The Crown Heights Lubavitchers

Ecstatic Jews, a messiah proclaimed, and the consequential divisions

Meanwhile, the fight continues to play out right inside the building. Chabad, the empire, has its headquarters on the third floor, and it's at war with many of the people who pray and study in the synagogue below.

Last December, as a part of the same court battle, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the owners of the building had the right to remove a banner that the messianists had placed over the Torah ark in the downstairs synagogue. The banner, proclaiming the rebbe "King Messiah Forever and Ever," had been put up by four messianist trustees who were elected to run the synagogue. Naturally enough, they're appealing the judge's ruling.

There are two things that most Lubavitchers agree on: Crown Heights is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and for the messianists, 770 is the holy nerve center. Some consider the building to be the resurrection of the Great Temple, destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Young people incorporate 770 into their e-mail addresses; older folks try to buy houses with that auspicious number and have built exact replicas of the Neo-Gothic building, which once housed a medical clinic, in places as far-flung as Argentina and Brazil.

Portraits of the rebbe and his wife are fixtures in just about every home. Schneerson was a powerful figure who received heads of state and advised multimillionaire financiers, and his followers cherish their memories of him, even at a house next to his (ostensible) Long Island grave, where the video Encounters With the Rebbe plays on a continuous loop.

Now about that grave: Unlike the thousands of other Lubavitchers, Sara Kanevsky has never paid a visit. She doesn't know who or what is in the grave, but she's certain it's not the rebbe. On the anniversary of his death this past July, while more than 50,000 people waited on a four-hour line outside the cemetery, midnight buses rolled in from Canada, and Israelis camped out for the weekend in the Chabad house next-door, Kanevsky went to 770 to celebrate.

Kanevsky does a lot of celebrating when others are mourning. She says that in the time of redemption, all rules are reversed. Two years ago, she walked around eating ice cream in 770 on a fast day, which led to her being kicked out. And on the most recent fast day this summer, she talked with some Chabad members in Florida who were enjoying a spaghetti dinner. Kanevsky has even written a book in four languages on the new rules.

She acknowledges that to some people in Crown Heights, she appears to be a nut. But even that, she says, is part of the program. "The rebbe says you have to be crazy about moshiach," she says, using the Hebrew word for "messiah." "Miracles are crazy."

Those lubavitchers who believe that Schneerson is the messiah became more vocal about it after the rebbe suffered a debilitating stroke in 1992.

In the preceding year, Schneerson himself had begun to tell his followers that the redemption was imminent. He urged them to do everything in their power to bring it about.

Though he never referred to himself directly as the messiah (the rebbe rarely spoke about himself), some people began to see it that way. At religious gatherings, hundreds of people shouted the Yechi chant. It's unclear what the rebbe thought of these outcries. Messianists say he shook his fist in support; confidantes claim that he was pained by the sight of it; and still others aren't sure whether, after the stroke, the rebbe was able to understand the implications of what was happening before his eyes.

No one really knows how many Lubavitchers believe that Schneerson is the messiah. It's been a mostly futile effort trying to quantify them, though some have tried methods like counting yellow flags. This is partly due to the gradations of belief among the messianists: While many believe that the rebbe's death was an illusion, there are some who accept it but are convinced that he will one day be resurrected; others who believe deeply that he is the messiah but don't publicize it, preferring to keep the whole thing a matter of the heart; and still others who aren't 100 percent sure either way but are afraid to really talk about it, since it has become such a contentious matter. And then there are those, like Kanevsky and Balulu, who proclaim their faith to everyone they meet.

A youthful, 40-year-old mother of seven, Kanevsky and her friends live their lives in a state of near-ecstasy. And while fervor and joyousness are central to all forms of Hasidic Judaism, the messianists' exuberance is unusual.

The crown lies easy upon their heads. In fact, as Kanevsky stands before a cluster of five women sitting on benches in 770, she's wearing not only a form-fitting black skirt and a long-haired wig, but also a necklace with a golden crown attached to it—the symbol of the King Messiah. The jewel-studded crown is larger than her palm. She has two cell phones pressed to her ears. Another cell phone and an iPod rest on the bench in front of her. The devices are recording her daily three-hour radio address and workshop, the topic of which is the redemption. The address is being broadcast live over the Internet. A blown-up portrait of the rebbe has been placed on a bench behind them.

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