NEW YORK (Apr. 13)
Crown Heights looked as if it were hosting a Winnebago convention, as 90 Mitzvah Tanks were readied for Tuesday’s celebration of the 90th birthday of the Lubavitcher rebbe.
The convoy was scheduled to be dispersed all over the New York metropolitan area, each Mitzvah Tank blaring Hasidic melodies, filled with black-hatted men passing out hand-made “shmura” matzot and instructional pamphlets about the observance of Passover.
It seemed a fitting way to pay tribute to a man who has made the spread of “Torah-true” Judaism his hallmark and turned his Hasidic movement into the best-known Orthodox Jewish organization in the world.
But as birthday celebrations take place throughout the world from a small Mitzvah Tank convoy in Australia to a gathering of 12,000 in Tel Aviv attended by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir — the joy of the rebbe’s followers is tempered by apprehension.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is not expected to make an appearance at any of the events in his honor, remains seriously weakened following a stroke seven’ weeks ago that left him partially paralyzed. Those closest to him say they see his health improve every day.
But his condition leaves open the question of who might succeed Schneerson as leader of the influential movement.
Among Lubavitchers, there is no discussion of what might happen if the rebbe died. He has no children and is not known to have groomed an heir. Many followers are convinced that their rebbe is the Messiah, whose imminent arrival Schneerson has been predicting with great fervor over the past year.
In the 42 years of his tenure, the rebbe has almost single-handedly built what was a small enclave of a few thousand Jews in Brooklyn into an empire that spans the globe and includes an estimated 100,000 loyal adherents.
MILLIONS LOOK TO HIM FOR GUIDANCE
Chabad-Lubavitch, as the organization is known, has over 1,300 institutions, including synagogues, Chabad houses, yeshivas, day schools, libraries, day camps and drug treatment centers.
The word Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the principles on which the Lubavitch ethic is based: wisdom, understanding and faith.
The rebbe has sent thousands of families to live and work as his emissaries in the far-flung corners of the world. Some 3,000 families in .1,300 locations from Anchorage to Kinshasa, Zaire, are presently on “shlichus.”
Until 1975, the rebbe would meet privately with anyone who wanted to do so the meek and the famous, plumbers and heads of state.
He had to curtail his schedule after a heart attack, but instituted the now-famous Sunday ritual instead.
Until his recent stroke, Lubavitchers and non-Lubavitchers alike would wait in line for hours every Sunday in order to spend a moment with the rebbe and be blessed by him.
“He has given his blessing, and wondrous miracles became fulfilled,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, one of the rebbe’s three most trusted advisers. “People were healed and women, childless until then, had babies. It has happened to dozens and dozens of people.”
Some of his followers won’t make a move without his blessing. They ask him about decisions large and small — from whether to marry a particular person to whether to buy a new car.
And now they are praying for him. Groups of Chabadniks around the world have coordinated their prayers in an around-the-clock vigil to help speed his recovery. About 15,000 followers are expected at Lubavitcher headquarters in Brooklyn on Tuesday for prayers on the rebbe’s birthday.
“Millions and millions of people, many of whom don’t belong to any synagogue or movement, look to the rebbe for guidance and support Lubavitch institutions,” Krinsky said.
To illustrate his point, Krinsky said that the Crown Heights Hotline, a pay-phone service not officially connected to the Lubavitch organization, had “close to 180,000 calls during the month of March from people wanting to know about the rebbe’s health.
“Add that to the many thousands of calls made directly to Chabad, and there must have been millions of calls to see how the rebbe was doing,” he said.
His followers “feel this is their leader, their guide, their mentor, most of all, someone who identifies with each and every one of them,” Krinsky said.