Rebbe’s Health is Deteriorating Amid Doubts About His Treatment

The Lubavitcher rebbe’s health has deteriorated to the point where he is almost completely blinded by cataracts, has lost physical mobility and is a virtual prisoner in his own room, say medical experts involved in his care as consultants.

The worsening health of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is of deep concern not only to the thousands of his followers in the Lubavitch Chasidic movement, many of whom regard him as a potential Messiah, but also to Jews all over the world who consider the rebbe a Jewish spiritual leader unparalleled in this generation.

The doctors directly involved in the rebbe’s care say that the main impediment to his recovery from the massive stroke he suffered 22 months ago is the rebbe himself, who has refused to participate in physical therapy.

But none of them, they admit, wants to force the rebbe to do anything he does not want to do, though stroke patients of lesser stature are regularly told by their doctors what they must do to recover.

This deference to the rebbe’s wishes has prompted some of the medical consultants to charge that the rebbe is not receiving the kind of care necessary for his recovery. They note that none of the doctors directly involved in his care is an expert in geriatrics or stroke rehabilitation.

“The longer you wait (to start therapy), the more likely it is that he will die, and you’ll never see the rebbe again,” said Dr. Jonathan Lieff, chief of geriatric medical psychiatry at Hahnemann Hospital in Boston and a supervising consultant to 200 nursing homes.

“You can’t just let it go on and on like this,” he said.

In a Dec. 4 conference call with Lubavitch shlichim, or emissaries, Lieff said he had visited and examined the rebbe several times but had been prohibited from doing so for four months. However, he is in touch with the doctors who care for the rebbe.

A recording of that conference call has been circulated in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where the rebbe and his Lubavitch movement are based, and was obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

APPROACH IS TO ‘HIDE THE REBBE’

The problem, say Lieff and others, is that Rabbi Leib Groner, one of the rebbe’s top aides, is in sole control of access to the rebbe and that no one who disagrees with his philosophy is permitted access to the Lubavitch leader.

“Rabbi Groner told me directly he believes the rebbe should not be allowed in public because he would be an embarrassment to the Chasidim, and he is trying to shelter the rebbe,” said Lieff.

“In the vacuum of leadership. Rabbi Groner is in essence functioning as the rebbe, making all decisions and not allowing the rebbe any freedom of any kind that I can see. His approach is to hide the rebbe from the world and cover this whole thing up,” Lieff said during the call.

Repeated attempts to reach Groner for comment were unsuccessful.

In response to the charges made on that tape, one of the doctors who was criticized and is centrally involved in the rebbe’s care, Dr. Eli Rosen, a Crown Heights general practitioner, made his own tape on Dec. 18 and has had it distributed throughout the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Rosen and the other doctors on the team treating the rebbe said that they have done everything medically and therapeutically possible, and that the rebbe’s deterioration is due to no one but the rebbe himself.

As far back as two months after his March 3, 1992 stroke, the rebbe began refusing efforts by physical therapists to treat him, they said in the taped conversation.

“The rebbe was in charge. The rebbe worked with who the rebbe wanted to work with,” said Rosen. “The limiting factor throughout was the rebbe himself.”

When the rebbe indicated that he did not want to continue a therapy session, “none of his Chasidim would ever contradict his opinion, though it may have been necessary,” said Dr. Yosef Minkowitz, a Toronto cardiologist who was brought in to work as the coordinator of the rebbe’s medical team in early October.

“None of us have the guts,” he said during the Dec. 18 taped conversation.

“We dictate to patients in any hospital what needs to be done, but no one here dictates to the rebbe,” he said. “No one has the right to dictate to him what needs to be done.”

TREATMENT BASED ON ‘NODS OF HIS HEAD’

Rosen defended the way the rebbe was allowed to decline his physical therapy, comparing the protective efforts of the rebbe’s secretaries to a child protecting his parent.

“It seems reasonable to me that any child of any parent should be able to protect the parent from a therapist who seemed insensitive to the needs of the parent,” he said.

Several others took issue with that approach.

One resident of Crown Heights, said, “The rebbe can’t speak, can hardly hear, so how do you know what he’s saying? A stroke patient is helpless, so we cannot justify what we are doing to the rebbe medically based on nods of his head,” she said.

A big part of the problem is that the Lubavitch community wants to believe that the rebbe is still capable of making his own decisions.

“People in Crown Heights feel basically helpless. People would really rather believe the rebbe is in control through Leibel Groner, and they say if you question what we’re saying you’re saying that the rebbe is not the rebbe,” said the Crown Heights resident.

According to Yaakov Spritzer, a businessman in Crown Heights and a prominent community member, the rebbe knows exactly what’s going on.

“Today I would never allow a member of my family to have surgery without his consent, and I consult with him on all major business dealings,” said Spritzer.

“Anyone who says differently is basically denying belief in the power of the one we believe to be the Moses of our generation,” he said in an interview in his dining room, with a life-size oil portrait of the rebbe looking down over the table.

Said the woman from Crown Heights, “I don’t know what will happen. It can’t get worse. It’s like the rebbe is like a living dead man already. I hope Moshiach comes.”

The JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published Monday, Jan. 3.

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