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Colossal Convergence

Barbara Bensoussan

Ever try to arrange workshops that would interest 25 people of varying ages from five continents? Daunting enough? How about multiplying that by 100 and coordinating workshops for 2,500 people? Or how about being responsible for a seating plan for 4,000 people? As Crown Heights and the pier that hosts the Queen Mary are readied for the annual Chabad Kinus Hashluchim, Mishpacha met with event organizers to learn how they prepare for the enormous event.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The shluchim are coming!

By land or by sea, over the river and through the woods, flying friendly or unfriendly skies — they’re coming. From the jungles of Africa to the pampas of Argentina, from the rice paddies of Thailand to the outback of Australia, from the tundra of White Russia to the hush of the Great Plains ... they’re coming.

Thousands of shluchim, emissaries of Torah and mitzvos sent by the Lubavitcher Chassidus, live in self-imposed exile in corners of the earth both famous and forgotten. But from November 3 to 8, some 2,500 of them will descend en masse on Crown Heights for the annual Kinus HaShluchim. This five-day gathering, combining spiritual revitalization, professional development, and social reunion, is Chabad’s best antidote to burnout for its vast army of shluchim, who work tirelessly to spread Judaism in places where they often have to dig their own mikvaos, milk their own cows, and chip away at apathy, ignorance, and assimilation.

The Kinus includes several days of workshops, including a full day of programming for lay leaders and donors; a “Kinus Tzeirei HaShluchim” for the sons of shluchim, many of whom have never had the chance to socialize with other frum kids their age; a resplendent Shabbos replete with fabrengens and the chance to catch up with far-flung family members; and a stirring banquet at which 4,000 people gather to celebrate their shared mission.

A convention of this magnitude requires no small amount of organization.

“The banquet is, without question, the largest sit-down dinner in the city of New York,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who has served as chair of the Kinus since its inception. “The Kinus has grown tremendously since it began in 1984, and today our shluchim are handling many more issues: funding, counseling, halachic questions, juggling their different roles, adapting to the new challenges of our times.”

His son, Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, adds that planning begins early, “somewhere between the end of the women’s Kinus in February and Pesach. When people come into New York on gimmel Tammuz [the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit], there are major meetings.”

Some things must wait for the last minute.

“It’s always a challenge to find a room large enough for the banquet,” Mendy says. “This year, we didn’t get final clearance on our location until three weeks ago. That doesn’t give the caterers a lot of time to prepare.”

To get a sense of the size of the room needed to hold all those people, it took 100,000 square yards of fabric simply to cover the ceiling. This year’s banquet will be at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, Pier 12, where the Queen Mary docks on her trips to New York.

“Fortunately for us, the Queen Mary isn’t in New York the week of the banquet,” Mendy grins.

It Started Small ...

Rabbi Lipa Brennan has a day job — he is the executive director of Yeshivas Novominsk in Brooklyn. But he has also served as the coordinator of the Kinus HaShluchim, with the blessings of the Rebbe, since its inception in 1984.

“It began as a convention of American shluchim,” Rabbi Brennan explains from his office. “There were about seventy-five people at the first one. Several years later, it evolved into an international convention, and that’s when it really began to grow. This year, in addition to about 2,500 shluchim, we expect another 1,500 guests for the banquet.”

But Kinus participation actually extends well beyond the physical confines of seminar rooms and the banquet hall. Chabadniks are arguably the world’s most high-tech chassidim. Historically, with the encouragement of their Rebbe, they have been quick to seize upon the potential of new media to spread Torah Judaism. Technology also enables shluchim who cannot attend the Kinus to take part in the proceedings. Sessions are streamed live via the Internet, and participants are able to e-mail in their feedback and suggestions for future workshops well in advance of the next year.

As the Kinus grew over the years, so did the need for efficient organization. The Kinus has a top-down structure, starting with a presidium led by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, and Rabbi Brennan. They chair afifteen eight-member executive committee, which oversees a larger committee of more than fifty people, and responsibilities are delegated from there on down the line.

When asked how the character of the Kinus has changed over the years, Rabbi Brennan explains that aside from the size of the convention and the technology that has helped them make it more accessible, things are not all that different.

“The mission the Rebbe charged the shluchim with is the same — to bring and awareness of the beauty of their heritage to all Jews, wherever they are.” Although he’s been doing this for over twenty-five years, his enthusiasm is unflagging: “We’re a growth company!” he beams. “We have the best merchandise on the market — Torah, mitzvos, and the warmth and depth of chassidus. If you just show it to people, they want to be part of it!”

For Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, planning the Kinus is part of the family “business.” Mishpacha caught up with him as he shepherded his children between Bubby’s house and the ice cream store.

“We’re all volunteers,” he emphasizes. “Everybody has a day job.”

He says the scope of the Kinus means involving the New York City Police Department and the Port Authority to assure the smooth, safe handling of events.

“The shluchim themselves are a peaceful, civilized group,” he says. “But this is an event bringing many world leaders to New York City. We hold meetings with all the relevant police precincts. We had forty members of the NYPD at the last meeting. After Mumbai, we’re more sensitive to security issues. But even crowd control — for example, getting 2,500 people across Eastern Parkway — has to be coordinated.”

A different sort of security measure was necessitated by an unfortunate event many years ago, in which several “meshichistin,” who are not part of mainstream Chabad and are not shluchim, unfurled a banner with their “yechi” mantra behind the 2,500 shluchim seated for the annual picture. Since then, there are people charged with distancing such individuals, who have taken to holding their own protest kinus that draws a handful of people.

If you’ve ever agonized about seating arrangements for a simchah, imagine what is involved with organizing the seating for the 4,000 banquet guests.

“Are you going to put the guy who came all the way from Vietnam in the back?” Mendy asks rhetorically. “How do you group everyone — by family, by region?”

The banquet also includes the famous roll call. Originally, states and countries were called out by name —until the Kinus grew so big that to do so would take the better part of the evening. Today, Kotlarsky says, the states and countries are split into regions. As it is, the roll call takes twenty-five minutes, including the cheers of each delegation as its name is called and pictures of the shluchim are projected onto a giant screen.

“The roll call is a highlight of the Kinus for many people,” Kotlarsky says. “It really drives the point home of what we’re doing.”

No organization can survive without the oxygen provided by its loyal financial backers. Chabad-Lubavitch shows its gratitude and discusses strategies for continued success at its Lay Leaders Conference, organized by Rabbi David Eliezrie.

“The lay leaders have their own day of sessions on Sunday, at the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel,” Rabbi Eliezrie says. “This draws about 600 to 700 supporters. There’s a group that comes in every year from South Africa just for the occasion.”

Those sessions are addressed by heavyweights among Chabad leadership (Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar), as well as more entertaining supporters like political pundit and radio host Dennis Prager. Roundtable discussions are held to plan future fundraising efforts, and all participants join the shluchim for the banquet later that evening.


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