Howard Schapiro of Upper St. Clair is not a Chasidic Jew, but last week marked his third time in attendance at the annual International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries in New York.
With no beard and no black hat, Schapiro and many other non-Chasidic men — including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism — joined about 4,000 Chasidic rabbis from all over the world on Sunday, Nov. 3, for their 30th annual banquet, held in a marine terminal in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It’s like a spiritual shot in the arm,” said Schapiro, who worships at Chabad of the South Hills. “It’s invigorating. We live in a very small part of the Jewish world, and when you can see and touch the global Jewish world, it’s very cool.”
The rabbinic emissaries, or shluchim, were dispatched by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to communities all over the world — sometimes to remote locations — to help bring spirituality to other Jews. Since Schneerson’s death in 1994, the shluchim have appointed additional shluchim, and there are now more than 4,000 families of shluchim in 84 countries, including India, Nepal and Japan.
This year’s conference began on Wednesday, Oct. 30, and included workshops ranging from the use of technology to tips for the rabbis on raising their own families in locations with limited Jewish resources.
Sessions continued through Monday, Nov. 4, but the apex of the conference was the banquet on Sunday night, to which many lay Chabad supporters were invited.
“It’s certainly one of the largest and most consequential gatherings of Jews each year,” said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills.
About 5,200 people were in attendance, including about 3,800 rabbis, Rosenblum said. He estimated between 20 and 30 Pittsburghers were at the event.
The banquet room, a converted marine terminal, was “massive,” Rosenblum said, and was filled with 600 tables. A rotating stage was at the room’s center, featuring speakers including former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who famously sought out the blessing of Schneerson prior to assuming his senatorial duties in 1988.
Also in attendance at the banquet were former CIA Director Adm. James Woolsey, and the sponsor of Chabad on Campus, philanthropist George Rohr.
Chabad on Campus has served an estimated 90,000 students on 150 different campuses.
The URJ’s Jacobs’ presence at the banquet may have marked the first time that the leader of the Reform movement attended a Chabad conference, according to a JTA report.
Rosenblum speculated that Jacobs’ attendance was indicative of a “silent admiration” for the work of Chabad.
Jacobs, who was invited to the conference by Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the head of Chabad’s educational arm, was traveling in Israel this week and could not be reached for comment.
The conference was a source of inspiration for Rosenblum, allowing him to be in “a room with almost 4,000 people who are doing what you’re doing,” he said.
In light of the results of the recent Pew survey, predicting a decline in the numbers of committed Jews, such reinforcement is important.
“You’re among the largest and most potent force fighting against that reality,” Rosenblum said. “The idea that we can measure the future of Judaism by a couple thousand phone calls is one we reject. The dire prediction as a result of the Pew survey is one that I don’t think any Chabad rabbi shares.”
The conference also allowed the shluchim to spend time with family members, dispersed to other parts of the world. Rosenblum, for example, spent “quality time,” with his identical twin brother, Rabbi Shuey Rosenblum, who is the spiritual leader of a Chabad center in Caracas, Venezuela, as well as other family members.
Bill Rudolph, of Squirrel Hill, has been a regular at the conference since 1998, the first year that lay leaders of the organization were invited to attend.
“The most amazing thing is to see [thousands] of Chabad rabbis together, all with the same goals, reaching out to people in need, either physically or spiritually,” Rudolph said. “And to see the kinds of people who support Chabad, like Joe Lieberman and [philanthropist] Michael Steinhardt. It’s really a beautiful, inspiring and uplifting event.”
For Schapiro, the essence of the conference can be found within the roll call of the shluchim at the banquet.
“The coolest thing for me is the roll call,” he said. “They start off by countries, and there are rabbis in 84 countries around the world. They go through the entire alphabet of countries. Then they get to the U.S. All the rabbis assigned before the Rebbe passed away stand up. Then, the 3,000 that were assigned after he passed away stand up. Then there are 5,000 people standing up, this incredible music is playing, and the entire room dances. I would go just for those 10 minutes. The energy in the room is mystical.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)