It’s that time of the year again. Whether you follow our own news site, the major Jewish news outlets, or the popular press, chances are that you’ve seen reports over time about a pretty unique gathering that occurs annually in New York: the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim.
Here is the history of the conference that keeps on making history.
Who Are the Shluchim?
The shluchim (plural of shliach, which means “agent” or “emissary”) are men and women who were dispatched by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to communities all over the globe to dedicate their lives to serve the Jewish people. You can find them in far-flung places such as India, Nepal or Siberia, and you can usually also find them closer to home, too, in your own community.
They labor to connect Jews to their heritage, raise Jewish awareness and mitzvah observance, and teach Torah. Yet their mission isn’t only a spiritual one; the Rebbe charged them to discover what the unique needs of their respective communities are and to selflessly provide those, opening their hearts and homes and helping every Jew in any way they can.
Immediately upon assuming leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the Rebbe personally called upon individual disciples and asked them to move to specific locations to spread Judaism. Later on, as the movement grew and communities starting turning to Lubavitch requesting a movement representative, prospective shluchim would submit location ideas to the Rebbe for his approval. As things grew ever larger, the Rebbe—drawing support from the Talmudic rule that an emissary can appoint another emissary—encouraged the senior shluchim to appoint yet more shluchim.
Today, there are more than 4,000 families of shluchim in 75 countries all around the world, continuing the Rebbe’s charge to spread the Torah’s teachings and inspiration far and wide.
What Is “the Kinus HaShluchim”?
Kinus is Hebrew for “gathering” or “conference.” The Kinus Hashluchim (International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries) is a yearly event, in which thousands of shluchim gather to share inspiration, ideas and goals, leaving rejuvenated and ready to carry on their work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.
The First Kinus HaShluchim
Over the years, the Rebbe encouraged various meetings and conferences among shluchim in different parts of the world. During a public talk in the summer of 1983, the Rebbe spoke about a gathering of shluchim going on that weekend in Israel, and urged that it would be appropriate to arrange a similar event in New York.
The Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (Central Organization for Jewish Education), along with a group of shluchim, swung into action. By late fall, with much guidance from the Rebbe, a plan was in place, and on 23 Cheshvan 5744 (October 30, 1983), Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat and officer of the organization, who was appointed chairman of the conference, formally reported to the Rebbe that the upcoming conference for Shluchim from the United States and Canada would take place the following weekend at the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters.
The Rebbe responded by giving his blessing for success and subsequently devoted a long talk at that week’s farbrengen to the concept of shlichut and the responsibility each individual has to the totality of the Jewish People.
Approximately 65 shluchim from the United States and Canada attended the first conference. The North American conference continued to flourish for another three years and, as the number of shluchim in North America burgeoned, so did the kinus.
Participants in the second Shluchim Conference pose for a group photo in the main synagogue in 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitch World Headquarters, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
International Kinus Hashluchim
In 1987, at the Rebbe’s behest, the annual event took a dramatic shift.
Commenting on a report on the kinus of 1986, the Rebbe said that it’s time to bring together the entire world.
It was a monumental task, but in the winter of 1987, for the very first time, shluchim from across the globe were invited to attend an international Kinus Hashluchim. Participants in that kinus describe the infectious joy that permeated the entire experience, as hundreds of shluchim from the farthest corners of the earth gathered at the Rebbe’s court.
The Rebbe’s Participation
Each year the Rebbe would officially open the kinus with a special talk (sichah) addressed to the shluchim during the Shabbos farbrengen
The Rebbe would usually discuss the theme of shlichut (the work of emissaries), both as it is found in the Torah and as it applied to the shluchim. Since the conference is always held on the Shabbat preceding the month of Kislev, the Torah portion was either Chayei Sarah or Toldot, both of which have instances of emissaries being dispatched. The Rebbe would encourage the shluchim, and suggest ideas and new initiatives.
Here are some examples:
In 1986 the Rebbe called for the establishment of an office to which shluchim could turn to receive assistance in their work (which led to the creation of the Shluchim Office).
In 1987, after officially welcoming everyone to the first “International Kinus Hashluchim,” the Rebbe announced that in order to help those shluchim who had fallen behind in their finances, the Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch would utilize recently received funds to pay off 10 percent of the debt of any shliach who submitted an audited accounting of his financial state, and loan them the remaining 90 percent, to be repaid over the coming four years.
In 1988, the Rebbe explained in his address that not only are the shluchim participating in an international conference, but that their work back home is global as well. When a shliach in a particular city teaches someone, the Rebbe said, that individual will eventually pass on that teaching to another, who will then go on and share it with another, triggering a chain reaction of global proportions.
In 1989 the Rebbe added yet another global significance to shlichut by charging the attendees (and indeed all Jews) to encourage all people to live in accordance with the Seven Laws of Noah, thus making the entire world a more G‑dly place.
That same year, the Rebbe suggested that a special album be printed containing photographs of the families of the shluchim who had participated in the kinus. The Rebbe explained that it would serve as a memento of the kinus for the shluchim.
The next year, in 1990, the Rebbe expanded the concept to a “Sefer Hashluchim” [Book of Shluchim], to include not just photos of those present at the conference, but pictures of all shluchim families worldwide. Subsequently, a four-volume album set was printed A copy remains on the Rebbe’s desk until today.
The last kinus at which the Rebbe was able to verbally participate was held in 1991. (In early 1992, the Rebbe suffered a stroke which prevented him from addressing the shluchim the following year.) Perhaps also as a means to impart inspiration for the years to follow, the Rebbe spoke to the shluchim that year of Moshiach’s imminent arrival, and charged them to do everything in their power to bring the messianic era even sooner.
Kinus HaShluchot for Women
From the very outset, the Rebbe had expressed his desire that the conference be simultaneously for men and women, and even children. However, when the logistics of providing local childcare for large families with both spouses away got in the way, the Rebbe urged organizers to facilitate programs for the female shluchot who were able to accompany their spouses to New York during what had evolved into the men’s kinus.
Since 1991, however, an international kinus for the shluchot (female emissaries) is also held each year. Per the shluchos’ initiative, it is timed to coincide with the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory (on 22 Shevat), whose concern for and interest in the shluchim was legendary.
The Rebbe would deliver a special address to the participants and distribute dollars for charity along with blessings. The Rebbe often quoted the Talmudic teaching, “The exodus from Egypt was in the merit of the righteous women of that generation,” explaining that in our times as well, individual and global transformation occurs in the merit of righteous women.
[Interestingly, even after the establishment of the women’s kinus, upon receiving a proposed schedule for the men’s kinus, the Rebbe still commented that he saw nothing organized for the women who would be arriving to town, too, and requested that something be organized for them.]
Since 1995, a special program has been offered for the children of the shluchim. The Rebbe considered them to be not only “children of shluchim,” but as shluchim themselves, playing an integral part in their parents’ mission. The girls’ kinus takes place in tandem with the Kinus Hashluchot, and the boys’ conference takes place alongside the men’s conference.
The female division of the Young Shluchot Conference poses in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitch World Headquarters, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
While the shluchim and shluchot have dedicated their lives to serving the Jewish people, the Rebbe would often say that “everyone is an emissary.” In recent years the kinus expanded to include a special program for lay leaders from local communities. As guests of the shluchim, the lay leaders partake of their own mini-conference, sharing notes and deriving inspiration from one another. They join together with the shluchim for the gala banquet, which closes the event.
The Kinus Today
Taking the place of the Rebbe’s address, since the Rebbe’s passing in June, 1994, the kinus opens with a group visit to the Rebbe’s resting place, where the shluchim request the Rebbe’s blessing and inspiration for success in their shlichut and for blessings for the entire Jewish People.
Directing the kinus on behalf of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the Lubavitch movement’s educational arm, officer Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky presides over a planning committee and a virtual army of staff and volunteers who lovingly put in place the seemingly endless logistics year-round to ensure successful conferences.
As the number of shluchim has doubled, tripled and quadrupled, it has become increasingly difficult to find a hosting venue for the conferences, especially for the closing banquet, which supporters and parents of shluchim may attend as well. In recent years, organizers have shown creativity by taking raw spaces such as armories and piers and converting them into a ballroom for a night.
The final banquet is broadcast live on Jewish.TV, enabling tens of thousands to tune in. Many have reported that seeing these incredibly dedicated emissaries celebrating the Jewish People with boundless joy is truly awe inspiring.
For many shluchim, the kinus is the high point of the year, a time to refocus, relive, reflect and rejoice.