When the six-hour-long grand banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries drew to a close earlier this month, more than 100 black-hatted men spilled out of the hall at Manhattan's Pier 94 along the Hudson River to board a waiting coach bus. The group, which had attended the fete with 3,000 of their closest friends - fellow emissaries stationed all over the world - then headed to the historic Puck Building downtown near New York University.

A short time later, these alumni of Detroit's Cheder Oholei Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch trickled into the room.

"A lot of guys went through my house," explained Chana Stein, principal of the school's girls' division and wife of the Cheder's director, Rabbi Bentzion Stein.

Peering around the room with pride, she noticed students from years ago. The boys who had boarded at her house and eaten Shabbat dinners with her family had suddenly become married men with children.

One such graduate present for the makeshift reunion was Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 31, who was born and raised in Detroit and attended the Cheder's elementary school. Now the director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union, Berkowitz moved to Moscow in January 2000 and has four children.

"The Cheder has an impact on what I do today," related Berkowitz. "It was in this Cheder, this school, that the seeds were planted. [I knew] that I would devote my life to the service of the Jewish people."

From an early age, Berkowitz began participating in Jewish outreach through the inspiration of the Cheder. He said that he stood on the street as an eight-year-old, handing out menorahs to Jewish passersby from his bicycle.

Today, he runs the largest Jewish federation in the former Soviet Union.

Rabbi Yossi Charytan, 30, attended the Cheder for both high school and his rabbinical studies. In an interview, he fondly remembered the school's administration. Today, he emulates their teaching strategies as the principal of the Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder Day School in the state of Washington.

"The ideals and the drive of connecting with the Jewish families, the Jewish students - a lot of that inspiration came from those years," said Charytan.

"I consider those formative years [as placing] an emphasis on shlichus," or one's mission in life in general, and in reaching Jewish people in one's community in particular.

A New Building

Alan Zekelman, right, who is funding a renovation and expansion of the Detroit school, meets a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who once attended the Cheder.
Alan Zekelman, right, who is funding a renovation and expansion of the Detroit school, meets a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who once attended the Cheder.
Officially, the alumni and some of their family members gathered together to honor a benefactor who recently pledged to revamp their beloved, but admittedly crumbling alma mater.

Candles decorated the rustic parlor on Lafayette Street, where white balustrades poked through aging wooden floors. Chords of Chasidic music echoed across the hall, as a violinist strummed his instrument with gentle fervor. Atop white-clothed tables sat elegant plates of fruit and desserts, ceremoniously awaiting the guest of honor.

Finally, the man they had all been waiting for entered the hall and was instantly buried in a series of embraces by the guests, who were eager to thank the philanthropist.

Alan Zekelman, 44, a resident of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., owns a portion of his late father's Atlas Tube steel company and together with his wife Lori actively participates in Detroit's local Jewish community. He began coming to the Cheder regularly when he needed a place to say Kaddish for his mother.

Though the students and faculty were warm and welcoming when he arrived at the Cheder, Zekelman was appalled by the deteriorating state of the school's 50-year-old home. The building was falling apart from overuse, its floors laden with more than a half century of candle wax.

With the couple's funding, the future Harry & Wanda Zekelman Center will be nearly twice as tall and wide as the Cheder's current structure.

"It'll make the living quarters much better for" the students, said Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Uruguay, who sent six of his seven children to Detroit to learn. "If they are happier, they'll be more motivated to learn."

One alumnus, Rabbi Asher Yaras, 28, was excited about Zekelman's involvement.

"In my experience in Detroit, it was clear to me and all of my classmates that our lives were going to be dedicated to Chabad outreach work and that we were going to be" emissaries, said Yaras, now co-director of Chabad House on Campus serving the University of Rochester. "It is very exciting for me to be here tonight for a man who studied at the University of Rochester and is now involved in my yeshiva."

As old classmates reunited, the room erupted into a swirl of spontaneous dance, and lines of Chasidim twisted around Zekelman. Sweat trickled down their necks after a half hour of dancing until the guests found their seats. Rabbi Asher Deren, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the West Coast in Table View, South Africa, introduced Zekelman.

Wearing a black yarmulke atop side-combed, peppered gray hair, and a crisp, black suit and tie, Zekelman took the podium. Clearly taken aback by the outpouring of thanks, he stood with his mouth stretched in awe while he received a standing ovation. Speaking directly to the former students, he recalled his first acquaintance with the Cheder.

"This building is a bit of a nuclear reactor, a hospital – the building never sleeps," said the businessman. "This is probably the most intensely used building in the city of Detroit, but it is also showing it."

He said that he committed the funds to the school's reparations without any hesitancy.

After the speech, Zekelman stood humbly as guests approached him in thanks.

"These people – each and every one of them – are scattered around the globe on a mission of shlichus, bringing Yiddishkeit to far-flung places," he said. "So my family's investment in the yeshiva isn't just a local investment. We will have the opportunity to see the investment touch the entire world of Jewry.

Rabbi Avraham Greenberg, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Pudong in Shanghai, China, said that the Cheder provided him with a top-notch education.

"I think the education was excellent," he said. "But it didn't have a proper building for such an education. Now it is going to have not only the spiritual, but the physical aspect as well."

Greenberg said that he met his wife, Nechamie Greenberg, in Detroit more than three and a half years ago. The family of five is happily settled in Shanghai, but Greenberg stated that he plans to send his children to the Cheder when they turn 13.

It was the lessons learned at the Cheder, he added, that prepared him for a life dedicated to a Jewish community on the other side of the globe.

"Basically, when you are going to a certain place," he said, "you are going there for life."