As a young man, Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen always wanted to run a Chabad House. Every fall, he’d look to the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries – it began Wednesday in New York – and think that one day, he’d be among the thousands of synagogue directors, Jewish day school principals, scholars and chaplains who gather for just days each year to recharge their spiritual batteries before heading back to their home communities.
Being an emissary and connecting with Jewish people wherever they would be, he says, “was always something I aspired to.”
Now, after two and a half months of leading a community of his own as the director of Chabad of Humboldt in northern California, Cowen is back in New York.
“I’m excited to be going back,” he says, back to Lubavitch World Headquarters, back to the resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, back to the neighborhood of Crown Heights and the opportunities of studying with longtime friends and deriving inspiration from senior emissaries.
Though the passage of Hurricane Sandy posed some uncertainty in the details of the trip, he says he’s in for a wonderful week.
In California, where Cowen and his wife Mushkie only recently set up shop, he’s running prayer services and Torah classes out of his living room and dining room, and hosting events on Humboldt State University’s campus. The couple is also working on an upcoming Chanukah program and public menorah lighting in the city square featuring live music, donuts, potato latkes and an inflatable moon bounce for kids.
While in New York, he’ll take part in activities that will help him enhance these programs and others. He’s signed up for sessions on targeted programming, public speaking, and presentation. He’s also looking forward to taking part in workshops headed by longtime rabbis who got answers and clear directions from the Rebbe.
Rabbi Yossi Lew from Chabad of Peachtree, Ga., has been out in the field since 1989, but having just opened a new center in the outskirts of Atlanta, will be sitting in sessions at the conference alongside Cowen and other first-time peers.
“I registered for completely different workshops than I’ve done until now,” he says. “Now it’s all about organizational skills and starting off.”
In the past two months, Lew has started weekly services and opened one-on-one learning opportunities for local Jewish residents.
“We’re getting calls every single day from different people,” relates Lew.
As for the conference, Lew looks forward to sharing his experiences as a veteran and also learning with and from the younger men.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” he says. “I’m going to feel very young again while I think about my grandchildren back in Atlanta.”
For Rabbi Bentzy Stolik, who came to Olney, Md., in August, the last three months have been about making contact with locals. He’s handed out a lot of challah bread and honey cake in a near-constant mission of knocking on doors. He tells of a positive response from the local community, its members excited to see a new option for Jewish expression in town.
Stolik and his wife Devorah held their first event over the holiday of Sukkot and saw about 40 people come through. They’ve started a Jewish women’s circle, which will meet again around Chanukah, and a Torah studies class, with plans for Chanukah events in the works.
“More importantly, we’re constantly making an effort to reach out to more and more people,” he says. “We feel there’re a lot of people that for whatever reason haven’t resonated well with the traditional, formal Jewish setting.”
Stolik, who has had glimpses of past conferences as an outsider, predicts a surge of energy for all of its participants.
“We will come back more passionate and excited, recharged and motivated,” he says. “We need to be strong and inspired.”