Thousands of Chabad emissaries gather for Brooklyn banquet

Thousands of emissaries from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement gathered for their annual banquet in Brooklyn.

The nearly all-male crowd of about 4,500 at Sunday night’s gala dinner included nearly 4,000 Chabad emissaries from around the world, according to The event was hosted at a massive port facility building in the Red Hook neighborhood.

Guest speaker Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, talked about the influence of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on his own life. Sacks credited meeting Schneerson with inspiring his own rabbinic career.

He called Schneerson “one of the greatest Jewish leaders not just of our time but of all time.”

“Throughout Jewish history there were great leaders, but I know of no precedent for one who transformed visibly and substantively every single Jewish community in the world, including many parts of the world that never had a Jewish community before,” Sacks said.

The banquet is a highlight of the annual international Chabad emissaries conference that brings the far-flung representatives back to the Chasidic movement’s home base in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

The banquet’s signature roll call of all the locations served by emissaries highlighted the diverse locations on all six regularly inhabited continents where the Chabad movement has a presence—from Bolivia to Laos to the Congo.

The movement’s female emissaries—spouses of the male emissaries—had a separate conference in January.

The Rebbe’s army soldiers on


Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries brutally murdered last week in Mumbai, ran the Jewish center they established in that Indian city on their own. But the young Israeli American couple were part of a worldwide network of Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim — more than 7,000 men and women who devote their lives to doing Jewish outreach in more than 73 countries.

The outreach effort has become the hallmark of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, set in motion 55 years ago by their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackSchneerson. In the 15 years since his death, “going on shlichus,” or becoming Chabad emissaries, has been a point of pride with young Lubavitchers — the best and the brightest, they say, become the rebbe’s emissaries.

Chabad has become so ubiquitous that Jewish travelers around the world, no matter how far they stray, have come to expect a Shabbat meal, a holiday celebration and a warm welcome from one of these Chasidic couples, no questions asked. All that’s required is a knock on the door.

An online tribute to the Holtzbergs posted recently at is filled with postings from American, British and Israeli travelers who passed through the Mumbai Chabad center the couple established in 2003.

People recall 29-year-old Gabi’s broad smile and 28-year-old Rivkah’s efforts to make every guest feel at home. Some write of playing with the couple’s 2-year-old son, Moshe, and wondering who will raise him now. One traveler called the Holtzbergs “a beacon of Judaism” in a world that often made him feel alone and alien.

Over the past decade, both during and after my research for “The Rebbe’s Army,” my 2003 book about Lubavitch shluchim, I have heard similar stories from countless American Jews. They talk of spending Shabbat with Chabad in Venice, Hong Kong, Anchorage, Bangkok. They marvel at the fortitude and commitment of these young couples who leave comfortable lives in New York, London or Jerusalem to take up residence in Russia, Brazil, Zambia and, yes, India — countries where they live to serve their fellow Jews, where they raise their children in a language and culture not their own.

Often I meet these Jews at fundraisers for other Jewish organizations. As we munch on hors d’oeuvres and sip wine in fancy banquet halls from Los Angeles to Miami, those who relate these stories don’t seem to realize that the Chabad centers they have come to expect around the world don’t pop up by themselves, and certainly they don’t continue to function without the tireless work and endless fundraising by the emissaries who run them.

At the Passover seder I spent in Bangkok in April 2001, the Chabad center on Khao San Road had been completed just hours before the dinner began; the rafters were still unpainted. Nearly 300 tickets at $15 a pop had been presold to Israeli backpackers who filled the nearby guesthouses.

Some 700 young travelers tromped happily up the stairs to the seder, more than half brushing past the Lubavitch yeshiva students who were quietly collecting tickets and smiling at every arrival, whether they had paid or not.

A free dinner! Of course, it’s Chabad. It’s always free. It’s always there.

During my visit with the Chabad emissaries in Salt Lake City, I listened as Sharonne Zippel spoke of the sadness she felt as she and her husband prepared to send their 11-year-old son off to Montreal for yeshiva, in accordance with Lubavitch custom. When the couple, as young marrieds, decided to spend their lives as shluchim, Sharonne told me, they hadn’t realized it meant dragging their future children into the same lifelong commitment.

Did Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg think about that when they decided to move to India? As her three children were born — one died young, a second was in Israel with Rivkah’s parents last week — did Rivkah look into their tiny, perfect faces and wonder whether they might have been happier growing up in Brooklyn or Israel? When the gunmen burst into the Mumbai Jewish center on Nov. 26, did Rivkah or Gabi waver in their resolve to see it through to the end?

The weekend before the attack, 3,000 Chabad emissaries gathered in New York for their annual convention. They danced, they networked, they took their famous roll call during the closing-night banquet, standing up country by country to celebrate the movement’s continued growth.

The number of Chabad institutions has doubled in the past decade from 745 to 1,326. According to a 2001 survey by the American Jewish Committee, one-tenth of the synagogues in the United States are Chabad congregations. The movement’s Web site receives 75,000 unique visitors every day.

The growth is qualitative, too. More sophisticated adult educational programs have been created and emissaries have become involved in a wider range of activities, from prisoner rehabilitation to new media development.

New emissary couples are taking up postings around the world in ever more remote locations. Chabad centers were established last year in South Korea, Serbia and northern Cyprus. Four new Lubavitch couples every week, on average, set out to somewhere around the globe, intent on spreading their rebbe’s message to do good, study hard and love one’s fellows.

The word from Lubavitch global headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn is that the Mumbai tragedy will not slow down the movement, nor deter new emissaries from taking up their postings.

Next week, Rabbi David Slavin, 27, and his wife, Chani, 26, head to Yassi, Romania, a city with 7,000 Jewish families on the Ukrainian border.

Speaking by phone from their current home in Kiryat Malachi in Israel, David said the news from Mumbai has not affected their plans.

“We are not afraid at all,” he said. “We can’t understand why this happened to the Holtzbergs; it’s very hard, of course. But we are sure this is the right path for us.”

Like other emissaries, the Slavins will bring their children with them: 2-year-old Dovi and 2-month-old Chaya Mushka.

David, whose American-born parents were sent as Chabad emissaries to Israel by Schneerson, noted that Dovi and Chaya Mushka will be third-generation shluchim. That’s quite a responsibility to lay on the shoulders of two toddlers. But it’s the life they have chosen.

Life of a Footsoldier

Shmuel Marcus is a bit like the lucky son of an ambitious frontier storekeeper, who relies on family to staff a second storefront.

Since January, Marcus, 27, has operated Orange County’s newest Chabad from a living room alcove of the second-floor Cypress apartment he shares with his 25-year-old wife, Bluma, and two young children.

Scion of an unusual family, Marcus has joined the equally unusual society of shluchim (emissaries). They are foot soldiers for a powerful ideology of outreach by the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism. Trailblazers like Marcus must solicit their own financial support and, with their wives, make a lifetime commitment to remain in often-remote areas, ranging from Armenia to Zaire. In not-so-remote California, 20 new sites are planned this year alone in places such as Calabasas and Monterey. The Golden State already has the largest concentration of Chabad centers outside of Israel.

Orange County is already home to 18 synagogues of various denominations and now 10 Chabad centers, including Cypress. No. 11 is to open in Santa Ana this month, manned by Rabbi Yehoshua Eliezrie, son of David Eliezrie, Yorba Linda’s Chabad rabbi.

“California is the new frontier,” Cunin said. Innovations from its centers, such as demonstration “factories” for shofars and matzah, become models used at Chabad sites in 56 countries.

“By giving so many young couples the honor of being shluchim, they are responsible for bringing the love of the Rebbe to anybody we come in contact with,” said Cunin, referring to the Lubavitch spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

For Chabadniks, being an emissary is a central life goal, so they open centers to satisfy this personal as well as ideological need, said David Berger, history professor of New York’s Brooklyn College and author of “The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference” (Littman Library, 2001).

Stagnating Jewish population figures suggest Chabad’s explosive growth is not reflected in a revival of Judaism. Instead, its popularity reflects heightened interest in religious beliefs and practices, said Sue L. Fishkoff, whose book, “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” will be published by Schocken Books in April.

The proliferation of Chabad sites, which generally do not charge membership dues, can siphon members from existing institutions and cause friction, but also attract the unaffiliated, said Fishkoff, who cited anecdotal evidence. The rivalry, cordial in some communities and contentious in others, often prods greater adherence to Jewish practices by non-Chabad groups. “Hillel consciously adapted Chabad programs on campus because they are so vital,” she said.

Chabad’s brand of low-cost Judaism may be its initial draw, she said. “But nobody stays for that reason. Those who stay are finding something they like.”

Shmuel is the third Marcus son to become a Chabad rabbi and take the career path of the family patriarch, Yitzchok. He is the 17-year rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Yisroel in Los Alamitos. Together, he and his wife, Ita, have seven children. Another son, Zalman, is the spiritual leader of Mission Viejo’s Chabad.

“It’s a very unusual family,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, dean of Huntington Beach’s Hebrew Academy, where Ita Marcus teaches. “It’s a sign of dedication. It’s not there was a flourishing community; it’s dedicating themselves to the Jewish cause.”

The youngest Marcus rabbi was deployed to a “red zone,” mapped at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Cypress is considered a battlefield because of its extremely high intermarriage rate. Seeing a need to cultivate relationships with a more youthful audience, his father suggested the daunting assignment.

Without a building, Marcus organizes events in people’s homes or at his father’s center. So far, he has taught five Hebrew classes for three students. His wife taught a women’s group to make kreplach, meat-filled dumplings. Fifteen children registered for holiday-crafts classes.

“Many Chabads started with one kid,” said Marcus, seemingly unfazed by the meager start.

“You can’t educate a 25-year-old,” his wife said.

“Unfortunately, you have to start when they are 4,” he added.

Marcus, who holds a second job as director of outreach and marketing at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters, wrote about his 1996 stay in the former Soviet Union as an assistant rabbi. Safire of San Francisco published “Chicken Kiev” in February. It’s based on epistolary e-mail snapshots of modern Jewish life in a spare, verse-like text. Posted at, it generated enough interest he figured it had book potential.

He’s not anticipating a best seller, though.

It ends on a conversation with a poet, who notes Shakespeare has been translated into Ukranian. “It would only be fair, wouldn’t it, for them to publish my work in English?”

Marcus writes: “He would be astounded to hear that in America verse writing is not a particularly lucrative profession, unlike the Ukraine where poets are respected as heroes and pillars of society.”