On a summer night in Crown Heights, thousands of Hasidic Jews sit on plastic, fold-out chairs to watch a projected recording of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former religious leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, speak about Torah. Fifteen-foot screens line the side of Eastern Parkway, and Schneerson’s voice plays out of speakers. Streets are blocked and city policemen sit by in vans.
To his followers Schneerson is known as simply “the Rebbe”; and while he passed away 20 years ago, his face still lines the streets of this Brooklyn neighborhood, fluttering from flags on telephone poles, gazing down from each corner.
The solstice has just passed, and the night air is balmy. Painted portraits of the Rebbe are for sale ($350), and pins and bumper stickers bearing his face and the title Moshiach, orMessiah, can be bought for less than $5. One middle-aged woman selling Rebbe merchandise is also collecting money to support Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. “There are so many of our boys over there,” she says. “May the Rebbe watch over them.”
Twenty-two year-old Shmuel was born and raised in Crown Heights. He wears black slacks and a striped shirt unbuttoned at top. He’s clean-shaven with a yarmulke perched on top of his head. We walk down the sloping Kingston Avenue, the main artery of this neighborhood in central Brooklyn. He doesn’t regale me with tales of the Rebbe’s spiritual powers or tell me that a blessing from the rabbi when he was alive could change your life; he’ll leave that to his friends. Instead, Shmuel greets everyone on the street and points out a bakery (“they make the best donuts there”) and a coffee shop that has just opened (“almost as good as Starbucks”).
In the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway, a historic, spiritual center of the movement, there is a constant hum of prayer. During his life, this is where the Rebbe worked and preached. Dozens of young Hasids are dancing, their arms clasped together. “They believe the Rebbe never died,” Shmuel tells me. A banner is strung from the rafters: Long live our master our teacher our Rebbe King Moshiach forever and ever! “Our Messiah!” one man shouts.
TO UNDERSTAND THESE dancing Hasids–and the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of followers of the Rebbe–we have to look back to the eighteenth-century Ukrainian countryside. All Hasidim trace their spiritual lineage to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, who was born on the eastern border of the Kingdom of Poland, in a village called Okop, to a poor, elderly couple.
Tradition holds that the Baal Shem Tov—the “Master of the Good Name”—could speak with animals; he could fly, heal the sick, and commune with angels. He gained a following, first in small, poor villages and later in towns and cities, because he taught that even an illiterate, uneducated Jew could be pious, even without years of study. The most important thing was to worship God with earnestness and joy.
Other rabbinic leaders of the day watched the movement spread through Europe with skepticism. They were alarmed as formal study and well-established rabbinical courts were being challenged by a surge in folk religion, which some believed emphasized emotion over intellect, faith over scholarship. And his followers, who became known as Hasidim, “pious ones,” were also accused of idolatrous worship, of putting their leaders on pedestals.
The Baal Shem Tov had dozens of disciples, and various strains of Hasidism developed over the years, among them Satmar, Bobov, Karlin, and Chabad-Lubavitch, and dozens of others.
Hasidic Jews of all different branches have been living in America since at least the 1900s, mostly in the New York area. In 1940, the sixth Rebbe in the Lubavitcher dynasty, Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, moved to Brooklyn, where he led a community of only a dozen or so families. The following year, his daughter, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, and her husband, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, joined him. Nine years later, after his father-in-law passed away, Schneerson assumed the role of spiritual leader for the growing Lubavitcher community.
Unlike his predecessors, he wore contemporary suits and a fedora; he has often been described as a modern, forward-thinking man. He had studied in Leningrad, Berlin and Paris, spoke seven languages, and could read ten. He had a college degree, at the time uncommon for a Hasidic leader. His father-in-law had already made it a mission to preserve Hasidic practices in the face assimilation, and Schneerson expanded this work, ramping up efforts to spread Hasidism. Jewish tradition, he taught, provided a deep well of spiritual wisdom, from which all Jews could draw.
To his followers, Schneerson was a tsadik, a holy man and miracle-worker. While all of the Lubavitch rabbis were revered in their day, the Rebbe may be ascribed even more power. “He was a Hasid among Hasids, a holy man among holy men,” I’m told. It is said that his eyes were radiant; his presence filled a room of any size. At 770 Eastern Parkway, where he held fabregens, Hasidic gatherings, thousands would pack inside to listen, hanging on his every word. Many of these speeches, delivered over the course of four decades, are available on DVD. Even now, listening to him as he delivers his winding, mystic discourses can feel hypnotic.
In 1992 one Israeli critic, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said he couldn’t decide whether Schneerson was “a psychopath or a charlatan.” He went on, “This kind of degeneracy, of phony prophets and false messiahs, is as ancient as Israel itself.”
SHMUEL’S FATHER LEADS us in blessings, first over the wine, then as we wash our hands, and then finally as we tear apart a fresh loaf of challah. As the meal goes on, gefilte fish, hummus, and brisket are brought out to the table. Shmuel’s mother was not born in a religious family but became religiously observant later in life. She is what is called in Orthodox circles a ba’alat teshuvah, one who has “returned.”
The Rebbe’s hope was that all Jews would adopt ritual practice, specifically by wearing tefillin, keeping kosher, and lighting the Sabbath candles. These small gestures, he taught, had deep spiritual significance. He preached a streamlined, accessible form of Hasidic Judaism, tailored for the modern age. (Among other outreach efforts, Chabad was quick to make use of the Internet to spread spiritual teachings.) If all Jews performed the religious rituals, the Rebbe taught, collective, spiritual redemption could be achieved. There are thousands of Chabad Houses all over the world now, promoting the Rebbe’s brand of Judaism and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews who consider themselves Lubavitchers. The Rebbe’s influence on the wider Jewish world is undeniable. Many other denominations—Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Reform—have also been influenced by his teaching.
We sing a blessing after the meal and lounge at the table, where Shmuel’s sisters, brother-in-law, and grandfather sit too. The Rebbe’s portrait hangs on the wall and next to it is an aged photo of Shmuel’s grandfather, who was imprisoned in a succession of Nazi concentration camps. He was worked so hard, Shmuel says, that he lost one of his legs. Four of his siblings were also killed by the Nazis.
The Holocaust loomed large in the Rebbe’s life too. As a young man, he fled the rise of fascism in Berlin and later Paris before moving to America. Schneerson saw the hand of God in the story of the newly-formed state of Israel, mixing hard-line Zionism with esoteric Jewish mysticism. During the Six-Day War, Schneerson urged Jews everywhere to wrap tefillin around their hand and forehead and pray for Israel’s victory. “When one puts tefillin on his head,” the Rebbe said, “he projects fear over our enemies wherever they are.”
While Shmuel’s older brother volunteered in the Israeli army, learned to load and aim assault rifles, and patrolled West Bank settlements, Shmuel hasn’t. It’s not a priority, he explains.
He tells me that when he was a teenager, he realized something about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. “Everyone is just trying to take care of their family,” he says, pausing as if still thinking this over. “And that even means Palestinians, too. It’s never about politics, it’s about bread and butter.”
When Schneerson died in 1994 after having a stroke, he left behind no children and no spiritual successor. He had taught and influenced thousands—sending out young emissaries to found Chabad outreach centers in more than 80 countries—but without his charismatic presence, the community was in danger of splintering apart.
Even though a funeral was held and his casket was buried in southern Queens, some of his followers refused to acknowledge that the Rebbe had passed away. While the Messianic strain in the community surged, Lubavitcher representatives downplay its influence, calling these ideas fringe. Chaim Pil was only a child then, but to this day says that the Rebbe is alive. Chaim has a wispy beard, wears tefillin, and rocks back and forth as he prays.
“Every generation has believed their leaders were the Messiah, all the way back to the Baal Shem Tov,” Chaim says. “So, of course we do too. The difference with us? We proclaim it, we say it aloud on the street.”
Shmuel sees it differently.
“Do I think the Rebbe is alive? No. Do I think he was the Messiah? No,” he says, but then softens his words. Whether he was a man or something more, whether he is alive or dead, these are not the most important questions for Shmuel. “How do these things affect me day-to-day? They don’t. Whether he is or isn’t, I still have to ask myself, how will I live my life?”
JEWISH TRADITION TEACHES that prayers said at the tombs of holy men will fly straight to heaven. This is why, every year, tens of thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to the grave of the seventh rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. At the graves of tzadikim, prophets like Abraham, David, and Joseph, followers believe God is listening.
The 3rd of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar—July 1st this year—marks 20 years since Schneerson’s death. On a summer afternoon in Queens, cemetery groundskeepers are preparing for the influx of visitors. The grass is newly trimmed and the hedges are manicured. Workers sit in an idling truck with yard tools piled in the back. “We keep this place nice and clean,” one appraises.
Four men stand over Schneerson’s grave. The Rebbe is buried here next to his father-in-law in an enclosed, open-roof structure with cement walls. Candles are lit outside and prayer books in Spanish, Russian, French, and English are stacked against the wall.
A stocky man takes a photo with his iPhone and the other three pray quietly, rocking back and forth. One finishes and backs out of the room, never turning his face to the grave. The quiet is interrupted only by planes from the nearby JFK airport, flying overhead. “A tsadik’s soul is always near his resting place. We don’t visit the grave just to pay respects to the Rebbe,” a middle-aged Hasid explains to me. “We come here so the Rebbe won’t forget us.”
Thousands of handwritten and typed prayers have been torn to bits and scattered at the Rebbe’s grave. They are in Hebrew, Russian, and English. They ask for what we all need to survive—health, family, a livelihood. The papers pile up and rustle in the wind like dried leaves. Pilgrims who come here may not see a miracle performed before their eyes. But faith is believing in what we may not see, the presence of something concealed, accepting that this may be as close as we come.
At the end of every week, the sheaves of paper are raked together and burnt. No prayer is recited. This task is performed not by priests or holy men, but by the maintenance workers who clean the gravesite.
Sam Kestenbaum has worked for Harper’s Magazine and in newsrooms in Sana’a, Ramallah, and Beijing. His writing has appeared in Tikkun Magazine, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere.