In the cold of Sunday night in Edison, NJ, a group of bearded men in black fedoras embarked on a 15-minute walk through a seemingly endless parking lot, a field of dirt, and then down a paved road past police buses and cruisers with sirens wailing , a series of portable toilets and finally down the gravel path that led them around and then into a huge convention center where they listened to the pounding music of the Shluchim Conference, the annual gathering of Chabad’s global network of more than 5,600 delegates.
The convention isn’t always the largest on the Jewish calendar — the AIPAC Policy Conference drew well over 10,000 people when it took place — but the annual dinner hosted by the Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement, whose event bears the name of the International Conference of Shluchim, is one of the largest individually organized Jewish meals in the world.
While many galas draw hundreds of people to numbered tables in elegant banquet halls, the Shluchim The conference tables had to be organized by a combined index of letters and numbers to accommodate the 6,500 attendees at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center. Several journalists sat at M20. In practice, the room, filled almost entirely by men, looked like an endless sea of black hats in the haze of searchlights, with most eyes on giant TV screens that lined the hallway. A parallel women’s conference takes place annually in February.
Officially, the night had two themes: a celebration of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the movement popularly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe; and a homage to the Jewish commandment of hakhela gathering of the Jewish people to be held every seven years.
To commemorate the birth of the Rebbe, the gathering celebrated more than 120 pairs of emissaries who took up posts in new locations over the past year, as well as the founding of 120 new Hebrew schools and 120 new mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths. Additionally, the evening included the announcement of a new $2.5 million grant from the family of the evening’s keynote speaker, private equity investor George Rohr, which will fund four new Chabad day camps in North America.
Rohr has donated an estimated tens of millions of dollars to Chabad institutions in the former Soviet Union and campuses across the country, many of which bear his family’s name. In his speech, he called the Chabad campus houses a bulwark against rising anti-Semitism and hailed the movement effusively as the key to the future of Jewish life.
“From a Zedaka investment return perspective, Chabad offers the best value,” he said. “In all of Jewish history there has never been a phenomenon remotely comparable to the Rebbe army.”
Chabad has become increasingly involved in advocacy for Israel, and Israel’s political and religious leaders appeared at the event. In addition to a list of the movement’s rabbis, the evening’s agenda also included a speech by Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau. Also present were Israeli Consul General Asaf Zamir and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
Lau received applause as he reiterated his long-standing call to limit the parameters of Israel’s law of return, which automatically grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. A similar call by allies of future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently drew protests from American Jewish leaders.
“Already 10 years ago I asked for this error to be changed in the third generation [being eligible] under the Law of Return,” Lau said, adding that he wanted the government to “fix it to ensure that the State of Israel is a Jewish state, a state of the Jews.”
The night was also punctuated by references to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The program began with the child of emissaries in Ukraine singing a slow, almost sad song, and a video later in the program about Ukrainian emissaries documenting how they came to Ukraine before the fall of the Soviet Union and how they have been helping their communities ever since have started invasion.
Chabad’s network of 177 emissary families in Ukraine has played a central role in providing assistance during the invasion and the humanitarian crisis that followed. In addition, it has made life difficult for hundreds of Chabadniks in Russia. Last month, a Russian official called Chabad a “neo-pagan cult” seeking supremacy; his supervisor later apologized.
But Chabad’s enthusiasm for being in Russia has not waned; When Russia was summoned during a country-by-country appeal by the movement’s emissaries, the room erupted in dancing to a traditional Russian tune.
The segments about Ukraine seemed to convey the message that the current difficulties will not deter them, as Chabad envoys have faced adversity since arriving in Ukraine decades ago. Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky, the emissary in the Ukrainian city of Sumy who fled with his family in the first weeks of the war, recalled that an official claimed he was crazy for applying for permanent residency in 2009.
“We’re crazy,” he told the crowd. “Crazy to fulfill the Rebbe’s mission.”