By Yochanan Gordon
The Kinus HaShluchim is a major organizational event that takes place year in and year out. What is regularly a sit-down dinner for more than 5,000 shluchim and Chabad enthusiasts the world over was for the first time last year shifted into the digital realm due to COVID regulations.
Although the event took place in lavish fashion this past Sunday in Edison, NJ, for a while it was uncertain whether or not the banquet would be able to happen. But it is a good thing that it did, because the banquet, which is just the culmination of the Kinus, is preceded by four days of intensive programming. It enables the shluchim not only to regroup and become reinvigorated to take on another year of shlichus and the challenges, both emotional and material, that it presents, but it helps them sharpen their craft in learning to stay ahead of the curve of the ever-changing demographics, and gives new effective tactics in kiruv and different ways in which they could expand their influence in reaching exponentially more prospects.
In years past, the focus of the Kinus has always been on the unprecedented growth and expansion of Chabad all over the world. However, for anyone who isn’t living a life as a shliach, many of the challenges and pitfalls that these rabbis and their wives meet on their path towards success often go unnoticed and underappreciated. This year’s Kinus paid homage to a select few shluchim whose venture into their life’s mission as emissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was met with devastating anticlimactic undertones and a spirit of determination and heroism that even the subjects under the spotlight didn’t know that they possessed.
Such was the great vision of the Rebbe, who was able to detect greatness lying dormant in the hearts and souls of people who only realized it years after they were sent out to the posts where they would spend their lives.
I recently heard a story of Rabbi Moshe Hecht of New Haven, Connecticut, who, three years after being sent by the Rebbe, in the early part of his nesius, was seeking an exemption to leave his outpost and to return home in the close confines of the Rebbe. In a return letter from the Rebbe that he received shortly thereafter, the Rebbe wrote: “Three years ago I sent a very capable Moshe Hecht on shlichus to New Haven. Apparently you haven’t met him yet, but I advise that you do, because I know that he has the wherewithal to succeed.”
This leads to a spotlight on Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Rebbetzin Miriam Zaklos, the Chabad shluchim in Novosibirsk in Siberia. Reb Zalman related in a video that was featured at the banquet that when he and his wife were dating a few decades earlier he shared with her his dreams and aspirations of becoming a shliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. She affirmed that she would go with him on shlichus anywhere other than to Russia. As fate would have it, one of the recommendations that the couple received was from Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, asking Rabbi Zaklos what he and his wife thought of the big city of Novosibirsk. The aspiring shliach responded that it was too cold, too complicated, and it really wasn’t for him or his wife. Rabbi Lazar responded that the Rebbe had always advised people to go check out the prospects of a location in order to be able to make an informed and levelheaded decision.
The couple decided that they’d spend a few days or a week, which lasted over the Purim holiday, during which they would be the interim rabbi and rebbetzin until permanent shluchim would be installed. To the couple’s dismay, just a day or two after they settled in, a pogrom hit the Jewish community and the shul was ransacked; chairs, sefarim, Chumashim, and a sefer Torah were strewn wildly all over the floor. Rabbi Zaklos called Rabbi Lazar to notify him of what had just occurred. Rabbi Zaklos, then just 24 years old, informed the chief rabbi that they would not do anything to resolve the pogrom and bring the perpetrators to justice if a formal report was filed. Rabbi Lazar instructed him to just open the door to the shul so that they could see what had occurred.
Before he knew it, various news agencies arrived and set up a formal press conference with microphones in front of the young rabbi. The first thing they wanted to know was if he was the rabbi and for how long he had been in Novosibirsk. The rabbi, who was reflecting on the events of that evening decades ago, said that it felt as if he was in a dream. In the moment that he had to formulate a response, a thought occurred to him that if he wasn’t the rabbi of Novosibirsk, then what was he doing there? So he looked straight into the cameras and responded: “I haven’t been here all that long. I came here to be the rabbi of the Jewish community in Novosibirsk, which was until now without a rav.”
He concluded his message by decrying the terrible and shameful incident of something like this occurring in a Jewish community and the importance of the city setting up a security apparatus to ensure that something of this sort never repeats itself. Long story short, they returned to Israel where they had been living, and everyone within their family and without had acknowledged the news story and were congratulating him and his wife on their new rabbinic post, expressing their admiration for the great image he put forth in the face of such a tragic situation.
He returned home to his wife and said, “Listen, everybody out there seems to think that we are the leaders of the Novosibirsk Jewish community aside from us.” The words that he spoke directly into the microphone that early morning on the heels of the devastating pogrom that rocked their small community kept replaying in the mind of the young rabbi, as if it were the Rebbe’s message to him that regardless of how difficult a shlichus Novosibirsk would be, it was the place that was destined for him and his wife to be. That is ultimately where they ended up and remain until today.
The Kinus was capped by a keynote address by businessman, author, and philanthropist Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein of the Lighthouse Group who hailed the shluchim as Judaism’s first-responders and wondered before the crowd of 5,000+ what Judaism the world over would look like in the absence of these selfless rabbis and their wives and families who spend their lives reaching out, seeking to reconnect Jews with their Yiddishkeit. He cited a census, which this year revealed a million and a half more Jews who don’t identify with their Judaism since the publication of the previous census.
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s message was that the shluchim, in their dedication to the Rebbe’s vision, continue to change the face of world Jewry, but at the same time the workload is not getting lighter and additional troops, or reserves, as it is called in military jargon, are certainly needed in order to stem the rushing waters of religious apathy that continues to flood civilization.
As I reflected on the words of Rabbi Lichtenstein and the story of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and Miriam Zaklos, among the other features of the evening it became clear that there is a need for all of us to do what we can to further the influence of Torah, mitzvos, and Yiddishkeit in our own four cubits.
At a crescendo in his keynote address, Rabbi Lichtenstein thundered that the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that every Jew possesses a spark of Mashiach. The Rebbe continued that if a spark of Mashiach, the redeemer, resides within each of us, how could any of us at the same time be a prisoner? If we are liberators, if we are go’alim and pod’im, if we can redeem and wipe the tears from the face of another person, then how can we simultaneously be prisoners? The world says “prisoner” and the Rebbe said, “Ker a velt!”
The beauty and simplicity of the life of a shliach is that it doesn’t require accreditation or some sort of official certificate that allows us to further the Rebbe’s vision to include the people with whom each of us come in contact in our day-to-day lives. The Rebbe always told people: if you know aleph, teach aleph. Each of us has a responsibility to share the light and wisdom of Torah and mitzvos with the people who have neglected, for whatever reason, to learn and live by these timeless ideals. In doing so we will join the ranks of the first-responders and, G-d willing, it will generate a spirit from on high that will ultimately signal the end to this bitter exile and the beginning of a new redemptive era.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.