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Picture Day

How a Chabad class portrait gets made.

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Every autumn for the past three decades, a delegation of Hasidic rabbis has gathered outside a shul on Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights, to pose for a group picture. The rabbis are shluchim, or emissaries, who spend most of their time in far-flung locales spreading the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. They come to New York to attend a conference with senior leadership and to dance and sing into the wee hours; this year, a record 3,000 emissaries from 72 countries were on hand. But before the conference, there’s the portrait. The job of making a nice picture of the small army of boisterous, hyper­caffeinated men of G-d falls to Donal Holway, a wild-haired impressively mustachioed photographer with a specialty in panoramas. (His company is called Holway’s Big Pix.) His task is not an easy one.

Last Sunday, Holway got to the shoot around four in the morning. The risers his subjects would stand on had been set up the night before. “What I’ve learned,” said Holway, “is that they’re so tightly packed in up there that they can’t move much, so you’ve got that going for you.” If you’re Holway, you take what help you can get. “Shout out ‘Hey Mendel,’ and half the guys are going to turn around,” he says. Singling out uncooperative clerics by their dress—You, in the black suit and white shirt! You, in the precisely folded fedora!—is also not really an option.

The photograph was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. At 8:45, the rabbis were still milling raucously around the bleachers, telling bad jokes and breaking into spontaneous bouts of song. “We’re used to giving orders, not taking them,” said Mendel Lipskar, a rabbi from South Africa. Finally, Holway waved his hand in the manner of a maestro. “You all look very nice,” he said through a microphone. In the bleachers, the rabbis composed themselves. Some had worn colorful ties, so they’d be able to pick themselves out later. From behind the camera, a stooped, elderly rabbi was spotted on the fringes of the frame. His face was blocked by a light fixture. “That’s what we call a shmendrick,” chuckled an onlooker. “Comes 3,000 miles for a photo and gets stuck behind a lamppost.”

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