Detroit native Richard Bernstein spent nearly 10 weeks in the hospital after a cyclist slammed into him in New York City’s Central Park, shattering his hip and pelvis. But on Sunday night, he joined thousands of other Jewish lay and rabbinical leaders at the New York Hilton in Midtown Manhattan for the gala banquet of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries.
The gala, widely regarded as the highlight of the multi-day conference, was moved from the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal to the smaller Hilton because of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The more than 4,000 emissaries and their guests were split up between a main room and several side ballrooms, with large screens making the action visible to celebrants wherever they sat. A live webcast, meanwhile, transmitted feeds of the banquet to viewers around the globe.
Bernstein came to the event with Rabbi Chayim Alevsky, youth co-director of Chabad of the West Side, who visited him every day during his hospital ordeal.
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“I’m recovering from a really bad trauma,” Bernstein said from the Hilton’s foyer, which hummed with thousands of black-hatted rabbis and their guests swarming up the escalators and mobbing the hallways as they say old friends, some for the first time in a year or more. “Chabad is what gave me the strength to get through this.”
In addition to members of the global Chabad-Lubavitch leadership, keynote speaker Rabbi Israel Meir Lau – former chief rabbi of Israel and the current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv – and community voices such as that of South African entrepreneur Steven Solarsh took to the podium to talk about their own interactions and experiences with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the reported 4,262 emissaries who lead Jewish community institutions in his name.
Solarsh talked about how over the past 20 years, his aversion to rabbis turned to an appreciation, attending weekly Torah classes and getting his family more involved. His son was in the audience last night, “perfectly camouflaged in a sea of black hats,” he said. “Personally, I’ve gone from rabbi-phobic to a Jew who tries to consistently do his best to move in the right direction.”
Chabad-Lubavitch of Utah director Rabbi Benny Zippel has been out in the field for 20 years. Charged by the Rebbe to strengthen Judaism in his western state, he is one of a shrinking percentage – given the ranks of new emissaries coming on board every year – who received their assignments and blessings directly from the Rebbe.
“I consider it a tremendous privilege,” he said, adding that coming to the conference year after year reminds him of that mandate and pushes him to take on a renewed commitment to never rest on his laurels. “What I bring back is a renewed commitment and energy to run according to the Rebbe’s marching orders.”
Joining Zippel was Rabbi Yudi Steiger, who has been running a new Chabad House in Park City, Utah, for the last three months.
“It’s amazing and beautiful,” said Steiger, pleased to be perched in a front row spot among seemingly endless rows of tables.
Having dodged the weather, he made it to New York on Wednesday and attended workshops on public speaking and starting a new Chabad House. He said he’ll put new tips to good use as he continues planning for events, such as his first public Chanukah menorah lighting. He also said he enjoyed both the conference’s energy over the week, and the conversations he’s been part of about other emissaries’ differing experiences.
“I’ll be going back full force,” commented Steiger.
Rabbi Simcha Backman, co-director of Chabad of Glendale and the Foothill Communities in Southern California, has been coming to the conference for 14 years. The scope of the event is always striking, he said.
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“Every single [emissary] works in his own area,” he said. “You don’t realize the magnitude of what you represent.”
Coming together is like seeing all the pieces of the puzzle at once, added Backman, his father by his side. “This is what the Rebbe envisioned. I always think about how powerful it is, how it moves me to do better as a rabbi.”
Rabbi Alter Goldstein, director of the Chabad House of Ann Arbor, Mich., and a 13-year veteran of the conference, is a second-generation emissary. He appreciates not only what attendees can get in terms of inspiration and drive, but also what they can give to others in terms of pushing their colleagues forward.
“You’re living in a place by yourself and there can be those days when it’s difficult,” he said. But an emissary has to be an anchor, so being together once a year provides that extra strength to overcome challenges. “It goes beyond words and the fact that we’re sitting together in a room with a common goal.”
For Rabbi Yossi Turk, who flew in from Cordoba, Argentina, and spent 13 hours sitting in Lima, Peru’s airport thanks to the weather, the conference was a welcome opportunity to learn and grow in his service to the diverse communities he serves. He took part in a series of roundtable discussions on themes such as education, both for the University of Cordoba students for whom he coordinates programs and for his own children.
He hopes to get more involved with campus emissaries in the United States, he said. “We can connect and help each other with ideas.”
Harry Bram, of Staten Island, N.Y., came with Rabbi Nachman Segal.
“His commitment to helping Jews is so infectious that I feel compelled to help Chabad, because his commitment is probably symbolic of what other [emissaries] have been doing,” Bram said of the director of the Chabad Israeli Center.
In from Chabad of Hendon in London, England, Rabbi Mendel Plotke attended the conference for the second time, meaning he’d already settled on what kinds of sessions he wanted to join. He looked for ideas for new and improved programs, such as uniquely themed Friday night dinners, “and to be a better me so I can be a better rabbi to them.”
Rabbi Moishe Traxler, Chabad of Houston’s director of outreach, went to the first conference in 1983 and has been to all but one since. He lauded the passion of the young emissaries for their work.
“They’ve gone out and dedicated their lives,” he said. “And in a short amount of time they’ve turned over the cities and built huge buildings.”
Thousands of miles away, Rabbi Chaim Barkahn’s community in Germany had been alerted to the fact that they could watch the event live. Barkahn had sent out the link for the event, which he attended in person. And when he goes back, he’ll show them pictures.
“I come back with energy,” he said.
Dr. Felix Specht of Frankfurt has been involved with Chabad for a few years now. Sticking with him are the lessons of patience and helpfulness he learned while watching the stories of rabbis hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy.
“In this world, you get lost if you don’t join such events,” he said. “To meet so very many people at the same time that belong to your family – this you can’t get anywhere.”