MIDTOWN — The crowd was stretched to capacity, the attire strictly black hat.
From Azerbaijan to Arizona, to Congo to Copacabana, nearly 5,000 rabbis from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement converged on the city Sunday night for a conference of religious leaders that at times felt more like a rave than a spiritual gathering.
Undeterred by the storm that swamped their intended venue at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and destroyed many of their communities, revelers packed three ballrooms at the New York Hilton in Midtown Manhattan for the 29th Annual International Conference of Shluchim Sunday, eliciting no small number of stares from the tourists and business travelers who normally call the hotel home.
"Since the storm, we've been in the trenches," said Rabbi Chaim Brikman of Sea Gate, one of the dozen or so emissaries whose center was badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy. "This is a time for us to plug in and recharge."
Colleague Rabbi Pinny Marozov, 28, barely had time to polish his shoes before rushing to the conference, the one time each year he and others can see friends and family living on opposite sides of the earth. He recounted marching up and down 90 floors of apartment buildings in Coney Island, bringing bread and water to elderly residents still trapped without power after the storm.
"FEMA came once and FEMA will never come again," Marozov said. "The Red Cross came once and will never come again, but we're not a one-time thing. Even two weeks later when no one's remembering you anymore, we're there for you."
After weeks of recovery and days of hectic travel, the young rabbi and dozens of others like him who represent the city's storm-wrecked neighborhoods were eager to hit the dance floor. The revelers jumped on chairs and swung their arms from atop other men's' shoulders, spinning and shouting in time with the music.
"It feels like we're all a family," Marozov said. "Although only 30 of us went through it [Sandy], it feels like all 5,000 of us are in it together."