It was comical.
572 rabbis in a zoom call and he was sitting in his chair, asleep.
His head kept slowly rolling down in his sleep and then with a small jerk, he'd raise it up. And then inevitably it would slowly drop to his shoulder.
I couldn't stop watching him. I was listening to the speaker on the zoom call, but my soul was with this rabbi, asleep in front of his computer. Asleep because he couldn't tear his eyes away from his screen. He wanted to be with his 572 brothers.
I was once sitting in his seat.
My name is Zvi Hershcovich. I'm Chabad Lifeline's Director of Marketing and I usually work behind the scenes, and today I'd like to tell you about Chabad and how 5000 rabbis broke a world record.
Understanding the Chabad in Chabad Lifeline
In 1989, Rabbi Ronnie Fine opened Project PRIDE. At the time, he was a Chaplain at McGill University and Director of Chabad of McGill. Project PRIDE would later be rebranded at Chabad Lifeline.
But the history of Chabad Lifeline goes much further than that.
18th century Russia. The country is rapidly expanding westward, and Russian enlightenment is slowly emerging.
Eastern Europe's massive Jewish communities become citizens of the Russian empire, and they include the Chassidim, a growing religious movement based on mysticism fused with joy and fervent prayer.
Enter Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the "Alter Rebbe." A brilliant, revolutionary thinker and leader, he is the founder of Chabad, a rationalist mystical philosophy laid out in his seminal work, the Tanya.
The Alter Rebbe titles his movement "Chabad," a Hebrew acronym for the intellectual attributes of Chochmah (wisdom), Bina (understanding), and Da'at (knowledge).
From insular community to worldwide phenomenon
Chabad spent six generations on Russian soil. During the Holocaust, the 6th Chabad Rebbe (spiritual leader) escaped to New York. His son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson changed the landscape of the Jewish world as the 7th Chabad Rebbe, known affectionately as "the Rebbe."
Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Communities were ripped apart, and as a result the vast majority of surviving Jews around the world, dealing with immense guilt, turned insular. The Jewish world was devastated, and few were dealing with their spiritual, emotional, and social needs.
The Rebbe changed everything. From the moment he was appointed leader of the Chabad movement in 1951, he began training and sending rabbis to communities across the globe.
These rabbis were tasked with establishing Jewish communities. Motivated by a philosophy that preaches the value of every human and the goal of making this world into a G-dly place by behaving like G-d and helping those who struggle, these rabbis built Jewish communities across the globe.
Social activism will bring heaven down to earth
I grew up in Montreal and studied in a Chabad school right here on Westbury. In 2004, I completed my Rabbinic studies and became a certified rabbi. Several years later, I moved to Stavropol, Russia to serve as the spiritual leader of the large Jewish community living in the province.
Dancing in the streets of Stavropol with a new Torah scroll, the first scroll to be used regularly in 80 years! That's me in the foreground.
Aside from my religious work and efforts at building the infrastructure of a community without any organizational structure for 80 years, I also started setting up proper channels for social activism targeting both the Jewish community and the general public.
I helped arrange medicine for Igor, whose 3 year old son had cancer, I coordinated food distribution for families who couldn't afford meals, and connected with local professionals to help those affected by addiction.
Social activism is a large component of Chabad philosophy, and it's why the majority of Chabad centres around the world offer help to families with special needs children, people suffering from poverty, and anyone affected by addiction.
Chabad organizations that service these needs in Montreal include MADA's food kitchen, the Friendship Circle, and Chabad Lifeline. Each organization is led by a Chabad rabbi sent by the Rebbe. Each one is inspired by the Rebbe.
Chabad centres around the world are called "Chabad Houses," because their goal is to bring warmth, to create a home. This is why Chabad Lifeline is not located in a clinical setting. Because we want to help people recover at home. We are a family.
The annual Kinus
Today, over 5,200 Chabad rabbis operate safe havens across the globe, working together to make this world a better and kinder place.
Some of the rabbis live in remote locations. I did. I lived in Stavropol, Russia. I was the only fully observant Jew in the city. And it was lonely. Incredibly lonely.
It was a spiritual rewarding life yet it contained its difficulties. Constant open antisemitism, lack of kosher foods, and an entirely different culture and language. Sometimes, the loneliness was stifling.
There was always something to look up to. The Kinus.
"Kinus" is the Hebrew word for "convention." Every year since 1983, thousands of Chabad rabbis from across the world gather in Brooklyn, New York for the Kinus: the International Conference of Chabad Rabbis.
There, they attend workshops, meet old friends, and join inspiring Chassidic gatherings (known in Yiddish as "Farbrengens"). The Kinus concludes with the largest sit-down meal in the New York City area.
Kinus group photo. Can you find me?
November 26, 2008. I got a call from a friend at Chabad of Russia Headquarters in Moscow. "There's been an attack on a Chabad House in Mumbai. Double check your security and stay somewhere safe."
The Mumbai attacks had begun. Worldwide, Chabad rabbis were in shock. A terrorist attack on a Chabad House!
This came during a period of intense loneliness. I began scouring the web for news about the attack. I was transfixed. I discovered Twitter and kept refreshing the page.
I wasn't alone. Thousands of Chabad rabbis were doing the same. We were chatting online. Updating each other. Praying together. And it was cathartic.
At one point I fell asleep in front of my computer. I couldn't tear myself away from my brothers.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, and six guests visiting the Chabad House in Mumbai, were murdered. My daughter is named after Rivka.
Breaking a world record
This year, the global pandemic made a physical Kinus an impossibility. Chabad was forced to conduct the entire conference online.
Workshops were held online, a virtual marketplace was opened, the banquet went global thanks to the internet.
But the most powerful Kinus experience is something that hasn't been done before in the history of the world. The Zoom Farbrengen. It began at the conclusion of Shabbat and continued for over 133 hours, breaking the world record for longest zoom conference.
Rabbis across the globe joined the zoom and were asked to speak. They shared motivation, memories, songs. Incredible stories. Each rabbi was given under 10 minutes to inspire. And it was non-stop. It concluded Thursday night around 11:00 pm.
At any given moment, between 500 and 1,000 rabbis were in the Zoom meeting. In fact, overflow was sometimes routed to Vimeo when the live feed hit maximum capacity. Quantitatively, thousands of rabbis shared. While writing the initial draft of this blog post, rabbis from the following locations spoke: Perm (Russia), Nicosia (Cyprus), Accra (Ghana), Bend (Oregon), and Pucon (Chile).
And hundreds of rabbis were glued to their screens from morning to evening. They couldn't get away. As long as the Farbrengen continued, they sat and celebrated with their brothers. They cried with their brothers. They prayed with their brothers. And they sang with their brothers.
Can you find Chabad Lifeline Director Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger?
So why are we proud of our organization's name? Why have we kept the obscure word "Chabad" in our branding?
Because that's who we are. We are not a small organization. We are part of a global group with over 250 years of working together to make the world a better place.
Join me. Do something good today. Let's improve our world.