More than 5,600 rabbis and guests from 100 countries gathered for a gala dinner highlighting the 35th International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. The celebration was infused with inspiration and joy, tempered by the shadow of the anti-Semitic shooting in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead only eight days earlier, as well as the 10th anniversary of the murder of Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos Linyonei Chinuch, pointed to the work of Chabad emissaries in Pittsburgh and beyond in the aftermath of the attack.
“As we continue to reel from the unspeakable tragedy that has struck our people,” he said, “it is heartening here tonight to gaze around the room and see — and feel — the palpable strength of Jewish unity that permeates this gathering.
“It was you, dear shluchim, who on the Saturday night of the horrific killings, immediately sprung into action, each in your own unique way, and in all corners of the world, turning grief into acts of comfort, support, solace and encouragement.”
Emceeing in his inimitable style, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of the Kinus, spoke of traveling to the Caribbean island of Curaçao in 1984. Not knowing what to do there when he landed, he went straight to a synagogue and met a Jew, who said his son had been expelled from his public school. Kotlarsky invited the boy to attend Camp Gan Israel in New York. The father, Chaim Groisman, later sent a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe thanking him for showing care to a “small Jew in Curaçao.”
“I must, however, take exception to your referring to yourself as ‘a small Jew from Curaçao,’ ” the Rebbe responded. “ ... there is no such thing as ‘a small Jew.’ ”
The attendees also heard from young cousins Hersh Meir Oberlander of Budapest and Mendel Klein of Moscow. Their grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Lazar, was born and raised in Austria before Hitler’s Anschluss. Lazar recalled watching Hitler’s motorcade and, seeing everyone else saluting, following suit.
“My sister slapped my shoulder down,” he remembered. “I still feel that slap until today.”
The Lazar family made it to New York, where he went to the new Lubavitcher yeshiva. As he got older, he began working at the Merkos office, but felt unfulfilled. He went on to start Camp Gan Israel. Not long after his wedding, he and his wife were sent to Milan, Italy to join Rabbi Gershon Mendel and Bassie Garelik in their work there.
That today his children and grandchildren are emissaries in Hungary and Russia, among other places, “is a miracle,” said Lazar.
Russian-Israeli philanthropist and entrepreneur Yitzchak Mirilashvili was the guest keynote speaker. Mirilashvili, through his Keren Meromim Foundation, supports dozens of charitable projects around the world, including the massive Kolel Torah program throughout the former Soviet Union.
The first Kinus took place in 1983 in a conference room at Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, attended by 65 shluchim. Almost 100 times as many were there this year.
The venue — a massive repurposed gym at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y. — saw a staff of 484 spend 10,670 hours setting up the hall and serving its 528 tables.
On the program as well was an emotional three-part story told by Rabbi Motti Flikshtein of Wilmington, Del.; Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein of Newtown, Pa.; and youth leader Zack Horowitz.
Taking the podium, Flikshtein, program director at Chabad of Wilmington, told the story of a boy named Matt who grew up in a warm but secular Jewish home and started falling in with the wrong crowd. “He ... was gravitating towards crime and drugs,” Flikshtein said. “In desperation, his parents thought that bringing him to the local Chabad might assist them with their wayward son.”
He walked into synagogue on Shabbat morning dressed to shock the rabbi. Instead the rabbi gave him a hug that changed his life.
“Fellow shluchim, dear guests,” said Flikshtein, “Matt was me.”
Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, an emissary in Bucks County, Pa., and rabbi of the Shul of Newtown, had given Flikshtein that hug years earlier, although it wasn’t exactly his nature. But “The Rebbe expects us to reach out with chesed — with love ... Matt — Motti — got that hug.”
Zack Horowitz, a 20-year-old from Wilmington, followed, telling of his experience with his local CTeen (Chabad teen network) chapter led by Flikshtein and his wife, Rochel, and his newfound connection to Judaism. Today he is studying full-time in yeshiva.
Finally, guests heard from Akiva Klitsner, a Jerusalem psychotherapist who was troubled as a teenager. Professionals advised his parents to send him to a residential treatment center in Draper, Utah. Alone and far from home, he was surprised to get a visit from Rabbi Benny Zippel, who together with his wife, Sharonne, had established Chabad of Utah in Salt Lake City five months earlier.
“It’s not just the long drives, the Shabbat dinners and that unforgettable chocolate birthday cake that I am grateful for,” said Klitsner, to applause. “The greatest gift the Zippels gave me — and shluchim give so many Jewish children in need — is the uncomplicated, unwavering love and acceptance. As with so many others, this love helped me develop the tools and life skills that I needed to find myself and my G d-given purpose in life.”
As is done every year, Kotlarsky paused to remember those who passed away this year. He noted that this week will mark 10 years since the murders of Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, co-directors of Chabad of Mumbai. “Gabi and Rivky will never be forgotten,” he said. “May we find true solace ... in the continuity of Chabad of India in the work of Rabbi Yisroel and Chaya Kozlovsky.”
Kotlarsky led the vaunted roll call, announcing the emissaries from more than 100 countries.
Then they danced. Thousands of rabbis and their supporters, weaving among the tables in a mess of concentric circles spreading as far as the eye can see, jumping with arms over arms, boom cameras and lights overhead.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” shouted Kozlovsky over the music.