Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

In Crown Heights, Confusion, Grief and Fervent Prayers for Redemption

June 13, 1994
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

People were not talking much Sunday outside Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights.

But the sound of tambourines and chants of “Melech ha-Moshiach” — the Chasidic movement’s call for the biblically prophesied Messiah — could be heard all along Eastern Parkway, the main thoroughfare of the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Though the movement’s 92-year-old spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had died of a heart attack just a few hours earlier, the determination that the rebbe would still reveal himself as the Messiah was heard amid the prayers of mourning.

“I think the rebbe’s going to redeem us,” 19-year-old Yehoshua Smukler said as he stepped away from a circle of dancing men. “He’s going to get up and take us into redemption.”

Others in the tightknit community struggled silently to manage their grief among the throngs of reporters, police officers and public figures who had descended upon Crown Heights to witness the funeral.

Behind a maze of police barricades, hundreds of men in black fedoras lined up for a chance to view Schneerson’s body, or took refuge under white prayer shawls in the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.

Upstairs in Lubavitch headquarters, where Schneerson had managed the movement’s vast network of religious outreach services, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky tried to paint a picture of business as usual.

“We know pretty much what the rebbe wants of us,” said Krinsky, the movement’s official spokesman and a close aide to the rebbe. He pointed out that in the 27 months since the rebbe’s first stroke, the movement had grown by 20 percent. “That continues,” Krinsky said quietly. “That will always continue.”


But Krinsky, his blue suit torn in a gesture of mourning, also insisted that the movement be given time to sort itself out. “We all feel that we lost a father, we feel orphaned,” he said. “You should give us a chance to wrestle with that.”

Word of the rebbe’s passing spread almost instantaneously to the movement’s offices across the globe by facsimile, electronic mail and telephone. Television cameras crowded the Crown Heights headquarters while Lubavitch representatives in South America and Australia called to arrange live satellite hookups to the funeral.

Leib Simcha Meadvin, a 30-ish man dressed in the traditional Chasidic black hat and coat, said the community had been in denial about the possibility of the rebbe’s death and now does not know how to handle it.

“There’s all these people running around without answers. No one wanted to think about it before, and now that they have to think about it — I don’t know.”

Like some others standing out in the rain on Eastern Parkway, Meadvin said that this generation simply may not have done enough to merit redemption by the Messiah.

“Maybe,” he said, “we have to do more.”

Recommended from JTA