The Grand Rebbe of Crown Heights

June 19, 1994

As grand rabbi of the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect known as the Lubavitch Hasidim, Menachem Schneerson exercised influence out of all proportion to the size of his following -- some 200,000 faithful centered on the group's world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York City. When he died last week, at age 92, he was a larger than life figure even in death.

Many of Rabbi Schneerson's followers continue to fervently believe he was the Messiah whose return is foretold in the Bible. It was the force of his personality that enabled him to energize a movement nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. Hasidism traces its origins to a revival of Jewish mysticism in 18th-century Eastern Europe. Russian-born Rabbi Schneerson, the seventh grand rabbi, or rebbe, of the Lubavitch sect, fled Nazism during World War II, eventually settling in America. He established his headquarters among a population of mostly native-born American blacks and Caribbean immigrants. The two groups coexisted uneasily over the next 40 years as the rebbe built up a religious empire that exploited modern mass communications techniques to recall Jews to the ancient ways.

Rabbi Schneerson was criticized by some for refusing to speak out on the violence that erupted in 1991 after a car in his motorcade went out of control and fatally injured a black child, setting off rioting that also claimed the life of a young Hasidic man stabbed to death by an enraged mob. His defenders argued it was inappropriate for him to comment. But he was no stranger to controversy.

Though he never set foot in Israel, Rabbi Schneerson's ideas were felt even there. He opposed exchanging land for peace and his influence over two rigorously Orthodox members of Parliament kept the Likud Party in power in 1990 by preventing then-opposition Labor from forming a government. Meanwhile, his followers established a community in the Israeli town of Kfar Habad. When news of his death reached them last week, many of the 5,000 residents dropped what they were doing and raced to the airport to catch chartered flights to his funeral.

Rabbi Schneerson left no designated successor to the hereditary leadership of the sect, raising concern that his movement may disintegrate or collapse in factional bickering. In death as in life, he remains a unique and perhaps irreplaceable figure to his devoted followers.

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