Before more than 4,000 Chabad-Lubavitch representatives, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the latest Jewish leader to express a deep connection with the movement.
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BROOKLYN, NY—The Chabad-Lubavitch movement doesn’t need to throw a banquet to grab the attention of international Jewish leaders.
In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefaced his address to the United Nations General Assembly with the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who told Netanyahu in 1984 “You will be serving in a house of lies” when he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the UN.
Earlier in November, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Denver, mentioned Chabad as one of the “natural partners for educating leaders” and recalled the role Chabad’s network of emissaries played in bringing about his release from Soviet imprisonment.
Chabad drew more praise from a dignitary Sunday night, but this time at its own event— which drew more than 4,000 of the Hassidic movement’s emissaries, scholars and other representatives from 77 countries to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal for a gala to cap the “Kinus Hashluchim,” Chabad’s five-day international emissary conference.
In a keynote address, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, head of the United Kingdom’s largest synagogue body, described how the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s advice changed his life. Sacks said the Rebbe showed him that “A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders,” something Sacks has taken to heart in his current leadership role.
What’s behind this praise from Netanyahu, Sharansky, Sacks and other leaders, and what does it indicate about Chabad and its influence? Rabbi Hershey Novack, Chabad’s emissary at Washington University in St. Louis and other campuses in that area, called it a “relatively straightforward phenomenon.” He explained in an interview the individual impact of each emissary “on their community, on their peers, on the folks in their community, has a positive effect and a ripple effect, and I think that ripples outwards and that ripples upwards, and it’s hard not to notice.”
“This is the influence of the Rebbe and the Rebbe’s teachings, that affects not only the Hassidim and not only American Jews, and not only Israeli Jews, but really those at the highest echelons of the Israeli government, and that’s a testament to the enduring relevance of his message,” Novack told JointMedia News Service.
Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe, NJ, said in an interview that as a Chabad follower the comments of world leaders provide a “sense of satisfaction,” but on a more global level they indicate how the Rebbe’s message is “universal and speaks to everyone.”
“Who would have dreamt that the prime minister of Israel is going to be speaking in the UN quoting the Rebbe, to give strength to the fight for Israeli security?” Zaklikovsky told JointMedia News Service. “But when it’s the truth, when it’s the emes (Yiddish for truth), it transcends political boundaries and any other flouting factors and it’s a shining light. That’s what the truth is.”
The roll call
A hallmark of Chabad’s annual banquet—and a symbol of the movement’s international impact—is the “roll call,” during which it is “recognized that [an emissary] is part of Hashem’s army, of the Rebbe’s army,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, head of the movement’s educational arm. Kotlarsky went down the list of 77 countries Chabad reaches, asking emissaries to stand.
The roll call included 787 emissaries in Israel, 279 in France, 164 in Ukraine, 141 in Russia, 124 in Australia, 105 in England, 98 apiece for Argentina and Brazil, 24 in Italy, and 22 apiece for Germany and Austria. After Kotlarsky finished, the entire room erupted in dance.
Kotlarsky told the crowd that the “mandate of the shliach is multi-faceted,” as Chabad rabbis and their spouses are spiritual leaders, youth directors, camp directors, school principals, fundraisers, counselors, chefs, and more—all rolled into one job description “encapsulated in a single term known worldwide as shliach.”
Three rounds of advice
In his keynote address, Sacks summed up his reaction to the evening in one word: “Wow.”
“I’ve received many honors, but none as moving and as humbling as this,” he said.
Sacks recalled that during his first visit with the Rebbe, as a second-year university student in 1968, the Rebbe “did a role reversal” and started asking Sacks how he tries to get Jews engaged with their religion.
“I didn’t come [to the Rebbe] to be a shliach, I came to ask a few simple questions,” Sacks said.
When Sacks began his response with “In the situation in which I find myself,” the Rebbe interrupted by saying “You put yourself in a situation,” words that Sacks said changed his approach to life.
In 1978, Sacks visited the Rebbe for a second time and asked him to choose among three potential career paths: academia, economics, and law. The Rebbe picked none of the above, telling Sacks “You must train rabbis.”
“I gave up my three ambitions,” Sacks said.
What Sacks realized later, however, was that he didn’t give up anything—in the midst of his rabbinical career, he has also garnered professorships and given prominent lectures on economics and law.
“You never lose anything by putting yiddishkeit (Judaism) first,” he said.
In 1990, Sacks approached the Rebbe yet again, asking him “Should I accept?” the position of chief rabbi for Anglo-Jewry if offered. The Rebbe—an expert in typography—responded in a letter with the symbol for reverse word order, telling Sacks that “you should” accept.
“In retrospect, I see how extraordinary [the Rebbe’s] advice was, and how wise,” Sacks said, noting that great leaders “see others and what they can become.”
‘What is the secret?’
Rabbi Mendy Cohen, director of Chabad of Sacramento, told the crowd “The world wants to know, what is the secret of the phenomenal success, and some may say the miraculous success, of Lubavitch?”
Cohen answered that a “Hassid is a Hassid 24 hours a day” and carries that badge with dignity and pride. The Rebbe, Cohen said, would emphasize the important choice between focusing on earthly or godlike matters in daily life, and a Chabad emissary thinks “not about his selfishness, but about how he can help God fulfill his mission in creating this planet.”
In particular, Cohen recognized the efforts of emissaries in remote locations where “the loneliness is so strong,” yet Chabad centers are needed to spiritually and physically sustain the few Jews in the area.
“You are not Chabad of Timbuktu, you are the entire Jewish people of Timbuktu,” Cohen said to give an example.
Richard Stone, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in an interview that “what the Conference of Presidents does with its multitude of organizations, and what Chabad does around the world, are essentially pursuing a very common purpose.”
Although the Conference of Presidents represents more than 50 national Jewish groups that have “very wide-flung religious and even non-religious views,” Stone still sees a “great analogy” to Chabad. The Rebbe, much like the Conference of Presidents, was very interested in promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship, Stone said.
“Our job today is to light the light of the love of the Jewish people, and to fight the delegitimization of Israel and implicitly of the Jewish people, and to really increase Ahavat Yisrael (loving your fellow Jews) in our own way, which may seem to be a little bit different [than Chabad’s purpose],” Stone told JointMedia News Service. “But, Klal Yisrael (the Jewish collective) is an orchestra and we all play different instruments, hopefully in an important way.”
Novack, Chabad’s emissary in St. Louis, said that on his bus from Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, he was inspired by sitting next to a Siberian rabbi from a formerly closed military town that now has four preschools and programs for college students, young adults, and the elderly.
“Who would’ve thought just 20 years after the fall of communism?” Novack told JointMedia News Service. “For me that’s inspirational. I’m an American boy, and I’m a shliach right in the heartland, in the Midwest, a wonderful part of the country. But the narratives of so many of my peers in so many parts of the world are together, very inspirational.”
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.