Ill 'messiah's' flock prays for a miracle

March 22, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Their messiah is dying.

They are praying for a miracle.

In a seventh-floor corner-room of Beth Israel Medical Center is a 91-year-old man who has suffered his second stroke in two years and is now tethered to a respirator.

Across the street in Stuyvesant Park, are several hundred men dressed in black hats, black coats and black shoes. Nearly all have thick beards and carry leather-bound prayer books. They follow an Orthodox Jewish tradition of prayer, the men standing on one side of the blue police barricades, separating themselves from the women.

They come to pray. They come to honor their leader -- whose 92nd birthday is tomorrow -- by writing the final 92 letters in a newly inscribed Torah. They come to celebrate the life of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the ailing man they simply call, the Rebbe, a title of affection, respect and awe.

"Any day, the Rebbe should get well," said Yossi Pam, 19. "Medical science is for the world. God is above. You know what a miracle is? It is interference from God."

This is a snapshot of hope and grief in Judaism's most passionate and provocative corner. Placed against the frenetic New York backdrop is this religious sect with roots in another century but integral to modern day life and politics.

Based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the Lubavitchers are on the front lines of urban and world affairs. They've been targets of racial rioting and a recent shooting by a gunman from the Middle East.

The Lubavitcher (Loo-BAH-vit-shur) movement, a world-wide Hasidic sect has come to a standstill since its leader, Rabbi Schneerson was admitted to Beth Israel, March 10. He is gravely ill, lying unconscious, his respiratory and cardiac functions said to be stable.

Beginning tonight a great celebration in a nearby park is planned to honor the Rebbe on his birthday tomorrow.

The Hasidic movement began in the 18th century as a response to the Enlightenment in the West and the intellectualism of traditional Judaism, especially in Poland and Russia, where the movement began.

Founded in Lithuania

Distinguished by passionate song and dance in its worship, the Lubavitch Hasidism took its name from the White Russian town of Lubavitch, although it was founded years before in Lithuania.

But the future of the movement Rabbi Schneerson has rebuilt from the rubble of World War II and the Holocaust is in some doubt.

His is a rabbinical dynasty without an heir. He has no children. He has apparently chosen no successor leading to reports of intense infighting among would-be leaders. But those who come daily to pray at Beth Israel have few public doubts. To them, the Rebbe is the moshiach, the messiah who will see them through this crisis.

"The Rebbe will take us out of exile," said the young Mr. Pam. "You will see."

Their belief is total and steadfast. This is a deeply religious sect, devoted to good deeds, saving lives and saving souls.

And their public display of devotion to the Rebbe has been nothing short of stunning.

"They do not believe he is going to die," said Karen Zipern, Beth Israel spokeswoman. "They believe it is in God's hands. Maybe it is?"

More than 2,500 daily calls have been logged on a telephone hot line that the hospital established to give reports on Rabbi Schneerson's medical condition.

The city of New York has opened Stuyvesant High School across the street on the weekends, enabling thousands of the Lubavitchers to celebrate the Sabbath near the Rebbe.

And Lubavitcher spokesmen have routinely made themselves available to a media contingent from around the world.

Even the curious stop to ask about the Rebbe's condition.

A cop guarding an entrance at Beth Israel wants to know about the ailing Rebbe.

'Moshiach Tank'

He wanders to the curb and knocks on the door of something called the "Moshiach Tank," which is parked along First Avenue.

The 30-foot long van is crammed with bumper stickers and plastic hats proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Young men dressed in black are praying fervently, rocking back and forth as they chant in Hebrew.

"Is he like Jesus Christ or does he have nothing to do with Jesus Christ?" the cop asks.

One of the young men, 19-year-old Elozor Fisch says, "He's the Messiah."

The cop takes a pamphlet inscribed with the words, "Get Ready For The Dawning of a New Era."

"We stress the good deeds," Mr. Fisch says. "There will be a perfect world."

The men may dress as Polish noblemen, but the Lubavitchers are plugged into the information highway.

They have interests in publishing and video. They communicate to their world-wide offices via fax and electronic computer mail.

There is even a Lubavitcher computer bulletin board in Israel.

And when the Rebbe used to appear at a local synagogue in Crown Heights, believers were notified on beepers.

It has been said there are two things you can find anywhere in the world, a bottle of Coca Cola and a Lubavitcher emissary.

May number 100,000

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