Northern California Chassidim revel in rebbes spirit

A year after his death, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson's larger-than-life presence filled two banquet rooms of a posh San Francisco hotel Monday night.

Portraits of the rebbe greeted guests. Bumper stickers proclaiming "Moshiach is Coming" and books with titles such as "Anticipating the Redemption" filled two tables. And about 250 of the rebbe's supporters showed up at the St. Francis Hotel to hear one of Schneerson's long-time aides speak.

The 3-1/2-hour event, dubbed "Living with the Rebbe/The Moshiach in Our Time," combined elements of a social event and a motivational seminar.

Rabbi Leibel Groner, personal secretary to Rabbi Schneerson since 1950, spent more than an hour relating story after story about the rebbe's kindness, consideration, patience and love.

Even more important to the Chassidim, Groner said that emulating these characteristics will help bring about the second coming of the rebbe as the biblically prophesied Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the resurrection of the dead.

"Everything the rebbe foresaw took place," Groner said, standing near to large black-and-white photograph of a waving Schneerson. "If he says Moshiach is imminent, this is a fact and this is happening."

The event drew a cross-section of the Jewish community. Only about 20 men in attendance wore the traditional black hat, dark suit and beard of the Chassidim. Yet the evening, sponsored by Chabad Houses of San Francisco, East Bay, Marin County and Sacramento, also included aspects of traditional observance.

A sign greeting incoming guests requested: "Men and women please take separate seating in the main room." And about three dozen men participated in ad hoc minchah (afternoon) and ma'ariv (evening) services before and after the main event.

Hinda Langer, the wife of San Francisco's Chabad rabbi Yosef Langer and one of several speakers to help introduce Groner, contributed to the effort by handing out "mitzvah pledge cards" to the guests.

The pledge cards asked Jews to take on more mitzvot "to hasten the arrival of Moshiach and Redemption for all mankind." The mitzvot on the list include studying Torah regularly, giving tzedakah (charity), lighting Shabbat candles, keeping kosher and "doing more to treat my neighbors kindly."

"Do it. You'll never be sorry," said Langer, who wore a lapel pin with a thumbnail photo of the rebbe.

In addition to the half-dozen religious leaders, two secular leaders were represented as well. State Sen. Milton Marks (D-S.F.) and an aide to Mayor Frank Jordan presented proclamations officially marking Aug. 14, 1995 as "Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson Day."

Groner, who had been mentioned a possible replacement for the rebbe immediately after his death in June 1994, on Monday night seemed concerned only with recounting Schneerson's deeds.

Known for handing out dollar bills and blessings on Sundays at his Crown Heights headquarters in New York, Schneerson sometimes stood patiently for hours at a time.

Groner recalled that when he would encourage the rebbe to take a break, Schneerson would reply, "When I see the line of people, I look at them as precious stones."

The rebbe would explain that when a gem dealer counts diamonds and rubies, "I never see him get tired or weak."

In addition, the rebbe never let common obstacles stand in his way, Groner said. He recalled that each Rosh Hashanah, the rebbe would head from his headquarters to a nearby botanical garden to perform the tashlich ceremony, symbolically casting off sins. But one year, Schneerson and his contingent of thousands of Chassidim left a little late and found the gates closed.

Instead of turning back, the rebbe chose to scale the wall. Thousands of his followers then did the same. Not pausing to reflect on the legality of the action, Groner expressed admiration for the rebbe's determination to fulfill his mission as a Jew.

Among the rebbe's last campaigns was preparing for the coming of Moshiach. But this redemption cannot happen without every Jew working for it, Groner said. So each day, Jews must act with a little more kindness, consideration, patience and love.

"That's what will bring Moshiach," he said.

After at least an hour of speaking, Groner's voice was still as enthusiastic and clear as his message.

"The rebbe will come back," Groner said. "Let us hope it will be soon and in our time."