Rebbes spirit reaches beyond power struggle, death

NEW YORK — When the Lubavitcher rebbe died June 24, 1994 without naming a successor, many wondered who would run the movement.

The childless Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 92, left no obvious successor and never groomed or named someone outside his family.

Fractiousness and infighting among his aides over such vital decisions as the medical care of their ailing leader heightened uncertainty about Lubavitch's future leadership.

A year later, most of the rebbe's followers around the world and those in charge of the organizations he established have used his earlier opinions as guidance; moved by his memory, Chabad is flourishing.

Lubavitchers have made decisions, both personal and institutional, based on their interpretations of the vast amount of written literature and video and audio recordings the rebbe left behind.

As for important new decisions, the answer as to who is in charge may best be illustrated by how a decision was made about three notebooks that were discovered after the rebbe's death.

The notebooks, which date back to 1932, are filled with hundreds of pages of Schneerson's handwritten thoughts and analyses on matters ranging from Torah to astronomy.

His aides had known of the existence of two of the notebooks, but not their whereabouts. The discovery of the third notebook came as a surprise.

A few weeks after the rebbe's death, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the rebbe's longtime aide, spokesman, driver and now executor of his will, found the notebooks while sorting through a file cabinet in the room in which the rebbe lived and worked.

"It was like digging and digging and then finding a diamond," Krinsky said.

The pages of handwritten notes "shed light on the rebbe in the early years, what he was immersed in, which there was previously little information on," he said.

The rebbe wrote down his thoughts and insights while he was in Warsaw, in Paris and in Nice, France, addressing issues in Jewish literature and customs, in mathematics and medicine.

"You see the genius of the rebbe in his early years. They weren't necessarily things he spoke about in his later years," said Krinsky.

Krinsky brought the treasure to the board of the Agudas Chassidei Chabad (Union of Chabad Chasidim), the policy-making body for the Lubavitch movement, which is also the beneficiary of the rebbe's estate.

Agudas Chassidei Chabad still lists the rebbe as president, and the chairman as Rabbi Chaim Hodakove, who died in 1993. Rabbis Krinsky and Nissan Mindel are its officers.

Krinsky, Mindel and 20 other board members studied the handwritten pages and decided, by consensus, to publish them in parts as they are analyzed and notated — rather than waiting for all the volumes to be completed, which could take years.

They assigned four young scholars to the task and have published 10 Hebrew-language pamphlets.

The 11th was released Friday of last week, in honor of Monday, June 26, the anniversary of the day in 1941 that the rebbe arrived with his wife, Chaya Mushka, on American shores.

An English version is planned for the near future.

Meanwhile, in the year since the rebbe died, memorial candles have burned continuously in his followers' homes.

"I lost two parents and nothing, nothing was like losing the rebbe," said Miriam Swerdlow, a prominent member of Crown Heights' Lubavitch community, her voice growing jagged with pain.

"Don't use the word yahrzeit," she said, referring to the first anniversary of his death, which falls, according to the Hebrew calendar, on July 1. "I just can't take it."

The yahrzeit is being marked this week all over the world, by events in which Lubavitchers and non-Lubavitchers will testify about the impact the rebbe has had on their lives.

In Chabad's Crown Heights headquarters and main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, N.Y., a series of memorials is taking place, including sessions in people's homes devoted to studying the Moshiach, or Messiah, whom many Lubavitchers believe the rebbe to be.

In Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, the rebbe was slated to be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Chassidim have also used their grief to expand the rebbe's network to 3,200 emissaries and institutions that serve Jews worldwide from cradle to grave.

In Crown Heights, blueprints for a major expansion of Lubavitch headquarters are being drafted, said Krinsky, who has long been involved in running the day-to-day affairs of much of Lubavitch.

In as many towns and cities as there are Lubavitcher Chassidim, the rebbe's work to bring Jews closer to Torah Judaism continues.

One hundred new couples have been sent to such disparate locations as Vilna, Lithuania; Marumbi, Brazil; and New London, Conn.

Since the rebbe's death, roughly $200 million worth of new capital projects have been initiated by Chabad emissaries all over the world, said Zalman Shmotkin, an aide to Krinsky.

As recently as Sunday of last week, ground was broken for what will be a $40 million Lubavitch synagogue and Jewish program campus in Detroit.

In Paris, a $10 million complex centered around a girls' school is half-built and in Bal Harbour, Fla., a $10 million synagogue complex has been completed.

The work also continues in cyberspace, where Lubavitchers have created a significant presence with online chat rooms and study sessions.

Strife among the rebbe's aides during the last two years of Schneerson's life, which some say interfered with his medical care and threatened the Lubavitch enterprise, seems to have ebbed — with Krinsky emerging as the apparent victor.

While Krinsky is spearheading the expansion of Chabad's reach, that does not mean his detractors have quieted.

Battles earlier this year over elections to the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council included threats between some contenders. Although Krinsky was not directly involved in the elections, the battle was seen as a contest between his supporters and opponents.

Despite the divisions, "We're all trying to articulate the rebbe's leadership the way we understand it," said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad in Yorba Linda.

The messianic fervor has abated somewhat. But those who believe the rebbe is the Messiah have not been dimmed by his death and continue to publicize their message.

Billboard, radio and cable television marketing campaigns in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, Paris and Israel, have cost about $1 million in the past year, said Rabbi Shmuel Butman.

"Yes, there was a funeral, but the rebbe is alive. He will reveal himself as Moshiach any day," Butman said.

No one refers to the rebbe's death. Most refer to it by its Hebrew date, calling it "Gimel Tammuz," the third day of the month of Tammuz.

Since his death, many Lubavitch parents have named their newborn sons Menachem Mendel.

Just about all Lubavitchers say they are acutely aware of the rebbe's presence, pushing them to carry on his work.