Rabbi (Rebbe) Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader -"the Rebbe"- of the Lubavitch movement of Chassidic Judaism for forty four years, was a paradoxical man.
[from jewish virtual library]
...hereditary leader of the Chabad movement.....
..or, is it the Chabad-Lubavitch movement??.......................
Waiting for the Messiah of Eastern Parkway
By Jonathan Mahler
Published: September 21, 2003
The synagogue in the basement of the Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the closest thing to holy ground for the Hasidic movement, though with its peeling paint, dirty linoleum floors, wooden benches and unidentifiable odor, it feels more like a junior-high-school cafeteria than your average Jewish sanctuary. But at a little before 10 p.m. on a recent Friday night, the place is thick with spirituality. Small clusters of bearded men bob furiously in prayer, while a smattering of women watch from behind the plexiglass in the balcony above.
In the center of the room, a group of about 25 men are dancing hypnotically in a circle. A few bounce little boys on their shoulders as they chant a single phrase over and over: Yechi adonenu morenu verabbenu melech hamoshiach leolam voed.
A middle-aged man standing near me catches my eye. Like everyone else here, he's wearing the Lubavitch uniform -- black wool suit, white shirt and black fedora. When he opens his mouth to speak, I expect his words to come out coated in Yiddish. Instead, they're pure Brooklyn.
''That's the No. 1 hit in Crown Heights,'' he says, stroking his big red beard and grinning.
It looks almost like a rain dance, only instead of precipitation, these Lubavitchers are trying to hasten the arrival of the messiah. There's just one problem. The words of the accompanying song -- ''May our master, teacher and rabbi, the king messiah, live forever'' -- refer specifically to a man who died nine years ago: Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the grand rabbi and spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement from 1951 until 1994. The Yechi, as it is known, is sung as a demonstration of faith that their beloved rebbe will be back soon -- rising from the great beyond in a manner more befitting Jesus Christ than the savior of the Jewish people.
So if Yechi -- ''May he live'' -- is a demonstration of faith to some, it borders on a profane outburst to others. A swath of Lubavitchers are not only unwilling to utter the Yechi; they also refuse to be present in synagogues or at gatherings where it is chanted. To understand the concern of these so-called anti-messianists, consider that only a few men in Jewish history have been revered as the messiah after their deaths. One was Jesus. Another was Sabbatai Zevi, who won hundreds of thousands of followers across Palestine and Eastern Europe after publicly declaring himself the messiah in 1665. (Zevi's death was, relatively speaking, a small challenge to his adherents, who had already chosen to stick by him after his conversion to Islam.)
For the anti-messianists, their messianic brethren present a public-relations disaster of epic proportions. They worry that their Hasidic movement, which is 300 years old and has survived pogroms, Communism and the Holocaust, will become confused with a cult. What's more, they can hardly ignore the obvious Christian overtones of messianism: what kind of Jews believe in a second coming?
Lubavitch is insignificant in terms of the global Jewish population, accounting for just a couple hundred thousand people, but it plays an outsize role in worldwide Jewish life. Unlike other, insular Hasidic movements, the Lubavitch credo, articulated repeatedly by Rebbe Schneerson himself, calls for encouraging secular Jews to become more observant. Between its emissaries and far-flung outposts (last year alone, Lubavitch opened 34 Jewish schools around the world), the movement has almost certainly done more to promote the growth of Judaism than any other organization. It is this last fact that makes the dispute between messianists and anti-messianists more than a communal squabble. ''What people have not yet grasped is that this is a watershed event in the history of Judaism,'' says David Berger, a professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College and the author of an unusually vitriolic academic book attacking Lubavitch messianism. ''People will eventually come to see this moment in apocalyptic terms.''
Chaim Meyer Lieberman, a tall man with a long, graying beard, traces his roots back to the beginning of the Hasidic movement in 18th-century Poland. When World War II broke out, his parents headed for Russia, figuring the climate would be less hostile to Orthodox Jews. By 1949, when Lieberman was born, they had been fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust and find their way to a displaced-persons camp in France.
In 1954, shortly after Rebbe Schneerson was named grand rabbi, the Liebermans joined the nascent Lubavitch community in New York. Although Schneerson's predecessor had escaped to Brooklyn during World War II, many of his followers had been trapped in Europe. This meant that the rebbe inherited a movement decimated by Hitler and Stalin.
In the 1950's, Schneerson set about rebuilding Lubavitch in a small section of Crown Heights. Lieberman came of age as the movement was being reborn. By the time he was a teenager, there were thousands of Lubavitchers living in Crown Heights, and thousands more coming every week to hear Schneerson's stirring sermons. The rebbe himself rarely left Brooklyn, but he sent emissaries, a sort of Jewish Peace Corps, into the darkest corners of the world to rekindle the embers of Judaism.
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