Twelve-year-old Mendy Brook is excited. A resident of St. Petersburg, Russia, he will soon be flying to New York for the first time in his life. He will travel together with his father, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, a Chabad emissary to the teeming metropolis of 5 million residents. While his father attends the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which begins on Thursday, Oct. 28, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mendy will attend a nearby gathering for children his own age.

When asked what he looks forward to doing in New York, Mendy’s answer is brief: “Getting energy and inspiration to bring back home with me.”

For many boys, especially those who live far from large established Jewish communities, the conference is a once-a-year opportunity to let loose, socialize and catch up with peers, who share their aspirations, challenges and experiences.

Mendy will be among more than 1,000 boys from around the world expected to attend in person, though organizers say even more will be attending the virtual gathering designed for boys whose travel is still restricted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (A parallel program for girls takes place alongside the conference for female emissaries in the winter.)

From his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, 11-year-old Aaron Avtzon speaks wistfully about the social interactions he enjoyed at the conference two years ago, when his group included children from Canada and Europe, as well as a fellow South African.

He plans to attend the virtual event this year, saying that even though he will miss dining together with his peers and going on trips, “the learning will be the same, and that was pretty entertaining, so I expect to enjoy it.”

Mendy Brook at St. Petersburg's Choral Synagogue
Mendy Brook at St. Petersburg's Choral Synagogue

Creating a Dual-Track Program Was Quite a Feat

Making sure that both Aaron and Mendy can take full advantage of a program tailored for them has been quite a logistical feat.

“Originally, our program was all in-person. Last year, it was all virtual. This year, we are essentially running two concurrent programs, which is a huge undertaking,” explains Rabbi Berel Bendet, who coordinates the program. “But our theme is ‘every shliach everywhere.’ and this means making sure that every single young shliach gets an optimal and inspiring experience.”

Arranging a live multi-day event for children from all over the world during a pandemic presents a unique set of challenges, but organizers say they have built-in redundancies and safety measures they hope will ensure a smooth program. Among the upgrades is exclusively renting the largest indoor water park in North America, located in New Jersey’s American Dream Mall.

For those taking part in the virtual program, organizers have mailed more than 1,000 personalized kits with kippahs, T-shirts, learning materials and even kosher snacks (a rarity for some children) to help ensure that the weekend experience will be special for everyone.

The culmination of the annual event is a sit-down banquet. Organizers are planning to merge the online and in-person events, so that the children in Brooklyn, as well as those around the world, will see each other, sing together and join as one for a fully immersive experience.

Aaron Avtzon plans to attend the virtual event this year from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Aaron Avtzon plans to attend the virtual event this year from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Once the official program ends on Monday morning, Mendy, whose bar mitzvah is just a few months away, says he plans to go shopping for a black fedora—something not commercially available in St. Petersburg—and perhaps use his extra time to visit the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, N.Y.

“Mendy has been preparing for this trip for months,” says Rabbi Brook. “We are so excited that it is now becoming reality.”