This Day in Jewish History, 1940

Chabad Buys Its Landmark New York Home

The Gothic HQ on 770 Eastern Parkway became so profoundly associated with Chabad that at least 15 replicas have been built around the world.

Daniel Bar-On

On August 16, 1940, Agudas Chasidei Chabad – the umbrella organization uniting all the components of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement – purchased 770 Eastern Parkway, the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, structure that now serves as its world headquarters, and a universally recognized symbol of Chabad. So profoundly did 770, as it is known among followers, become identified in the decades that followed with the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late, revered Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that at least 15 replicas of the structure have been built in Chabad communities around the world.

The Gothic Revival structure, which wouldn’t look out of place as a classroom building or fraternity house on an American college campus, was originally built as an apartment building in the 1930s. The ground floor was given over to medical offices.

In 1940, a concerted campaign led to the rescue from Nazi-occupied Warsaw of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe (1880-1941). He was broughtto the United States and the building was bought to serve as his residence and as a synagogue. Because the rebbe was incapacitated, the building had to have an elevator installed so he could get from his apartment on the second floor to the shul, on the ground floor.

By the time Schneersohn died, on January 28, 1950, the building, situated between Brooklyn and Kingston Avenues on Eastern Parkway, a wide boulevard, had already become the unofficial hub for the movement. For one thing, it was where the Rebbe’s son-in-law and Chabad’s chief of staff, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had his office.

A year later, the same Menachem Mendel accepted the offer to become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. He and his wife, Chaya Mushka Schneerson (Yosef Yitzchak’s daughter), maintained their residence at 1304 President Street, a few blocks to the southwest, and Yosef Yitzhak’s widow, Nechama Dina Schneersohn, continued to live in their apartment until her death, in 1971.

Over the years, as Chabad expanded exponentially and globally, and as devotion to the Rebbe drew increasing numbers of faithful to the neighborhood, as residents and on pilgrimages, 770 was expanded, several times. The building’s synagogue, in particular, which also serves as a beit midrash (study hall) and hall for farbrengens -- regular celebrations held to commemorate important dates in Lubavitch history -- has grown substantially.

Lubavitcher rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
AP

After Chaya Muska died, and as his own health deteriorated, the Rebbe moved into his office at 770, taking his meals and sleeping there.

Yes, the Rebbe is dead

Menachem Mendel often declared that the messianic age was imminent. In the years before his death on June 12, 1994, it became commonplace within Chabad for followers to imagine that he himself was the Messiah. The Rebbe did little to discourage this talk, so that it’s not possible to say whether he too saw himself in such terms. After his death, Chabad members split roughly into two groups: the majority that accepted he was gone, though that need not mean he would not be back; and a vocal minority that were convinced that he hadn’t actually died.

The difference in opinion grew into a disputethat, a decade ago, even spilled into a New York court, which was asked to rule whether the official owners of 770 had the right to remove a banner that had been placed over the synagogue ark reading, “Long Live King Messiah.” The same messianists that hung the banner had also forcefully scratched out the words on a plaque on the building’s exterior that referred to the Rebbe as being “of blessed memory.”

The court ruled in favor of the leaders who wanted to publicly acknowledge that the Rebbe was dead.

Today, Chabad remains without a successor rebbe to Menachem Mendel. And at least 15 replicas of the building identified so closely with him can be found around the world – some more faithful, others variations on the theme. Their locations range from Israel (with five copies) to Australia, Milan, the campuses of Rutgers University and the University of California, Los Angeles, and Ukraine, Brazil and Chile, among other places. The art photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher have photographed many of them, and they can be seen on their website.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Rabbis carrying
AP