Friday, November 05, 2010

90 Chefs, 340 Waiters and a Sea of Rabbis 

David Scharf is planning a little get-together on Sunday in Brooklyn: dinner for 4,500 Hasidic rabbis.

“It’s the largest sit-down dinner in New York,” Mr. Scharf, 58, said Thursday as he surveyed his blank canvas, a cavernous warehouse in Red Hook.

The room is a dank, drafty cargo area for cruise ships, part of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. The trick was to transform it in a few days into a warm, joyous banquet. Mr. Scharf’s son Jason Scharf, 25, was by his side with a laptop that displayed conceptual images of the finished product: a golden-lit hall with endless rows of tables populated by a sea of men with long beards and black hats.

The event is the 27th annual International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries, in which Lubavitcher rabbis stationed around the globe convene each fall in New York to kibitz, share stories and attend workshops and seminars. (Those unable to attend can catch the Webcast).

The event is now in its 27th year, and attendance grows each time. In fact, this terminal is the only place Mr. Scharf could imagine staging it. Well, there was the Javits Convention Center, but it was booked, and was a bit pricier, he said. And, this location is close to the Lubavitcher community and headquarters in Crown Heights.

“We looked at armories, hotels and other piers, but we could not find another location to hold everyone,” Mr. Scharf said.

Not that he hasn’t pulled off bigger events. There was the wedding in 1987 for about 25,000 guests at the Javits Center, for a grand rabbi’s daughter.

“But that was a buffet,” Mr. Scharf said. “This is a sit-down dinner: 4,500 meals served in a 30-minute period.”

There will be literally tons of food. Mr. Scharf has hired 90 chefs and 340 waiters. He has rented vast quantities of equipment, including 15,000 glasses and 30,000 pieces of cutlery. There is a bank of Kosher ovens wrapped in plastic and certified by a rabbi. A team of rabbis will be on hand to supervise the meals. The tractor-trailers will arrive on Sunday afternoon with some 5,000 — staffers have to eat, too — oven-ready meals of chicken and steak. The event is too huge to suffer picky eaters.

“Everyone gets their meat cooked medium — no choice,” said Mr. Scharf, of Cedarhurst, N.Y., who specializes in mega-events held by ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City. They can be tricky functions to pull off. Think of the details, for example: finding a check-in system for 4,500 black coats to be shed at the door. (The black hats are worn inside.) So many pickles will be served that a staff member was already slicing them on Thursday, taking them from big buckets.

Mr. Scharf stood in the middle of the warehouse, which overlooks Governors Island across Buttermilk Channel, surrounded by a feverishly working army of construction workers, designers and electricians. Fueled by coffee and cigarettes, he consulted detailed sketches and walked the warehouse barking orders into walkie-talkie and cellphone, and to sanitation, security, video and lighting crews.

Workers were jazzing up the austere walls with coverings. Men were unspooling huge rolls of carpeting across the 63,750 square feet of concrete floor, followed by crews putting 390 tables into place.

“It has to work like a precise machine, down to the inch,” Mr. Scharf said as he came upon a crew deviating slightly from the table-setting plan.

“Everybody stop!” he yelled. “I don’t want one mistake.”

The banquet is intended to reinvigorate the rabbis before they return to their missions around the world. There will be speeches and dancing, and the roll call of the various countries in which the rabbis work. Behind the dais, workers had hung a very large portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994 and is known simply as “The Rebbe” to his followers. Mr. Scharf met the Rebbe several times and still has the dollar bills that the Rebbe, who would hand them out to people seeking his blessing, handed him.

Mr. Scharf stopped for a moment and took off his Mao-style cap and rubbed his eyes. His cellphone rang.

”Who is this? National? National what? Please be clear.” It was the National Fence Company, in reference to the 1,600 feet of chain-link fence he ordered to be placed on the docks outside. Rabbis in the water: This is not on the menu for Sunday.


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