Chabad 2014: In Search of Father and Messiah, 20 Years Later

While the orphaned Brooklyn-based Hasidic movement continues to expand around the globe, here at home tension exists between those who believe he is still alive, albeit unseen, and those who think he died 20 years ago.

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Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries gathering in front of their world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, Nov. 27, 2011.Credit: Tina Fineberg /
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

BROOKLYN – When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson lay incapacitated and rendered mute by a stroke, in 1994, and Crown Heights was in the fevered grip of widespread messianism, with yellow flags bearing the messiah’s crown flying from many homes and car antennas, a representative of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement was asked what would happen to his community if the rebbe died without revealing himself to be the messiah. It was inconceivable, he replied. “It would be like the sun not rising tomorrow,” he said.

There have been 20 years of sunrises and sunsets since then, and Chabad has more than survived the death of Schneerson, who, after being named the rebbe in 1950 following the death of his father-in-law, grew Lubavitch from a small, postwar community in Brooklyn into a movement with representatives who run synagogues, schools and child-care centers around the world.

Today there are 980 Chabad centers in the United States alone and it is by far the most influential and far-reaching branch of Hasidic Judaism. Yet it remains something like a community of orphans. Without question Chabad-Lubavitch continues to grow up, but remains in need of its father’s guidance.

The legacy of the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe has not dimmed over the past 20 years. If anything, it has burgeoned along with the number of shluchim, as the emissaries representing the Chabad movement are called. In 1994, 1,243 couples served as the rebbe's emissaries around the world. Today that number has nearly quadrupled, to more than 4,000 couples working in 84 countries. This is the highest form of service to the rebbe, though the young couples sent out — now at an average of three each week, according to an essay by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky published Monday on — are too young to have known him themselves.

Monday night and Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of "gimel Tamuz," the Hebrew date on which the rebbe died. Attachment to him remains undiminished: Indeed, on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) alone, some 50,000 people were expected to pilgrimage to the Queens cemetery where the Schneerson is buried, according to Chabad spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson. Most will write letters to him which they will place on his grave, as thousands of people do during the rest of the year, as well.

While many believe that the rebbe died on June 12, 1994 in Manhattan’s Beth Israel Hospital, there remains a substantial number of Chabadniks who believe that Schneerson continues to be alive physically, as well as spiritually, but is not visible on this earthly plane.

Life-changing impact

Commemorations of the life and legacy of the rebbe were taking place around the globe in the days leading up to his yahrzeit. Three major biographies were published, including books written by rabbis Adin Steinsaltz and Joseph Telushkin. The other, by Rabbi Chaim Miller, is titled “Turning Judaism Outwards: A Biography of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.”

Miller himself became religious under the influence of Chabad 21 years ago, as a young man – after the rebbe had already been incapacitated by a major stroke in March 1992 – while praying at the grave site of the rebbe's father-in-law, at the same cemetery where he was laid to rest two years later. But Schneerson’s impact was life-changing for Miller, who has become a popular teacher and lecturer, and is based in Crown Heights.

Much has changed for his community in the past two decades, Miller said in an interview with Haaretz this week. Chabad has shifted from being centralized, run out of Crown Heights, to a more dispersed kind of organizational leadership, he noted. Each region has a hierarchy of rabbis who run Chabad houses and programs there.

“This has its advantages and disadvantages,” Miller explains. “The rebbe was a great visionary, coming up with new ideas and plans, and he had an army of followers running to implement his ideas. You don’t have that anymore. But now you have this huge, huge movement of people still dedicated to his vision and trying to implement it.”

The rebbe’s greatest contribution beyond Chabad, says Miller, was his shift away from the defensiveness that then characterized the Orthodox Jewish leadership: “All that insularity comes from fear. He was very much, ‘We don’t need to do that because Judaism has a message, and we can articulate it proudly, effectively.’ “

For instance, Schneerson famously initiated what are called mitzvah campaigns, sending out emissaries and young students to stand on sidewalks and ask passersby, “Are you Jewish?” If the answer is yes, men are invited to lay tefillin (phylacteries), and women offered Shabbat candles to light. Chabad is known for its open-armed embrace of all Jews, no matter their level of religious commitment.

While the Chabad network of emissaries is far-reaching in its impact – from Auckland, New Zealand to Jackson, Wyoming, from midtown Manhattan to Kathmandu, Nepal, and widely admired – in Crown Heights itself there continues to be tension between those who actively believe that the rebbe is alive and is indeed the messiah, and those who do not.

A community of young, fervently messianic men called Tzfatim occupy the main Crown Heights Lubavitch synagogue, known simply as “770” for the address of the rebbe’s office on Eastern Parkway. The Tzfatim believe that the Schneerson is present in a physical, not just spiritual, way. They leave a path for him to enter services at 770, wait for him to offer blessings, and knock on the door of his office before entering. They have the backing of the community-elected leadership of the synagogue inside 770, the so-called gabbais.

'Long live our king'

Thus, although the building is owned by the leaders of Chabad movement worldwide, Agudas Chasedei Chabad, an enormous banner proclaiming “Long live our rebbe, our king, King Messiah” still hangs over the sanctuary. Conflict over the Tzfatim and their behavior has led to lawsuits within Chabad.

The rebbe impacted many people beyond Chabad, as well as among his own followers. One was Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who as a young man, and trained as both a rabbi and a psychologist, was uncertain as to which career he should pursue.

Weinreb, then in his 30s and living in Maryland, was in the midst of a crisis of faith when he called the rebbe to seek his advice. When the rebbe’s assistant told him that there was a Jew from Maryland on the line, Schneerson responded that he knew of a Jew named Weinreb there, though the two had not met. In Yiddish the rebbe told his assistant, who was holding the phone, that “sometimes a Jew needs to speak with himself first.”

Weinreb heard what he said. “From that point on I had the self-confidence to make my own decisions, to express my own opinions,” said Weinreb in an interview this week. “That one intervention, when he said ‘think for yourself, don’t be afraid to do that,’ was enough.”

Weinreb went on to become the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a position from which he retired in 2009.

Ash Putter grew up in Crown Heights and now is raising his own family there. Since the rebbe’s death, when Putter was just 15, “things got better and things got worse, that’s for sure,” he says. While he does not count himself among the rabid messianists – who he says “turn people off rather than bring them closer” to Judaism – Putter has also noticed that the absence of religious guidance coming directly from the rebbe has lead to a slackening off of religious standards.

The rebbe “set up the world in a way it could run without him in a physical sense. But a lot of people got a little relaxed since the rebbe is not here to watch,” says Putter, who owns a small air-conditioning business.

While Schneerson was alive, he continues, “when he saw people were not doing the right things, he’d speak about it. And now the way women dress or people act – they would never have done it when the rebbe was here. If the rebbe was around they would take things a little more serious. They’re not dressing as tsnius [modestly] as they were. Kids dropping out of yeshiva and not staying religious is on the increase, stuff like that.”

On the other hand, Putter says, a “record number” of people have become Chabad emissaries. “Ninety percent of my classmates” from high school are among them, he explains, adding, “The bigger problem is with the younger generation. A lot of guys after us just fell under the bus.”

“Without someone in the physical world it’s just not the same,” Putter says. “The truth is, his physical absence is a big deal.”

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