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Cocktails & Carnage: 4,000 Singing Rabbis

Cirque du Soleil could not have staged the spectacle. More than 4,000 men, almost all in black and bearded and topped off with black hats or yarmulkes bouncing up and down in a gigantic conga line that swirls around table after table after hundreds of tables in the gigantic warehouse-like space of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which is lit like a prom-dance-disco, complete with crystal chandeliers and a revolving center stage. And all the rabbis are singing in unison.

It was the finale of the 2013 convention of the Chabad Lubavitcher Shluchim, literally, the “emissaries” of an Orthodox Jewish movement that had its origins in a town called Lyubavich in Czarist Russia but which is now headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The shluchim had assembled from 84 different countries and their exuberance swamped the space from wall to wall to wall to wall. The occasional youngster or younger rabbi was tossed in the air or borne on the shoulders of friends. Everyone seemed delighted to be there; everyone seemed ready to go back out into the world to do what they believed was divinely inspired work—if only for the chance to return and celebrate that work next year, in Brooklyn.

My hat could not approximate the stiff but elegant flatness of Hasidic headgear.

As the grandson of a fiery evangelical Chinese Presbyterian preacher, I felt awkward as I prepared to observe the Chabad annual. I wore a dress jacket and put on my favorite black hat, which I figured would evince some respect in a room full of men with their heads covered. My hat, however, had a brim that curled and as much as I tried to flatten the edges, it could not approximate the stiff but elegant flatness of Hasidic headgear.

A cop stopped me on the three- or four-block walk into the terminal. It also happened to be Marathon Sunday in New York, and the NYPD had been on alert all day, what with memories of Boston’s tragic race earlier this year. A huge gathering of Orthodox Jews did not exactly make the day any easier for the police. The officer looked at me—a Filipino-Chinese with a scruffy attempt at a beard, a black hat, a grey jacket and jeans, with a thick pocket key chain looping from my waist—and said she had to radio for an OK to allow me in. She did not seem moved when I said I was with the press.

Fortunately, I was able to utter the right name–Motti Seligson, the savvy and personable Lubavitcher P.R. guru (if that word is applicable to a rabbi)—and was soon ushered through metal detectors to join the gathered faithful. Motti doesn’t dress any differently from his co-religionists but he is one of the coolest guys I know. In fact, all off the shluchim—the emissaries–I spoke to were incredibly nice to me.

Yet some people find the Chabad unnerving. The day after I attended the Lubavitcher assembly I joined a special foodie event at one of my favorite restaurants and happened to be seated at a table with a lively and cosmopolitan retired physician who had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants, who spoke movingly of how his mother used to shop and prepare chicken in old New York. At one point during dinner conversation, he asked if we had seen the news stories about the thousands of rabbis who had gathered in Brooklyn When I happily volunteered that I had been at their big dance the night before, the doctor smiled wryly and described how he had been approached by the representatives of the Chabad on the street several times during his life. They asked him “Are you a Jew? Are you a Jew?” They wanted him to leave his secular ways, he said, and come back to the fold. He had been accosted so often, he said, that he had stopped saying he was Jewish. He recalled the story of a young female relative living in Scandinavia who fell in with the Chabad and joined them. Because the Lubavitchers are strict believers in Jewishness being passed on matrilineally, there is a premium, he hinted, to attracting young women of Jewish descent to Chabad. I felt as if he were describing a cult.

I saw two women among the thousands of men—which, in addition to the 4,000 rabbis included about 1,200 guests, among them Joe Lieberman, the former Senator from Connecticut and Al Gore’s running mate in the chad-plagued 2000 presidential election. The women were also with the press and were seated in a table toward the edge of the party. At the Hilton last year, the wives and children of the rabbis partied in separate assemblies.

At the convention, there were many stories told from the dais that had plotlines similar to my doctor’s cautionary tale from Scandinavia. But this time, the tales were joyous ones, of returning to faith and identity and tradition. A powerful almost evangelical tone rang through the speeches. I was reminded of my grandmother’s constant search for souls to save. Thinking of my grandmother’s singe-mindedness made me understand the doctor’s qualms. I tend to run the other direction from my evangelical relatives, who are still out to make sure everyone they meet has been offered the chance to choose Jesus and be saved. I have cringed in their presence as they ask strangers—especially those who appear to be Chinese—if they know they can be born again. It seemed particularly important for my family to make sure all the Chinese they knew had been evangelized.

But, since I was not in any way qualified to be a catch for these friendly Hasidim, I found something breathtaking in the innovation by the late leader of the Lubavitcher movement, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994. In the 1950s, he began to send “emissaries”—the shluchim—around the world to set up Chabad Houses that would provide hospitality to Jews wherever they might be, in hopes of convincing them to re-assume the traditions that were passed down through the centuries. It is a missionary movement to re-gather and re-inspire the diaspora; and, for people of Jewish heritage traveling or living alone in a Central Asian republic or Vietnam or India, it may well be a solution to solitude and loneliness. As Motti explained, the movement is not based on synagogue membership; it is a “post-denominational model” that provides the infrastructure for Jews to reconnect with their heritage, where Jews can meet Jews in any part of the world. From the center stage, the late rebbe’s goal was repeated again and again, the shluchims’ mission was to reach every single Jew. There are now Chabad Houses in 84 countries—and they all send their representatives to gather in Brooklyn each year to cheer each other on.

The Lubavitchers are not the only Hasidim, nor are they even the largest part of the Orthodox.

They have had their martyrs. A young Lubavitcher couple who ran the Chabad house in Bombay was killed in the 2009 after the building was specifically targeted during the bloody infiltration of the city by terrorists from Pakistan. In July of this year, a rabbi from the Russian republic of Dagestan was nearly killed after he was shot in an anti-semitic attack. He recovered after treatment in Israel and attended the Brooklyn festivities.

There are other complications. The Lubavitchers are not the only Hasidim, nor are they even the largest part of the Orthodox. The Satmar, for example, may have a larger membership and, unlike the Lubavitchers who support the Jewish State, the Satmar have little love for Israel and its Zionist foundations. Each has its interpretation of eschatology and how prophecy and the ultimate redemption of all Jews will happen.

Those Orthodox divisions, however, were nowhere in sight as the program wound toward its climax. The roll call of nations signaled the transformation of the assembly into a dance hall. As the master of ceremonies declaimed the name of every country with a Chabad House, cheers went up from the floor, including happy hooting from the table next to me when the announcement came that Slovakia was in the house. The band struck up music at the mention of Israel, Russia, Ukraine and the United States. It played Le Marseillaise for France. There were several shluchim from China. None from my native Philippines, though. On the roll went through the alphabetized nations (except for the U.S. where the speaker quickly included a recitation of the 48 states of the Union with Chabad Houses). All in all, it was just like an American political convention moving toward the tipping point of the right number of delegates to a nomination. Except in this case, that point was the complete mention of all the nations and a recognition of all the shluchim in a loud, public oratorical embrace. No one was left out.

Then everyone began to dance.

Howard Chua-Eoan
Howard Chua-Eoan is the former News Director at Time Magazine. His Cocktails and Carnage column runs every Thursday on Roads and Kingdoms.
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