Before the days of Skype or Periscope, a small control room at Brooklyn’s 770 Eastern Parkway (known as “770”), the world headquarters of Judaism’s Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, became a hub for broadcasting rabbinical talks throughout the world.
The Chabad global broadcast movement began in 1970 with a group of young yeshiva (orthodox Jewish school) boys who hacked their way through phone networks so that Chabad communities in London, France, Australia, and Israel could tune into messages from Rebbe M”M Schneerson. They broadcast the conversations he had with the droves of people who came to visit him in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, explains Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone.
January 17, 1970 was the twentieth anniversary of Rebbe Schneerson assuming leadership over the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. That night, he gave a talk that during a Hasidic gathering that would be broadcast via a phoneline to 1,000 people in the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad. Yeshiva students Mulik Rivkin, Meni Wolff, and Chaim Boruch Halberstam set up the broadcast to Israel, inspiring other Chabad communities around the world wanting to now tune in in real time, too. A month later on the holiday of Purim, they decided to broadcast the Rebbe’s talk again in London.
At the time, phone lines and even phone hardware, were owned by communications companies like Bell. International calls were expensive, and required advance arrangement with the phone company and reserving time with the operator. However, when British yeshiva student Yonasan Hackner, who studied in France, approached the phone company, he learned that connecting a phone line to a speaker to broadcast the Rebbe was technically prohibited.
So instead, the Hasidic hackers hardwired the phone signal into a sound system. To allow the call transmissions to go further, they left the phone off the hook so it could pick up audio on the building’s intercom. Eventually, regional hubs were set up so that the London-New York connection could be routed to other cities throughout the UK, Europe, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. By October 1970, the hackers set up not just a one-way call in, but a two-way line so that listeners in Israel could respond to what the Rebbe was saying back in Brooklyn.
About 420 phone lines servicing 600 locations around the world ran from the phone company to the World Lubavitch Communications Center (WLCC) in Brooklyn. “[The WLCC] was a wonderful sight to behold. All of the switches would be lit and flipped, so it glowed like it was Hanukah in July,” said Hackner. “You just know that from this little room, such a powerful message was going out to the entire world.”
Ultimately, the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement became one of the most widespread Orthodox Jewish movements in the world. Over 3,500 Chabad institutions are scattered over more than 85 countries, from small villages in India to college campuses across America. The global broadcast made sure their voices were heard.