Behind the Headlines: One Year After Rebbe’s Death, Lubavitcher Soul Burns Bright

In the year since the Lubavitcher rebbe died, memorial candles have burned continuously in the homes of his followers.

“I lost two parents and nothing, nothing was like losing the rebbe,” said Miriam Swerdlow, a prominent member of Crown Heights’ Lubavitch community, her voice growing jagged with pain as she spoke about the year since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died.

“Don’t use the word `yahrzeit,’” she said, referring to the first anniversary of his death, which falls, according to the Hebrew calendar, on July 1. “I just can’t take it.”

The yahrzeit is being marked this week by commemorations all over the world in which Lubavitchers and non-Lubavitchers will testify about the impact the rebbe has had on their lives.

In Crown Heights, the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where the movement is based, a series of memorials is taking place, including sessions in people’s homes devoted to the study of the “moshiach,” or messiah, whom many Lubavitchers had believed the rebbe to be.

A large observance in the main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitch headquarters, is being run by the rabbis of the movement;s rabbinical honor.

And in Washington on Wednesday, the rebbe was slated to be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

But for Chasidim in the Lubavitch movement, also known as Chabad, the past year has involved much more than organizing commemorations and visiting the cemetery in Queens, N.Y., where he is buried.

The rebbe’s Chasidim have used their grief to fuel an expansion of his network of far-flung emissaries and institutions that serve Jews worldwide from cradle to grave.

They are working in Crown Heights, blueprints for a major expansion of Lubavitch headquarters are being drawn up, according to Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, who served the rebbe for decades as his aide, spokesman and driver.

Krinsky, who is executor of the rebbe’s estate and has long been deeply involved in the running of day-to-day affairs of much of the Lubavitch network of organizations, said that in addition to the plans to expand, there are plans to “create a museum and Jewish community center.”

The current headquarters, known simply as “770,” contains the main lubavitch synagogue, a vast underground library/archive with hundreds of thousands of volumes of Judaica, a small museum-gallery, a warren of offices and the apartment in which the rebbe’s in-laws lived after arriving in America in 1940, as well as the room the rebbe himself used as his office.

The porch in the main Lubavitch synagogue, onto which the ailing rebbe was wheeled by his aides during the last two years of his life, has been turned into an extension of the women’s balcony.

The small room that served as the rebbe’s office during his entire tenure, and as his home from the time his wife died in 1988, has been preserved not as a sacrosanct relic but has been altered to serve as a living vessel for the rebbe’s legacy.

Some of the furniture, including the bed, has been removed. The rest has been pushed into a corner.

An ark for Torahs has been installed and today the room is filled day and night with the prayers of the rebbe’s disciples.

Rabbi Sholom Gansburg, who served as the rebbe’s personal aide for many years, rearranged the shelves of books lining two walls of the room and covered them with sheets of glass to protect the worn volumes.

The changes extend far beyond Crown Heights.

All over the world, in as many towns and cities as there are Lubavitcher Chasidim, the work of the rebbe, who died at age 94, continues.

A total of 3,200 Lubavitch emissaries, men and women, labor to bring Jews around the world closer to Torah Judaism.

One hundred new couples have been sent to locations as disparate as Vilna, Lithuania; Marumbi, Brazil; and New London, Conn.

To bond together and commemorate the rebbe, each of the approximately 1,600 male emissaries recites part of the Talmud each day in addition to studying the rebbe’s own discourses, according to Rabbi Moshe Feller, regional director of the St. Paul, Minn-based Upper Midwest Lubavitch.

“Every day the whole Talmud is completed by the rebbe’s shluchim,” he said, using the Yiddish for emissaries. “That’s tremendous bonding among the Chasidim.”

Since the rebbe’s death, roughly $200 million worth of new capital projects have been initiated by Chabad emissaries all over the world, according to Zalman Shmotkin, an aide to krinsky.

As recently as Sunday, ground was broken for what will be a $40 million Lubavitch synagogue and Jewish program campus in Detroit.

In Paris, a $10 million complex centered around a girls school is half built and in Bal Harbour, Fla., a $10 million synagogue complex has been completed.

Rabbi Chaim Schmukler of Chabad of New Mexico says of the increased contributions to his organization: “I can’t attribute it to the rebbe’s passing. Just because, thank God, we’re growing.”

The work continues not just in real places, but also in cyberspace, where Lubavitchers have created a significant presence, setting up chat rooms and study sessions.

“Things are growing, expanding, not just staying at the status quo,” Krinsky said.

The fractiousness among the rebbe’s aides and their supporters during the last two years of Schneerson’s life, which some observers said interfered with his medical care and threatened the Lubavitch enterprise, seems to have ebbed – - with Krinsky emerging as the apparent victor.

Named as executor of the rebbe’s estate in his will, Krinsky is spearheading the work of expanding Chabad’s reach.

But that does not mean that Krinsky’s detractors have disappeared.

In-fighting in Crown Heights earlier this year over the elections to the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council included threats between some of the contenders. Although Krinsky was not directly involved in the elections, the battle was viewed as a contest between those who support his views and those who support others.

And in his effort to collect every book that belonged to the rebbe but was lent out over the years, Krinsky is considering bringing suit against those who will not return the property to Agudas Chasedei Chabad, the umbrella organization that was bequeathed the rebbe’s property.

Despite the divisions, though, everyone goes on doing what they believe the rebbe wants them to do.

“It’s part of a normal evolution. We’re all trying to articulate the rebbe’s leadership the way we understand it,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad in Yorba Linda, Calif.

The messianic fervor, which, at its peak during the rebbe’s illness had its adherents frenzied in anticipation that he would reveal himself as the redeemer, has abated somewhat.

Nonetheless, those whose belief that the rebbe is the messiah has not been dimmed by his death continue to publicize their message. Billboard, radio and cable television marketing campaigns in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, Paris and Israel, have cost about $1 million in the past year, according to Rabbi Shmuel Butman.

Butman, who continues to spearhead the “moshiach” campaign from Crown Heights, has not been daunted by the death of the rebbe or the passing of time.

The rebbe “is absolutely not dead like other people are,” Butman said.

“Yes, there was a funeral, but the rebbe is alive. He will reveal himself as moshiach any day,” he said, adding, “The time we will have to endure without his physical presence will be a very short one.”

Even among those who believe that the rebbe did indeed pass away, acceptance of his death has come slowly.

Some Lubavitchers talk about the rebbe only in present tense. Many switch back and forth between past and present tenses and some just do not want to talk about it at all.

No one refers to the rebbe’s death as death.

Most refer to it by its Hebrew date, calling it “Gimel Tammuz,” the third day of the month of Tammuz.

Some call it “the event,” and everyone knows which event they mean. The closest anyone comes is when they refer to it as “the passing.”

And just about all Lubavitchers say they are acutely aware of the rebbe’s constant presence in their lives, pushing them to carry on his work.

And since his death, many Lubavitch parents have named their newborn sons Menachem Mendel.

On the first yahrzeit of the rebbe’s death, the memorial candles in Lubavitchers’ homes around the world will be extinguished.

But the fire sparked by the rebbe in their hearts will continue to burn brightly.

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