The Crown Heights Lubavitchers

Ecstatic Jews, a messiah proclaimed, and the consequential divisions

The women pass around grapefruits, figs, and homemade baked tilapia in a large aluminum catering tray. "We call this the fish of the redemption," says regular attendee Devorah Leah Blau as she fills her plate (a friend is rocking Blau's baby).

Kanevsky is largely self-taught, but when she has a question of any significance, she says she consults the rebbe. Like Balulu and others, she does this by either placing a note or asking a question aloud in front of a stack of books containing his collected letters. Then she turns to a page at random and finds that the rebbe has left an answer there. Last week, for example, she wondered in a dream whether her friend Ruth would become a millionaire. When she opened the book, she says, the date of her friend's birthday was on the page—a sign that the rebbe was listening.

After Kanevsky's class ends, she stashes the rebbe's photo behind a bookcase in the women's section. "Did I tell you about the time I got arrested?" she asks. Then she bolts out the door and onto the promenade, which is elevated about 10 feet above the sidewalk. She looks over a stairwell and points down below, to a cornerstone in the façade of the building. In 2002, the Chabad leadership placed a plaque engraved with the words "of blessed memory" beside the cornerstone in honor of Schneerson. The messianists, resenting the implication that Schneerson was no longer alive, vandalized the plaque and put their own in its place. Multiple riots erupted in front of 770, and the police put up barriers and surrounded the plaque.

It's like Schneerson never left.
It's like Schneerson never left.
Sara Kanevsky, a  woman in ecstasy
Staci Schwartz
Sara Kanevsky, a woman in ecstasy

During one pf the uprisings, Kanevsky saw the commotion and decided to leap from the promenade. But wearing high heels, she fell, and people thought she had broken her ankle. Then she got up and ran to the cornerstone. Her friend Ruth jumped in after her. The women held onto the stone until the police pulled them away.

Zalman Shmotkin acknowledges that Jewish law allows for a great wise figure in every generation, but he's not convinced that Schneerson should be considered the king messiah of them all. Shmotkin, who has an office on the third floor of 770, says he never prays in the building's synagogue. One of his deepest fears is that people will see messianism as the face of Chabad, and that this will alienate them from the rebbe's teachings. "It's so not what we're about," he says.

"It violates common sense and makes the movement seem insane," says David Berger, a historian and the author of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. "They think it turns people off to Hasidic teaching, and it's a sincere concern."

Berger, himself an observant Jew, says that while researching the book, he watched videos that were filmed at 770 after the rebbe's death. In one, people cleared a path across the synagogue to allow the invisible rebbe to walk to his chair. "When people tell me that the kind of scene I just described is crazy," he says, "I react by saying that there are millions of people in the world who are perfectly normal and intelligent people, who believe that the priest is holding a piece of bread and that this bread is the real presence of Jesus of Nazareth."

With the Lubavitchers as with Christians, messianic beliefs are nuanced, Berger says. He thinks that most Luba- vitchers, either secretly or openly, do believe that the rebbe is the messiah, but that only a small fraction believe he is still alive.

That contention has made Berger the target of severe attacks in the Lubavitch world. And though he staunchly opposes the movement, he says that there are strong theological underpinnings both to the messianism and even to the "seemingly crazy assertion" that the rebbe really didn't die.

"Judaism says that in every generation, there is a righteous person that connects the world to the divine energy," he explains. "If there is no leader, the world would actually cease to exist. So the fact that the rebbe has died and that the world continues to exist is a conundrum to them, and it leads them to believe that the rebbe must not have died. But even people who believe he did die find this to be a challenging question." They resolve it, he adds, by opining that we're living in strange times, or that the rebbe is still providing the divine connection from his grave.

Kanevsky finishes her class in the late afternoon. By that time, Crown Heights is a rush of preparations for Sabbath. She passes hat shops with old-world lettering on their façades, ancient gumball machines, and elderly women begging for some Sabbath charity on the sidewalk. Kanevsky gives each of the women a few dollars and walks into a glatt-kosher meat store. The store sells things like goulash and schnitzel, but Kanevsky is looking for a special kosher chicken.

The store appears to be out of stock. The clerk—who doesn't wear a yellow pin—says to Kanevsky, in Hebrew: "With your luck, Yechi ha Melech, you'll find the meat." She reaches into a pile and finds the last package for sale. Yet another miracle.

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