If there is ever a contest for “world’s most misunderstood photo,” the annual “class photo” of the shluchim (Chabad rabbis) surely will be a finalist.
You know the one I’m talking about?
About 6,000 shluchim (G-d bless them) convene in New York annually for a conference and Shabbaton — and on Sunday morning, they pose in front of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Chabad world headquarters, for a massive group photo. (This year’s conference was held in late November.)
When you look at the photo, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had taken a picture of one shaliach (Chabad rabbi) wearing a black fedora and black suit and then hit copy and paste 6,000 times. Aside from the beard colors (black, white, gray and red), very little differentiates one rabbi from the next — and on the surface it seems like a conformist convention.
And that is exactly what it isn’t.
It would be an injustice to the shluchim to believe that they are all the same, with identical stories, attitudes or personalities. The beauty in the deluge of black and white is the colorful diversity hidden everywhere in the picture.
Look at one face, and you’re looking at a prominent community leader, rabbi and spiritual leader to 2,000 people in a large U.S. suburb. Grinning right next to him is the shaliach in a South American village, a man whose only struggle greater than making a living is the struggle to assemble a minyan so a local can say Kaddish.
Pan over to the next shaliach and you’ll find the chief rabbi of a massive European country. He rubs shoulders with billionaires. And next to him, the shaliach to Nowheresville, USA. He can’t rub two pennies together.
In this one picture you have newlyweds, middle-age parents, fresh grandparents, and patriarchs of massive families with legions of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, often in the hundreds, kinehora.
The guy with the red beard over there spends most of his time “behind bars” tending to the desperate needs of local Jewish prisoners. That short, salt-and-pepper bearded man behind him started off as a local youth director at the age of 23 and is still at it, devoted to his third generation of kids 30 years later. (And that “short” beard is rolled up; it’s 2 feet long. I’ve seen it!)
Move your eyes down to that guy with the black beard. Ten years ago, this guy didn’t know what a mezuzah was. He was the starting quarterback on his high school varsity team and his chances of ending up a shaliach were as good as his chances of ending up a starter for the Dallas Cowboys. But here he is, flush with excitement, living the dream (the shaliach one, not the Cowboys one).
The very tall one next to him was a successful business attorney who yearned to do more, so he traded in his law practice for a campus Chabad post. He admits that his 401(k) is poorer but that his life is much richer.
And just above him, with the silky white beard, is the rabbi’s rabbi, an expert in Jewish law, a genius of enormous proportions, a man with miles of Torah on the tip of his tongue and a heart of gold in his chest. Just one of the guys.
That one over there brought tefillin to Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. That one put tefillin on late comedian Sid Caesar. That one put tefillin on the president of Ukraine. That one put on tefillin with musician Bob Dylan. That one put on tefillin in Auschwitz. That one sent tefillin into space with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. The serious-looking one there put on tefillin with virtually every Jewish man in his city. (And don’t let the look fool you. He’s one of the funniest men in the group.)
This guy here grew up in a mansion in Missouri and he’s a beloved spiritual mentor to Yeshiva students. The guy talking to him grew up in a matchbox in Michigan and he’s growing a community in Colorado.
This Italian here runs Chabad in Utah; the Italian there runs Chabad in Russia; and yet another Italian runs Sweden. That Russian runs Texas. This Israeli runs Alabama. That Brazilian runs New Jersey. This Australian runs Georgia. And of course, these boys from Brooklyn are running Nevada, Montana, Louisiana and Nebraska. And Germany. And Ghana.
This tall one saves lost backpackers in Thailand. That short one saves lost souls in Nepal. The gray-bearded one lives 5,500 miles away in Siberia and he’s laughing with his old friend who lives 3 miles away in Flatbush.
Some of them have encountered astonishing success, like in Paris, where half the shluchim were inspired to Jewish observance by the other half. And some of these men have encountered astonishing resistance, like the man who has loyally served an American Jewish community for 20 years and still needs to argue with the locals about the importance of Yom Kippur.
This shy scholar here? He is in the midst of a $20 million building campaign. The charismatic gentleman listening to him is in the midst of a $300,000 foreclosure. The thin man next to him opened a glatt kosher restaurant in Mexico, just like the guy behind him who recently opened a kosher eatery in China.
But the rabbi behind them, serving the Russian hinterlands, hasn’t seen a kosher restaurant since last year’s conference and has been slaughtering and kashering his own meat for 15 years.
The rabbi in the corner is part of a family that has been Chabad since Chabad began 230 years ago. His classmate embracing him is the child of two ex-hippies who searched their way to Chabad in the ’60s and reversed four generations of assimilation.
Most of these men speak Yiddish, Hebrew and some English. But if you listen closely, you can hear the conversations accented by countless languages and dialects. Most of these men are of Ashkenazic background, but many are Sephardic, some are Yemenite, some are Persian. Many are fourth- or fifth-generation Americans.
Some are natural extroverts, some are painful introverts. Some are born optimists. Others struggle to maintain their optimism. Some are naturally exuberant; others, melancholy.
The differences never end.
Each and every person in this photo is genuinely unique, and each of them has a one-of-a-kind story that will yet be told.
But what they have in common is so powerful that it unites them like a family. Their love for the Rebbe spills over into a love for each other. Their love for the Rebbe’s mission and vision of a world conquered by goodness, kindness and Yiddishkeit unites them like brothers around a singular, unstoppable sense of purpose.
Drenched in that family vibe, all the colorful languages, backgrounds, upbringings, personalities and living conditions blend together brilliantly, producing a wondrous spiritual harmony.