NEW JERSEY — Hundreds of Hasidic men swirled around a huge, dimly lit convention hall outside New York City on Sunday night, with groups dancing around revelers who embraced newly inscribed Torah scrolls as music blared and blue flashing lights raced through the crowd.
The event was the culmination of the annual gathering of the Chabadi Hasidic movement for their schluchimor emissaries dispatched throughout the United States and around the world to assist and do public relations work for Jewish communities.
Thousands of rabbis gathered for the conference to bring together representatives of the group and highlight its rapid growth and global reach. The events attracted 6,500 delegates and some guests from all 50 US states and over 100 countries and territories.
“To sit all together in a room and learn from each other and spend a few days together really gives us tremendous inspiration to take back into our own communities,” said Rabbi Levi Duchman, a New York native who is hired here is the United Arab Emirates.
“If you talk to everyone [emissary]You realize how similar we are, whether you’re a rabbi in the United Arab Emirates or a rabbi in Honolulu, Hawaii,” Duchman said.
The event gave emissaries a chance to reconnect after the convention was canceled for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Outside the hall, a group of men smoking cigarettes conversed in French, Spanish, Hebrew and English, and friends took selfies together around the hundreds of round tables set up in the hall.
“When you all get together, you share ideas, learn from each other, and really plan for the year ahead about what we’re going to do bigger and what we’re going to do better,” Duchman said.
Chabad says it has 5,646 active Emissary pairs around the world. Only the men attended the meeting; a women’s conference will be held in February.
This International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries also celebrated a hakhel Year marking a gathering to be held every seven years and the 120th birthday of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late spiritual leader of the movement. A traditional birthday greeting in Judaism is “until 120,” and Moses is said to have lived to that age.
Chabad is based in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, with the community centered around its world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, next to Schneerson’s former home.
In another highlight of the week-long gathering, the emissaries gathered for a “class photo” in front of headquarters early Sunday.
Along with the feverish dancing at the Sunday banquet, musicians performed and orators addressed the crowds in the vast hall.
The event took place under tight security and the flashing lights of the police cruisers lit up the night sky in front of the convention center. A Jewish security group, the community security service, was also stationed in the ballroom.
Over the weekend, authorities in New York arrested two men and confiscated their guns over what police called a “threat to the Jewish community.” Earlier this month, New Jersey synagogues were placed on high alert due to a similar threat. Earlier this year, an anti-Semitic attacker committed a violent rampage, stabbing and running over several people in the Lakewood, New Jersey, Jewish community.
However, the atmosphere inside was festive as speakers hailed Chabad’s growth and reach. The movement said it has established 120 new centers over the past year, about one every three days. Some of the new international posts include Zambia and Iceland.
Duchman said his community is thriving in the UAE and that local authorities are heavily supporting the community of about 5,000 to 10,000 Jews.
At the banquet, 36 religious scribes each simultaneously prepared a new Torah scroll for Jewish communities that lack it. The number 36 is considered a multiple of 18 in Judaism as a coincidence and means life.
The movement released some other numbers highlighting its reach and growth, including 284 campus centers; 200 young professional centers; 10 New Jewish Day Schools in US Last Year; and a 199% increase in US parishes between 2001 and 2021.
The Pew Research Center said in a 2020 poll that 38% of U.S. Jewish adults have been involved with Chabad.
The movement also announced a program to open new Jewish overnight camps with a $2.5 million donation from the Rohr Family Foundation. Philanthropist George Rohr was a speaker at the convention.
Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau delivered the opening address. He called on the new government to scrap the so-called “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one non-Jewish grandparent.
“For 10 years I’ve been asking to try and change this third-generation error in the Law of Return — to fix it, to ensure that Israel will be a Jewish state, a state of Jews,” Lau said. A change in the law would discourage those who are not Jewish under Torah law from immigrating to Israel.
If the expected new right-wing government repeals the law, it will ignite tensions with liberal US Jews, the majority of the American community.
Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has also pushed for stricter compliance with the religion law. He had planned to travel to New York to attend the Chabad conference but canceled the trip amid ongoing coalition negotiations.
Lau’s comments also echoed a statement by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef earlier this month. The two Israeli chief rabbis are civil servants whose salaries are paid by the state and are not supposed to interfere in political affairs.
During his speech, Lau also boasted of his intransigence on the issue of conversions to Judaism.
The war in Ukraine was another recurring theme of the Congress. Chabad was founded in Russia, Schneerson was born in what is now Ukraine, and the movement played a central role in rebuilding Jewish communities in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Chabad was also heavily involved in the war response, including by supporting Jews in Ukraine and refugees. A cleverly produced video showed Chabad’s relief effort as trays of fruit came out for dessert.
There are 202 Chabad Couples in Russia and 177 in Ukraine, and representatives from both countries attended the meeting. Both groups received great applause from the audience.
The Russian community has also come under pressure as a result of the war. A Russian security official last month called Chabad a racist cult, drawing fierce criticism from the country’s chief rabbi and raising concerns about institutional anti-Semitism among Russian Jews. He later apologized.
Towards the end of Sunday’s event, an appeal paid tribute to Chabad outposts around the world, from the 2,222 couples who have lived in the United States since 1940, to the 16 families in China and the single couples in countries like Ivory Coast, Ireland and Kyrgyzstan.
There are 1,353 emissary families in Israel who have resided there since 1788. Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan and Consul General in New York Asaf Zamir were both present.
At the end of the event, some of the 36 new Torah scrolls circulated around the hall while the crowd erupted in dancing. Participants perched on chairs to take photos of the proceedings as young emissaries and senior rabbis took turns embracing the Torahs as crowds danced around them.
— Luke Tress (@luketress) November 21, 2022