Eastern New York's Catskills Mountains - famous for decades as a resort destination for vacationing families - played host to a different set of vacationers this month: 52 international rabbinical leaders.

Guests at the Global Yarchei Kallah in Parksville, N.Y. - an annual summit begun in 1974 to honor Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory - combined sunshine and mountain breezes with intense Torah learning and in-depth discussions on contemporary issues in Jewish law. Chief among their deliberations was the biblically mandated Sabbatical Year, the once-in-seven years' forgiveness of debts and cessation of agricultural activity in the Land of Israel.

The year in question, known in Hebrew as shemitah, begins with the advent of the year 5768 on the Jewish calendar, or Sept. 13 on the secular calendar, and continues until Sept. 29, 2008.

The majority of the Aug. 1-5 conference's attendees hailed from outside of Israel, where most of the laws actually apply, but the topic nevertheless stirred debate over shemitah's finer points.

For instance, Rabbi Moshe Havlin, chief rabbi of the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Gat, and Rabbi Yitzchok Hertz, dean of the central Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in London, discussed exactly which land must remain uncultivated.

Rabbi Zalman Wilschanski, director of the central Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in Morristown, N.J., addressed the more practical aspects of the shemitah laws. Of particular concern to the rabbi was how money to purchase a home could still be legally be lent.

Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, organizer of the conference and chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella group representing the worldwide Lubavitch community, called the annual retreat "a gathering of the best and brightest."

Aside from the timely discussions, Shemtov said "the mere fact that they got together here is a reason for celebration."

Awarding Torah Excellence

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, in whose honor the conference took place.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, in whose honor the conference took place.

Since 1974, the Yarchei Kallah has taken place around the 20th of the Hebrew month of Av, the anniversary of passing of the Rebbe's father, who died in 1944 and was chief rabbi of Yekaterinoslav - currently the Ukraine city of Denepropetrovsk - before his arrest, imprisonment and finally exile at the hands of Stalinist authorities. He passed away in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, the victim of brutal treatment for refusing to back down from his dedication to teaching Torah to Russia's Jews.

"He was admired among Jews and non-Jews alike," said Ukraine-born Rabbi Lipa Shapiro, 95, considered to be the last living person to have known the Rebbe's father before his imprisonment.

I remember that when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak walked in the street, non-Jews used to stop and look at the tall and handsome figure," Shapiro told the conference. But when the Rebbe, who never saw his father after his arrest, saw a picture of him in exile, lacking his former vitality and basic features, he wrote on the back, "My father?"

In further remembrance of the Rebbe's father, the summit capped off its schedule with the granting of the Pras Levi Yitzchak prize to 10 top-notch yeshiva students from 10 different institutions in the United States, Argentina, Israel and Europe. Shemtov saw in the award the recognition that although many educators might choose to focus on troublesome trends in education, "we thought it was appropriate to put the spotlight on those who excel in their learning."