The rebbe loomed large. His face looked down on the crowd from the oversize television screens around the room, and his voice boomed. He sang a traditional Hasidic chant.
In rhythmic unison, 4,000 of his rabbis repeated the melody. They were sitting in a Brooklyn banquet hall, one of the largest rooms in New York’s five boroughs, at the final dinner of the 2010 International Shluchim Conference, an event honoring Chabad-Lubavitch’s thousands of emissaries worldwide. They were watching — and responding to — a 1981 video of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, who died in 1994.
Soon after, Moishele Cohen of Manchester, England, approached the podium to give the night’s sermon. Unlike many of the shluchim — Hebrew for agents or emissaries — in the banquet hall, Cohen, 10, never met the spiritual leader who sent thousands of Lubavitchers out to the four corners of the earth as his emissaries to the world’s far-flung Jews. Not yet a bar mitzvah, Cohen was born into a family of shluchim; life as a shliach is the only one he has ever known. Yet Cohen, who experienced personal tragedy with the death of his mother about a month ago, spoke passionately about his connection, despite his youth, to Chabad’s revered leader.
“We feel fortunate to be part of the rebbe’s army,” Cohen said of himself and other child shluchim. “With our yarmulke and tzitzis on display, we prefer these holy objects over all other comforts we might otherwise enjoy.”
Cohen’s is one of the first generations of shluchim in this position — emissaries from birth for a leader they never knew. Emissaries have departed Chabad headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn since the 1940s. But during the years since the rebbe’s death, an increasing number of shluchim have set up shop in new countries. According to Chabad spokesman Motti Seligson, more than 2,400 emissaries have established Chabad houses since Schneerson’s passing, with the latest established in Portugal this year. Children younger than 16, then, enter into the “rebbe’s army” never having known the rebbe.
These children have dual lives: Many grow up speaking Spanish, French or Russian — or even Thai or Nepali — on the street, and English, Hebrew or Yiddish at home. Which is their first language? Many attend schools in the places they live, but receive much of their Jewish education either at home or in an online interactive school created for them by Chabad headquarters. In their teens, or sometimes even earlier, many move away from their parents and head to Chabad yeshivas in Israel, the United States or Europe — and then they go back abroad as shluchim later in life. Which place is meant to be their home?
Lubavitcher children live in a paradox from the outset: They dress and act as part of their Hasidic sect, but do so, in most cases, without any fellow Hasidim. Instead, they are surrounded by customs and by religion and language that differ from those of their parents. From China to Colombia to the Congo, these young shluchim are born into holy service and are bound to live in that role at times, until high school. Young Lubavitch couples, soon after marriage, typically embark together on their journeys to reach out to Jews, and their children are almost always born in the countries in which they have settled.
In Brooklyn, the events on the evening of November 7 aimed at highlighting the shliach family — husband, wife and children. While tragic overtones accompanied Cohen’s speech, the conference’s other events revolved around the joys of a family of shluchim. A choir of shluchim sons sang for the room; a video noted the roles and responsibilities of each member of the family in a Chabad house, and one of the night’s speakers, Russian businessman Gennady Bogoliubov, told of his major philanthropic effort to fund celebrations for each life-cycle event of every shliach worldwide.
This focus on the whole family is nothing new for Chabad. In its effort to meld the movement’s ultra-Orthodox philosophy and practices with modern concerns, it has attempted to give, at least, separate-but-equal honor to its male and female shluchim. Chabad’s women emissaries will attend their own conference in Crown Heights during a weekend in January, and Lubavitchers refer to the husband and wife as shliach and shlicha, respectively, thereby sidestepping the rabbi/rabba controversy that embroiled the Orthodox world this year.
Though the children born into these families may not know the rebbe, the conference’s organizers did their best to give him as much of a presence in the room as possible. Aside from the responsive singing, a massive portrait of the rebbe hung behind the dais, and every speaker referenced him. His vision drives the mission of Chabad, and it is almost as if these reminders of him give the shluchim a reminder that they are still doing the right thing by leaving home and traveling across the globe.
Chabad is, in that way, a movement that has had some trouble letting go of its past. Even so, through the birth of a new generation of shluchim, it is automatically creating a future for its worldwide Jewish outreach. One 11-year-old child of a shliach in the United States said that he wants to continue being an emissary elsewhere when he grows up. The boy, whose father would not allow his son’s name to be printed, added that he likes assisting his parents in their outreach work.
“If it helps a lot of people, then I’m happy about that,” he said. “The most important thing is that people have gotten closer to their Jewishness.”
The young shliach said that his parents talked to him about the rebbe, but he could not recall any specific rebbe stories they told. This did not seem important to him. Being a shliach was not a choice for the child; his mission to reach out to Jews was an inherent part of his life.
One of the most amazing parts of the conference was the enthusiasm that the shluchim exuded for their challenging and relentless work. They sang and danced, and spoke about the importance of reaching every Jew — enthusiasm that most of them absorbed directly from the rebbe. If current appearances are borne out, when their children attend their own conferences decades from now, they will display the same passion for their work. Those shluchim, however, will sing and dance not because of a task given to them by a rabbi they never knew, but rather because it is the only life they will have ever known.
Contact Ben Sales at firstname.lastname@example.org