions and support.

At the Kinus, Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky (right) of Chabad Jewish Center in Glastonbury, met up with Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe of Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow, Mass. Rabbi Yaffe was formerly spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford.

“The concept is to exchange ideas, to recharge, and to give each other strength. While there are many ways to communicate nowadays, we live in a fragmented world. Coming together and spending quality time with colleagues dedicated to this important enterprise is greatly encouraging and truly inspiring,” explains Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky, director of the Glastonbury Chabad. “More than anything else, the feeling of the convention is one of family. Yes, we are Jewish professionals in the field. More than anything else, however, we are bound by our vital mission. Each of the 5,000 Rabbis present shares a common goal: To bring more goodness and Yiddishkeit to our respective communities.”

An announcement at this year’s conference highlighted the fact that, 23 years after the death of its leader, the movement continues to grow exponentially. Last month, Uganda became the 100th country to have a Chabad center, adding to the 3,500 Chabad institutions around the globe. Including the Chabad.org website, these institutions reach millions of Jews every year.

Chabad-Lubavich describes itself as the largest Jewish organization in the world, and leading experts on Jewish communal life agree with that assessment.

“Nobody else comes close,” says Mark Rosen, an expert on Jewish institutions and a professor at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, who recently completed a study of Chabad’s campus programs.

What’s behind Chabad’s growth? A major factor could be the preservation and dissemination of countless videos and recordings of the Rebbe’s sermons, as well as dozens of his Torah commentaries and 32 volumes containing a sampling of the hundreds of thousands of letters he wrote in response to a constant stream of questions.

“It’s the first repository of a great Torah teacher’s wisdom to be kept alive by technology,” says Chabad spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson. “So the Rebbe continues to teach us years after his passing.”

Another widely recognized ingredient in the movement’s secret sauce is the personal dedication of the rabbinical emissaries, who move their families into remote corners of the world like India, Laos and Siberia in order to serve Jews wherever they are.

“For them, it’s not a job—it’s a mission,” Rosen tells JNS.org. “They’re not angling for a promotion and they don’t go home at five o’clock. Instead they’ve made a lifelong commitment to spread Judaism to every Jew, wherever they’re needed, so they can accomplish a lot.”

Chabad “loves and accepts every Jew wherever they are with no judging,” Rosen adds. “Their goal is to not to get you to be just like them, but to help you take the next step in being Jewish, whatever that looks for you. That brings people who would otherwise never be attracted to Orthodox Judaism to Chabad.”

The Rebbe still inspires this group of 4,700 emissary families around the world.

“It’s an ongoing relationship,” says Rosen. “Gone for more than 20 years, his teachings still guide them.”

“The Rebbe had a dream that no Jew should be left behind. This gathering makes it clear that we are living the Rebbe’s dream,” says Wolvovsky.

Insiders and outsiders alike point to a third ingredient in Chabad’s formula: the effective transference of the passion to spread Jewish life to the next generation. The Nov. 19 Kinus event included a junior emissary program for 1,100 youths ages 8-14.

“Everyone was excited and energetic. We were all happy to be there. This is something we wait for the whole year. There is a lot of cheering and singing. we were very enthusiastic about being together,” says Wolvovsky’s son,10-year-old Mendel, who accompanied him to the Kinus.

“We got a tour of the Lubavitcher headquarters. We had Shabbat meals together and we had time to socialize with our friends that we only see once a year. At the kinus, we went to an indoor amuzement park and took a picture of all the Rabbi Juniors. The picture had hundreds of children from all parts of the world.”

“I loved meeting new friends and seeing the friends that I already knew. I also enjoyed seeing all the different shluchim from many different countries and communities,” he adds.

Attending the Kinus children’s program for “Young Shluchim” was Moshe Kantor, age 9, who attended with his father, Rabbi Yehuda Kantor of Westport.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, who along with his wife Nechama runs Chabad centers in Thailand, says, “At the Kinus, I was able to tell younger rabbis that the impact they have on every Jew they meet isn’t quantifiable, but it’s there.”

In Thailand, the Kantors have served more than 100,000 meals, many of them to backpacking post-army Israelis who stop by for kosher food and a warm Jewish welcome.

“The Rebbe taught us that it’s not about having followers, but about bringing out the leadership in others,” Rabbi Kantor says.

At a time when Jews are becoming less connected with formal Jewish organizations, according to the Pew Research Center’s much-discussed “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey of 2013, why haven’t other institutions implemented the Chabad playbook?

Chabad’s model “cannot be replicated since you can’t do it if you don’t live it,” says Brandeis’s Rosen, who shares the insight of a fellow scholar from that university, Jonathan Sarna, that “no one would have predicted the greatest force in 21st-century Jewish life would be an Orthodox movement like Chabad.”

“It defies logic,” Rosen says of Chabad’s ascent. “So there must be some deeper truth that’s escaping our understanding and that our social science skills don’t quite encompass.”

CAP: Parallel to the adult “Kinus,” a special “Young Shluchim” program was held for the “Young Shluchim,” such as Mendel Wolvovsky, age 10, who attended with his father, Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky of Glastonbury.

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