By Yochanan Gordon
There is a Chabad tradition, passed down from the Ba’al Shem Tov, to recite daily the chapter in Tehillim corresponding to one’s forthcoming age. In addition to this it has been customary for chassidim to recite the chapter corresponding to both the Rebbe’s and Rebbetzin’s age from birth. This year, 5780, we began to read 118 for the Rebbe who was born in 1902 and 119 for the Rebbetzin who was born a year earlier. Those familiar with Tehillim are aware that with 176 verses, chapter 119 is by far the longest one in the book. To put it in perspective, in the apportionment of the Tehillim by the day, which Chabad also recites, 119 was split in half due to the time it could take to recite it in its entirety in one day. A chassid would never consider not saying the entire chapter if that is the accepted tradition.
I mention this here and now because this past Sunday was the annual Kinus HaShluchim, and the two words that I believe most accurately describe the life of a shliach are “kindness” and “commitment” (luckily for me they are alliterative). This year’s convention was held in the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison, New Jersey, and saw a historic crowd of upwards of 6,000 shluchim, chassidim, and supporters who came to contribute energy and support and instead left energized themselves to inculcate in whatever level in their own lives, the work of a shliach.
Gracing the podium throughout the evening was Shmuel Hurwitz, son of Rabbi Yitzi and Dina of Los Angeles, formerly shluchim in Temecula, CA, who, due to his diagnosis of ALS some five years ago, were forced to relocate for medical reasons. However, since the onset of this debilitating disease, which in Rabbi Yitzi’s case is the most severe, he has continued, through nothing short of herculean effort, to disseminate Torah and chizuk to people of all ages across the globe with a series of weekly articles that he writes painstakingly through a machine that types based on his eye movements.
Rabbi Yitzi prepared remarks for this year’s Kinus which were delivered by his son Sholom who recently celebrated his bar mitzvah. Rabbi Yitzi offered a perspective that people who have encountered a set of challenging circumstances could focus upon, using challenges as a springboard towards further growth as opposed to becoming overwhelmed and overtaken by them. Rabbi Yitzi points out that our forefather Yitzchak’s preoccupation was with digging wells, which existentially represents the pursuit to unearth the great holiness, meaning, and the resourcefulness that exists in the bedrock of existence and in the heart of each individual. Yitzchak Avinu teaches us just how holy we are and the earth that we inhabit is and that the level of holiness found within us and within the earth surpasses even that which exists in heaven.
Rabbi Yitzi, like his biblical namesake, demonstrates daily through his great mesiras nefesh the true endless power within the G-dly soul to forge forward despite any obstacles that may deter us from unlocking our true potential.
Representing the lay leadership of Chabad was Ambassador David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and a former Five Towns resident. He has been an integral political force, along with President Trump, in passing many of the historic measures pertaining to Israel’s security in the Middle East. They have taken the U.S.–Israel alliance to unprecedented levels. In his address to the Kinus, Ambassador Friedman detailed his longstanding relationship with Chabad of the Five Towns Shliach Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, which began with a chance encounter some 22 years ago and has continued to flourish, culminating in Rabbi Wolowik’s prime spot on international television with an invocation at the historic opening of the new embassy in Israel’s undivided capital, Jerusalem.
The keynote address of this year’s Kinus was delivered by Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of the Mill Hill Synagogue. His father was the late Rabbi Immanuel Schochet who was an ardent, unabashed defender of Judaism, the preeminence of Torah, and the existence of a singular G-d through his frequent debates with atheists and other religious thinkers such as Dr. Michael Brown. The young Rabbi Schochet is featured regularly on the BBC and possesses a prodigious breadth of secular and Judaic knowledge and engaging oratory skills. He spoke about a number of defining meetings he had with the Rebbe and the lessons that he learned from them and how they pertain to shluchim and Jews the world over.
For me, the highlight of every year’s Kinus are the videos pulled together by the great team at JEM, whose work has been extensively covered through these pages. This gives us a window into the life of a shliach who faces an emotional tug-of-war between the great privilege of representing the Rebbe through his work and, at the same time, feelings of loneliness and the reality of oftentimes lacking even the most basic of necessities, like quality education, kosher food, and a minyan or mikveh.
But what’s most inspiring, especially with regard to this year’s presentation, was the attitude of Rabbi Weg of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rabbi Zev Stiefel of Slovakia, and Rabbi Mendy Chitrik of Turkey in being able to represent the Rebbe in their respective outposts. They described how what we would perceive as a drawback to living a religious life in these remote locations is a small price that they would happily pay to be able to bring Jews back home.
Writing about all this, I can’t help but include an excerpt from David Lichtenstein’s Headlines program. Among a number of shluchim Lichtenstein spoke to, he had a conversation with the shliach in Siberia who told Mr. Lichtenstein that until recently, for a period of seven years that he had been there, they had no access to chalav Yisrael milk. When Lichtenstein asked the shliach what they did during that time, he answered with utter sincerity and simplicity, “We did not eat dairy.” You could almost sense the shock in Lichtenstein’s momentary silence on the other end of the line, but from the perspective of the shliach it was a simple decision and one in which he did not feel in any way deprived or less fortunate as a result.
Nobody captured this more accurately than Rabbi Herbert Weiner, who was a Conservative-turned-Orthodox rabbi who interviewed the Rebbe in a series of meetings he had with him in the early 1950s. He later documented the interviews in a book titled 9½ Mystics when after observing a number of the Chabad yeshiva students and even engaging them in conversation, he reported to the Rebbe that they have no “kera” in their perspective on life; they see the world and Torah as a continuum without any dichotomies, and this is truly the secret formula that allows each shliach to thrive wherever life takes him or her and to locate the dormant spark of divinity in every Jew regardless of how far removed they are from Sinai.
I’ve attended the Kinus for a number of years now, and despite their presence virtually all over the world, I continue to see an increase of Chabad shluchim on the ground. There are also new faces among the lay leadership and among the enthusiasts who continue to be startled by the great work that the shluchim do and the level of self-sacrifice that they live with. The Rebbe made it unmistakably clear that the objective of all this is creating a dirah ba’tachtonim, a dwelling place for G-d in this world with the coming of Mashiach, and to do that we need to reach every Jew. It is incumbent upon each of us to join in the efforts of the shluchim and aid them in carrying their work to fruition so that we can mark next year’s Kinus in Eretz Yisrael.