Swapping military vehicles for a veritable army of 4,000 rabbis and lay leaders Sunday night, the grand banquet of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries praised the value of communal involvement and empowered attendees to take the selfless spirit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, to the far corners of the globe and the deep recesses of their hearts.

Late in the afternoon, droves of men descended upon the renovated New York State National Guard Armory in Brooklyn, taking their seats at tables stretching as far as the eye could see in the cavernous brick building. With main lights kept low and a series of gas-styled lamps illuminating the hall, the atmosphere underscored the banquet’s image of the “Lamplighter” as an analogy for the power of one Jew to affect another and thereby bring a succession of light to overpower darkness.

After guests finished an introductory course of fish, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, took the podium. Standing in front of a backdrop of Lubavitch World Headquarters, the rabbi opened the festivities with a charge.

“We have a right and an obligation to set an example, to teach and to inspire,” said Kotlarksy. “That is the essence of being a lamplighter. The Rebbe commanded us to transform this world into a world that is ready for the coming redemption.”

Throughout the evening, stories of Divine providence – such as a touching description provided by keynote speaker Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov of Bucks County, Pa., about an American immigrant soldier killed during Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon – provided a counterpoint to messages and tributes in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who perished when terrorists stormed their Chabad House in Mumbai, India, just two days after last year’s emissaries conference.

Standing on the sidelines at the armory, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, who for the past year has travelled the world to build support for continuing the activities of the Holtzberg’s Chabad House, could only stay for the banquet’s beginning.

“I am leaving in less than an hour to Mumbai,” he revealed, “with a heavy heart of course, but to be among so many fellow emissaries gives all of us the strength to do what the Rebbe asked of us time and time again.”

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, emceed the banquet. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, emceed the banquet. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)

Boundless Energy

Sitting alongside many emissaries were their closest supporters and lay leaders, who attended special workshops earlier in the day. Echoing the words of many in his position, Kurash Nassigi – who accompanied Rabbi Hertzel Peer of Los Angeles’ Chabad Persian Youth Center – said that he was speechless.

“Awesome,” he exclaimed, a smile beaming across his face. “Words cannot describe the feelings that the energy in this room arouses.”

Peer countered with a historical narrative.

“I’ve been coming to the convention since 1990, and it never worked out for a lay leader to join me,” related the rabbi. “This year, we finally arranged for Kurash to come. Now, he wants to go back to Los Angeles and conquer the city with Judaism.”

Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin, the newly-knighted director of Drugsline, a non-profit, non-denominational drug treatment program in Ilford, England, delivered the evening’s customary Torah-inspired speech and spoke about Queen Elizabeth II honoring Drugsline last month.

“Some have asked me, why not denominational?” Sufrin said in acknowledging the novelty of a drug treatment center for all, but inspired by Chasidic teachings. “Thru Drugsline,” “we have broken down many preconceived boundaries between communities.”

In the lay leader address, Touro College Professor David Luchins, whose father was a disciple of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, elicited stillness from the crowd as he related a story from decades ago. An aide to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York for many years, Luchins once represented the Orthodox Union at the White House Conference of Youth in Estes Park, Colo. During the lead up to that conference, the future professor ensured the availability of kosher food for Jewish attendees.

“The Rebbe wrote to my father the next week and thanked him, ‘I am so pleased that your son represented Chabad,’ ” said Luchins. “My father immediately wrote back that ‘the Rebbe is misinformed. My son was representing the Orthodox Union.

“The phone rang,” added Luchins, “and Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, informed my father that the Rebbe was on the line. The Rebbe said to my father, ‘Whenever a Jew gets another Jew to eat kosher, they are representing Chabad.’ ”