Binoculars were the accessory of choice this holiday season in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section.
Followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe flocked to the huge central synagogue of the Hasidic movement, at 770 Eastern Parkway, with binoculars slung around their necks so they could get a close-up look at their beloved leader when he came into public view.
They were not disappointed. On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson made his first public appearance since he suffered a serious stroke in March, and he spent 90 minutes at a time in public on each of the holy days through Simchat Torah.
Watching their rebbe seated on a specially constructed balcony along one wall of the enormous room, observers said they saw a marked improvement in his energy and strength over the 23-day course of the holidays.
“Participating publicly was extremely exhilarating for him, as well as for the crowd and for people around the world,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a top aide to the rebbe and the Hasidic movement’s spokesman. “It was therapeutic for the rebbe. He gets as much encouragement being able to see the people as they get from seeing him.”
In addition to being present and participating in services on each of the holy days and Shabbatot, the rebbe received groups of schoolchildren in his office during the intermediate days of Sukkot who came to wish him a happy holiday.
As news of his Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur appearances spread among Lubavitchers around the world, thousands made last-minute arrangements and flew in to see him for themselves during the last days of Sukkot.
Huge numbers of Lubavitcher Hasidim, as many as 10,000 by some estimates, crowded their way into the synagogue on the last two holy days, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, all jockeying furiously for a view of their rebbe.
The women and girls hung over the edge of the two balconies along the long walls of the room, wedged tightly together, craning their necks for a glimpse of their spiritual leader.
Newcomers to the packed women’s section were asked if they had seen the rebbe. If not, they were pushed to the front, where they could take in the view for a few moments before being shoved aside to make room for someone else.
Downstairs, the main floor was a sea of bearded faces shining with perspiration and ecstatic joy. The room was so crowded, with not an inch of space between the men, that when one lost his balance it began a domino effect around the room.
Dozens of knots of black-hatted men, four at a time, danced in tiny circles around the shul, celebrating the joy of the holiday they were sharing with their rebbe.
The dancing and singing and pushing and shoving got so intense that several men fainted and had to be carried outside to be revived.
At several points during the last festive days, thousands of men began singing “Melech ha-Mashiach,” or “King Messiah.”
Some in the crowd said the rebbe looked disapprovingly at the crowd when he heard the words. Others were not so sure.
“Let’s face it, people feel that the rebbe is Mashiach, “said one Lubavitcher, using the Hebrew word for Messiah. “This is their most heartfelt emotion.”