Rabbi's followers gather in Israel to await their messiah

June 13, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Writer

KFAR CHABAD, Israel -- On a small, dusty rise amid orange groves and eucalyptus, 20 true believers in black wide-brimmed hats gathered to await the arrival of their messiah.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was due in from Brooklyn at any moment. They knew this, they said, because he had died only four hours earlier.

For this small community of Lubavitchers a few miles southeast of Tel Aviv, word of the rabbi's death, arriving by fax and telephone, created a crisis of faith.

Not only had his followers believed that he would live forever, they were also convinced that he would someday end up in this very spot -- on this small hill next to an orange grove, where a replica of the rabbi's three-story Gothic brick home in Brooklyn's Crown Heights towers over a dusty parking lot.

"At first, our feeling was that everything we believed in had crashed," said Moshe Uziel, 19. "Then everyone went and took some time to absorb it."

An hour of teetering on the brink of theological disaster brought them to a new conclusion.

"When we thought about it more, we realized that the same thing that had happened when Moses went up to the mountaintop had happened here," Mr. Uziel said.

He was referring to the Old Testament account of Moses' trek up Mount Sinai to commune with God. He stayed so long that some followers thought that he'd died, and built a golden calf to worship.

"This is a test of our faith," Mr. Uziel said. "He will reveal himself as the messiah before he is buried."

"His body is above nature," said Israel Lifshitz, 24, another believer awaiting the messiah's arrival. "The reports of his death are medical reports, and maybe from a natural point of view it is true. But since I believe in a miracle, I believe it will happen soon that he will come here."

"Asking what happens if he doesn't return is like asking what happens if the sun doesn't come up tomorrow," Mr. Uziel said. "The people whose faith is stronger are here celebrating. Those whose intellect is stronger are mourning now."

The latter group was taking the death hard.

"This is the most difficult day of my life," said a somber Ephraim Demichovsky, thumbing a small holy book in his right hand.

Mr. Demichovsky tried to be philosophical about it for a moment. "The rabbi never said 100 percent that he was the messiah. You can never be sure of anything."

Still others from this town were a few miles away, crowding into the corridors of Ben Gurion airport and clamoring to get aboard a special El Al charter to New York for the rabbi's funeral.

Belief in Rabbi Schneerson as the messiah has been building for decades, with a peak of interest after he suffered his first stroke in 1992.

Known among followers simply as "the Rebbe," Rabbi Schneerson took over the reigns of the Lubavitcher movement from his father four decades ago, at a time when attempts to reconcile the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust resulted in a surge of messianic belief. That's because the messiah is supposed to follow catastrophic times.

The Lubavitchers have had seven leaders since the founding of the movement in 18th-century Russia and Lithuania. Known for aggressive worldwide missionary work and charitable projects, as well as for right-wing political views that oppose offering Israeli territorial gains for peace, the Lubavitchers now have about 300,000 members worldwide; about 10,000 live in Israel.

The rebbe, however, never traveled to Israel and only rarely left Brooklyn. That only seemed to add to his mystique.

He never proclaimed himself to be the messiah, and not all Lubavitchers believed that he was. But he didn't discourage such belief, and some Lubavitcher publications seemed to hint that he indeed was the messiah, without explicitly saying so.

In Brooklyn and in Kfar Chabad, supporters had plastered his likeness on posters and banners, all hailing him as messiah.

Some rabbis of other Orthodox Jewish sects believed the messianic claims to be heresy, and outspoken opponents worried of the mass disillusionment that could occur when he died.

Such divisions were evident yesterday as a few interlopers in Kfar Chabad engaged in some low-level gloating among the believers.

"I was always sure he was not the messiah, even enough to bet money on it," said Roni Betz, 25, standing with two friends who obviously agreed. "This is not a part of our Jewish faith. We are happy that this delusion has been destroyed. But on the other hand, we feel a great pain that a great man has died."

A bystander overheard him and said angrily, "Tell who you are. Tell that you are not from here."

It is true, Mr. Betz said. He is an Orthodox Jew, but is not a Lubavitcher, and had only been visiting friends in Kfar Chabad.

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