News Analysis: Rebbe’s Funeral Offers Glimpse into Post-rebbe Lubavitch Movement
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News Analysis: Rebbe’s Funeral Offers Glimpse into Post-rebbe Lubavitch Movement

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The hastily arranged funeral on Sunday of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, gave a glimpse into the post-rebbe Lubavitch movement.

The funeral and its aftermath revealed centers of power and modes of operation. And the day itself was testimony to the resilience of the movement and its followers.

For all the criticism Lubavitch attracted from other Jewish movements for its messianism, when the unimaginable day came, it went with no mass suicides, conversions or violence.

On this dark day in Lubavitch history, which will become a new Lubavitch holiday, the true nature of its messianism was revealed.

For most Lubavitchers, it was not a belief in a Jesus-like savior. Rather, Lubavitch messianism was a reflection of the love each follower had for the rebbe and their burning hope that an uncertain future and hostile world would be all right.

Lubavitchers wanted their ailing leader to live forever in the same way children want and often believe that their parents should live forever. And so it was mostly the children who lined up along the police barricades who looked the most dazed and who cried as the car with the rebbe’s body sped away to the cemetery.

The death of the rebbe may temporarily galvanize the splintered movement for at least a month during the traditional mourning period. When the rebbe’s predecessor died in 1950, the behind-the-scenes campaign to succeed him picked up steam only after the 30-day period.

It took the Lubavitch movement a full year to appoint Menachem Mendel Schneerson to the helm. He was the seventh rebbe of the movement and, according to many observers, probably the last.

This time succession will be different because the rebbe had no children and no apparent heirs. He left a will, but it does not address the issue of succession.


The rebbe leaves behind four distinct power centers that over the next year will jockey for power and funds.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the rebbe’s spokesman and driver, represents the mainline faction that includes many of the rebbe’s 1,400 emissaries in over 40 countries and many of the movement’s largest financial donors.

Rabbi Leib Groner, a longtime secretary to the rebbe who until recently enjoyed widespread respect and affection among Lubavitch leaders, has been in a classic leadership struggle with Krinsky.

There is little ideological difference between the two men and the people they represent, although they have clashed over the rebbe’s medical treatment and differ in nuance over Lubavitch’s recent messianic upsurge.

The two men and their followers set up camp on different floors of the Manhattan hospital where the rebbe was being treated for the stroke that eventually claimed his life.

Rabbi Shmuel Butman, who heads the influential Lubavitch Youth Organization and the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach, is somewhat of a loose cannon and represents the more feisty, messianic followers of the rebbe.

Last year Butman tried to anoint the rebbe as Moshiach, or Messiah, but had to back down in the face of Krinsky’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

And then there is the 40,000-strong Lubavitch community in Israel, which is centered in Kfar Chabad along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. When reports of the rebbe’s death led the morning news on Israeli radio, most of Kfar Chabad’s 5,000 inhabitants rushed to the bank and then to Ben Gurion Airport to try to secure a seat on any New York-bound flight.

The Israeli branch of Lubavitch is split among numerous leaders and factions, and tends to be more messianic than its Brooklyn-based counterpart. Upon hearing news of the rebbe’s death, Mordechai Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad, wept and said he believed that the rebbe, standing before God now, would ask to be reunited with his followers in this world and to “bring them toward their righteous Messiah.”

While each faction was represented at the ohel, the mausoleum in Queens where the rebbe and his father-in-law are buried, the day clearly belonged to Krinsky and his followers.

It was Krinsky’s office that coordinated the funeral, the logistics, the police, the media, and, most importantly, who had access to the body at Lubavitch headquarters and at the cemetery. When the first group of mourners left the ohel, Groner was among them while Krinsky stayed behind.


The second group that was allowed into the ohel was the shluchim, the emissaries who collected their cemetery passes from Krinsky’s office prior to the funeral and who have depended on Krinsky more and more in the two years that the rebbe was incapacitated.

Amid the crowds, few if any spoke about succession, partly as a sign of respect for the rebbe and partly out of fear of what the battle for succession would bring. Lubavitch’s political and spiritual influence and success in raising hundreds of millions of dollars has been up until now dependent upon the rebbe’s unifying personality and role.

The ad-hoc governing structure in the days following the fuenral has the groups working together, with Krinsky as the gentle but firm coordinator.

As the mourning period passes, the rebbe, even in death, will continue to be the figurehead, the spiritual parent and the inspiration to all Lubavitchers who will study his writings and watch videotapes of his lectures.

Baby boys will be named after him. Some of the rebbe’s ambitious disciples will say they are the rightful ones to interpret the rebbe’s teachings and apply them to the future. Most followers, however, will rededicate themselves to doing good deeds, bringing Judaism to the far corners of the earth.

They will justify the rebbe’s death by saying that the Jewish people were not yet worthy of the Messiah, and they will honor the rebbe’s life with their lives of continued service.

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