Almost every year I am invited to attend the grand banquet of the International Shluchos Convention, the climax of a four-day weekend that attracts some 2,500 Chabad shluchos from all over the world – from Argentina to Australia, from Thailand to Kazakhstan, and from every state in the U.S. It takes place the weekend of Chaf Bet Shevat, the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l.
Unfortunately, I was out of town the night of this year’s banquet last month, but had I been there I would have met Rebbetzin Simi Abuhatzeira, widow of the late Baba Sali, and Olga Levayev, wife of the Georgian diamond tycoon who set up hundreds of Jewish schools in the former Soviet Union. I would also have heard the keynote speaker, Rebbetzin Chani Lipskar, who together with her husband built The Shul in Bal Harbour, Florida, as well as many other distinguished rebbetzins.
Although unable to attend the banquet, I did attend an earlier event, and I discovered a hidden jewel that I think few people know exists. I refer to the Guest of Shluchos program run by my friend Molly Resnick, former NBC producer and frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. This is a special four-day lay leadership conference for women the shluchos have become close to and whom they bring to Crown Heights to sample their own specialized programs while the shluchos recharge their batteries at their convention.
It isn’t just the number of countries these women come from – though that itself is impressive: six from Brazil, three from France, one from China, two from Costa Rica, four from South Africa, one from Sweden, etc., for a total of 120 women – it’s also the quality of these women and the shluchos who bring them as their guests.
The opening evening started at the Jewish Children’s Museum where first-time visitors were taken on guided tours, while others started on various workshops.
The gala dinner began with a presentation from Mrs. Chanie Kaminetski, shlucha to (the unpronounceable) Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. When she and her husband set out 23 years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe told them to stock potatoes in their basement in the summer so that their family and community would not starve during the harsh winter.
She recounted that after landing in Moscow they had to take a train for 17 hours in the stifling hot July weather with windows that didn’t open. When they finally arrived she said to her husband, “We’re staying here forever because there is no way I’m riding this train back another 17 hours.” Religious-looking Jews were so alien to the region in 1990 that the locals reacted to their arrival by asking not “Who are you?” but “What are you?”
Today, unbelievably, Dnepropetrovsk hosts the largest Jewish center in the world. The Menorah Center is a series of seven adjacent buildings with restaurants, social halls, a Holocaust museum and a hotel. The person who helped build it is Gennadiy Bogolyubov, one of several Jewish billionaires in the Ukraine, popularly called the “oligarchs.”
As Mrs. Kaminetzki related, Bogolyubov recalled that the hardest check he ever had to write for a Jewish cause was his first one. Rabbi Kaminetzki took Bogolyubov on a tour of his budding soup kitchen providing free meals for the local Jewish poor. Bogolyubov asked him how he knew all the people lined up were really needy. The rabbi replied with a question: “Would you lie to get a meal if you weren’t really hungry?”
That day Bogolyubov wrote a check for $10,000 and never looked back. When he donated the money for the magnificent Menorah Center he stipulated that it be large enough to be seen from the sky. He didn’t want something small and hidden; Jews in that region had been doing things small and hidden for 70 years under Communism.