To mark the Rebbe’s yarhtzeit, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community gathered for a Lubavitch of Philadelphia presentation called “Farbrengen: An Inside Look.”
It all started in 1951, when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson gathered several hundred Chasidim to sing, pray and hear him speak about Torah in Brooklyn.
The event was called a farbrengen — Yiddish for “gathering” — and it was the first of many. Over the course of his lifetime, the Rebbe devoted thousands of hours at farbrengens, which were attended not only by his followers, but also by members of the wider community, including politicians and their representatives.
On the evening of June 28, to mark the Rebbe’s yarhtzeit, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community gathered for a Lubavitch of Philadelphia presentation called “Farbrengen: An Inside Look.”
The event took place at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing. On the second floor of the building, in a hallway lit only by blue lights, tables with hors d’oeuvres lined the wall. Men, women and children — most of them in Chasidic dress — gingerly took sushi from white plastic towers that were lit from within by pinkish light. Outside on the balcony over the Delaware River, the sky over New Jersey turned pink as well.
Marianna Salz stood with a couple of other women looking out across the water. A member of Congregation B’nai Abraham, she said she’s been to many Chabad events, which she comes to “looking for something inspiring.” Though she herself is not Lubavitch, she said, “I really appreciate the teachings of the Rebbe — his philosophy that you should accept all Jews, whatever their level of observance.”
A little after 7 p.m., about 25 men went out to the balcony to pray, leaning over prayer books or smartphones. Women chatted and children played tag as the men davened. One of the men was well-known artist Mordecai Rosenstein, who went to a farbrengen led by the Rebbe many years ago.
“You could tell he was looking at you,” Rosenstein said of the Rebbe’s magnetism, marveling at the fact that though he personally didn’t understand Yiddish, he was powerfully affected by the event. “What made me stand there for hours?” he asked rhetorically. “I have no idea, but you knew it was real.”
Rosenstein and the rest of the crowd started filing in to the auditorium for the main event around 7:30 p.m. The stage was bare except for a podium and a projection screen. Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, executive director of Lubavitch of Bucks County, introduced the event.
“The pain has deepened, the yearning has intensified,” he said of the Rebbe’s passing. “Yet the message of the Rebbe continues to resonate with us and through us with greater intensity and greater strength. Never in history was Judaism as active and vibrant in so many places across the globe as it is today, continuing the Rebbe’s message 22 years later.”
The keynote speaker was Shemtov’s father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, director of Lubavitch Philadelphia and baord member of Agudas Chassidei Chabad. An important figure in contemporary Chasidism, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov worked closely with the Rebbe and attended many farbrengens.
“People were changed completely by the farbrengen in the sense that they left their outside behind,” said Rabbi Shemtov, a striking figure with jet-black eyebrows and white beard. “The farbrengen was a moment in which we are individuals but individuality and everything that separates us from one another gives way to the activation of the inner spark.”
The rabbi said the Rebbe’s spirit at the farbrengen was a continuation of Moses at Mount Sinai.
To convey the power of the farbrengen, Lubavitch Philadelphia’s Bentzi Avtzon came to the podium and, using audio and video from a farbrengen in 1975, took the audience through the experience.
“It is 10 to 8 at night,” he began, setting the scene. “On most nights at this time, they’d be home, many tired from a long day of work. But tonight they are here, in a large and windowless and spare room…”
The black-and-white video showed a sea of bearded men in black, crammed shoulder to shoulder, surrounding a long table, draped in white. Then the Rebbe came in and sat at the table behind a microphone, and it began.
Avtzon took the audience through the various sections of the farbrengen: the sicha, “an informal talk, a conversation … that allows for one to see from the other’s perspective;” the niggun, during which the men sang about the Baal Shem Tov and toasted the Rebbe with wine; the maamar, the Rebbe’s discourse; and then the Rebbe’s conversation with others.
“Dignitaries approached the Rebbe between talks,” Avtzon explained. More singing followed. “If it is true, as the Chassidic saying goes,” Avtzon said, “that words are the quill of the mind and melodies the quill of the soul, then it is also true that at farbrengen the two dip into the same ink.”
In the vintage footage, provided by Jewish Educational Media, a young man in a light suit is seen handing a piece of paper to the Rebbe. After Avtzon’s evocative presentation, that same man, longtime GOP political operative Ken Davis, came to the podium.
He was working in Washington, D.C., he said, when he went to the 1975 farbrengen at the behest of Rabbi Abraham Shemtov. Rabbi Shemtov wanted Davis to hand the Rebbe a copy of a Senate resolution that recognized the Rebbe.
“So I hop on a plane. We landed at LaGuardia. We sped to Crown Heights,” Davis said. “The farbrengen was already underway, so we climbed in a back window behind the stage on which the Rebbe sat.”
At the appropriate moment, Davis was led to the Rebbe. “After a few words of greeting, I handed the resolution to him personally. It was a great honor.” He left the building by the same back window.
Davis closed the festivities with some sobering words: “There will never be another farbrengen with the Rebbe,” he said. “So enjoy this evening and remember him in your prayers, your minds and your hearts.”
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