Chabad Struggle over Rebbe’s Shul Finds Its Way to New York’s High Court

The messianist controversy that has been tearing apart the Crown Heights Lubavitch community for more than a decade is now before the New York state Supreme Court. The case pits the leadership of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement against a handful of young messianists and the trustees of Congregation Lubavitch Inc., the group that controls the movement’s main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The case ostensibly turns on the wording of a commemorative plaque on the outside wall of the shul.

But what really is at stake is who controls the synagogue where the late Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, used to pray. It is the shul where he would hold his farbrengens — mass celebrations where he would discourse to thousands of his disciples, men and women who hung on his every word.

For the better part of the decade since Schneerson’s death in 1994, the 770 synagogue has been considered a stronghold of the messianists, a vocal minority of Lubavitchers who, against the wishes of the Chabad leadership, publicly declare that Schneerson is the Messiah.

In the synagogue’s main sanctuary, a banner proclaiming Schneerson the Messiah is strung across a side wall. Many prominent Lubavitchers, including much of the movement’s leadership, don’t go inside at all.

The case before the court represents the most decisive action yet by Chabad’s leadership against this messianist faction.

Plaintiffs in the case are Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch and Agudas Chassidei Chabad, two of the three central bodies of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Pitted against them are three Lubavitch yeshiva students and Congregation Lubavitch Inc., a nonprofit formed after Schneerson’s death that lays claim to control of the synagogue.

The small plaque affixed to the wall outside the shul’s main entrance commemorates Schneerson’s laying of the building’s cornerstone.

When it was first put up in 1995, the plaque referred to Schneerson in Hebrew as “of blessed memory,” the traditional Jewish term for a deceased person. It was defaced almost immediately and the phrase was scratched out by, it was widely presumed, messianists, who oppose any suggestion that the rebbe is dead.

The defaced plaque remained up until Nov. 4, 2004, when some young Lubavitchers, including the three named defendants in the current case, removed it in the middle of the night and tried to replace it with a plaque that referred to Schneerson as the Moshiach, or Messiah.

They were caught in the act, arrested and their new plaque was removed under police guard.

The conflict escalated: Merkos hired installers to replace the original, non-Messianist plaque, they were met by groups who pushed and shoved them, the police got involved and Merkos got a temporary restraining order against the three young men. Then Congregation Lubavitch Inc. tried to have the restraining order voided on the grounds that its gabbais, as duly elected trustees, were the only ones who should control the plaque, the synagogue and the surrounding buildings.

The restraining order stood, barricades went up, guards were posted and Merkos’ plaque was finally affixed — and then vandalized by a blow torch.

It wasn’t the first time violence erupted at the shul between Messianists and non-Messianists.

Police have been called in, police have been attacked, charges filed and young Lubavitchers have been arrested on more than one occasion.

But things came to a head last winter, and in early March, Agudas was brought into the case as co-plaintiff and Congregation Lubavitch Inc. became a co-defendant along with the three men involved with the plaque incident.

According to court documents from March, Merkos and Agudas are requesting, among other things, that the defendants be permanently enjoined from interfering with the new plaque.

They also want the court to declare that Congregation Lubavitch Inc. has “no right, title or interest in” the synagogue, and that control rightfully belongs to Merkos and Agudas.

The trustees of Congregation Lubavitch Inc., for their part, responded in a brief May 25 that the case isn’t about a plaque as much as it’s about Merkos and Agudas trying to impose their own views about the messianic conflict on the rest of the Chabad community. As such, they say, it is an internal religious dispute, and the court has no business getting involved.

“This court is constitutionally prohibited in meddling in internal religious disputes, from deciding issues of religious dogma, or from establishing or favoring the religious beliefs of any religious sect or faction,” states the defendant’s brief. “However, that is exactly what Plaintiffs have asked and are asking the court to do.”

The defendants’ May 25 brief also sought to sever the congregation’s case from the complaints made against the three yeshiva students.

As concerns the plaque, the Congregation Lubavitch Inc. brief states that the “of blessed memory” reference is “an insult to the majority of the worshippers” who come to the 770 synagogue, “because a significant portion of the Lubavitch religious community do not believe it is appropriate to refer to Rebbe Schneerson as a memory,” but believe instead “that he may be the Moshiach.”

The trustees from Congregation Lubavitch Inc. say they tried to put up their own, “neutral” plaque that doesn’t refer to Schneerson at all, but were prevented from doing so by the restraining order.

Defense lawyers submitted affidavits from various supporters to show that most Lubavitchers believe Schneerson is the Messiah, and that Schneerson ordered that disputes be handled internally by the Beit Din, or rabbinic court, of Crown Heights, the section of Brooklyn where Chabad headquarters are located.

Noting that the synagogue entrance is now blocked by barricades and a 24-hour guard, the brief further states that “the synagogue now looks like a crime scene, and worshippers who do not agree with Plaintiffs’ religious message are offended every day when they enter the synagogue for prayer.”

Neither side would speak on the record, as the case is still under litigation. The plaintiffs are expected to respond to the defendants’ claims at the next hearing, scheduled for June 22.

But the conflict has spilled over into the Crown Heights community, sources say. Things have gotten so heated that a blog, or Web journal, sprang up last December — 770blogger.blogspot.com — to chronicle ongoing events.

“Hysteria in this community has gone through the roof,” wrote the blogger in his first posting on Dec. 19.

“Our community’s shuls and shtieblach are overflowing with young, normal people who cannot stand to go to 770,” he wrote, adding “it’s too painful to come into the place so many like to consider home.”

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