Tens of thousands of Chasidic Jews flocked to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood to pay tribute to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died here early Sunday morning at the age of 92.
A monumental figure in the modern-day Jewish world who headed the Chabad movement of Lubavitcher Chasidim, Schneerson was mourned by followers around the globe, many of whom believed him to be the Messiah.
At Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, thousands of mourners gathered Sunday afternoon under overcast skies to join the funeral procession to the cemetery in Queens where the rebbe was laid to rest.
Known to hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide as simply “the rebbe,” Schneerson was seventh in a line of Lubavitch rabbis dating back to 18th century Russia.
He left no heirs to assume leadership over the fervently Orthodox movement he headed for 44 years.
As a result, the rebbe’s death leaves a gaping leadership vacuum in the Lubavitch movement, which claims hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide, as well as Chabad outreach centers across the globe.
Schneerson had been hospitalized last February after suffering repeated seizures stemming from a stroke he had in 1992, which paralyzed the right side of his body and left him bedridden and unable to communicate.
On March 10, Schneerson suffered a second stroke, which doctors said “seriously weakened” the left side of his body.
Though officials of the Lubavitch movement were characteristically optimistic about the rebbe’s condition in his final weeks, when he lay unconscious supported by a respirator, they were forced to concede that his condition had deteriorated.
During the week preceding his death, the rebbe had suffered kidney failure. At 7 p.m. Saturday, he went into cardiac arrest, but his condition was later stabilized. At 12:55 a.m. Sunday, the rebbe suffered a second cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 1:50 a.m.
CROWDS ESTIMATED AT 35,000
Schneerson was buried Sunday afternoon next to his wife, Chaya Moussia, and his father-in-law — Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the previous Lubavitcher rebbe — at Old Montefiore Cemetery.
While attendance at the burial was restricted, there was an emotional scene earlier in Crown Heights, as followers waited for their first glimpse of the rebbe’s coffin.
According to police estimates, some 35,000 people were gathered outside Lubavitch head-quarters waiting for the coffin to be brought outside.
When the plain pine coffin appeared, the scene became one of emotional mayhem, with women wailing and men pressing forward to touch it.
The 350 police who were on the scene could barely contain the surging crowds, and the pallbearers had difficulty getting the coffin into a waiting hearse.
Despite the sudden rush to the coffin from the sea of black-hatted mourners, no injuries were reported.
The crowds walked behind the slowly moving vehicle, which led them on a processional through the Crown Heights neighborhood.
Some 50 buses were waiting to take some of the rebbe’s followers to the cemetery after the procession was over.
Among the dignitaries present at Lubavitch headquarters were New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s opposition Likud bloc; Gad Yaacobi, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; Colette Avital, Israeli consul general in New York; and Lester Pollack and Malcolm Hoenlein, the chairman and executive vice chairman respectively of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
‘THIS IS NOT THE END’
In Israel, the focus of mourning was Kfar Chabad, the village that is the center of the Israeli Lubavitch movement.
On Sunday morning, a stunned follower told Israel Radio: “This is not the end. The rebbe will return. He will be with us from on high. He is but dead in nature; in reality he lives forever.”
Crowds of Lubavitcher Chasidim mobbed Ben-Gurion International Airport, offering to pay cash for any ticket that might get them to the funeral.
El Al Israel Airlines scheduled an extra flight on a jumbo jet for some 450 of the rebbe’s followers. But neither El Al nor any of the foreign airlines that serve Israel had other craft they could divert for the thousands who thronged into the departure area.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin saluted the rebbe as a great scholar who had made a vast contribution to the entire Jewish people.
“The rebbe’s loss is a loss for all of the Jewish people,” he said. “A great sage is gone, a distinguished leader.”
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres described the rebbe as “a leader of the highest stature, a great man and a scholar, who labored selflessly on behalf of Jews of the Soviet Union and other countries behind the Iron Curtain.”
Representing Israel at the funeral, at the express wish of Rabin and the Chabad movement, was Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau.
With his long white beard and piercing blue eyes, Schneerson was a charismatic, magnetic presence whose talks and writings on Jewish mysticism and philosophy were central to Lubavitch thought.
When he became immobilized and unable to communicate after the 1992 stroke, his circle of aides rushed to fill the power vacuum.
But in the rebbe’s absence, conflict arose over the course of the movement, and particularly over the campaign to declare Schneerson as the Messiah.
According to Jewish tradition, there is a potential Messiah in every generation who will reveal himself if and when the world is ready.
In their effort to get the rebbe to emerge and declare himself the Messiah, Lubavitchers stressed the importance of performing mitzvot, or religious commandments.
Even those in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who had not acknowledged that the rebbe was the Messiah nonetheless attributed to him the qualities necessary for being the world’s savior. Many others, both within and outside the movement, described him as the foremost Jewish personality of modern times.
His death leaves nobody at the helm of the Lubavitch movement, which was founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Since its founding, the movement has always had a rebbe, or spiritual leader.
NO APPARENT SUCCESSOR
But because the rebbe left no descendants or a designated successor, Chabad — an acronym which stands for the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and faith — has been left with no apparent leader for the first time in its history.
Caught up in the belief that the rebbe had messianic powers and potential, the Lubavitchers would never even discuss the possibility of his passing and therefore prepared no one to take his place.
Within the last year, thousands of his followers at the 770 Eastern Parkway headquarters in Brooklyn would burst into singing “We want Moshiach now.”
Sometimes, in the rebbe’s presence, they would chant rhythmically, “Long live our master, our teacher, our rabbi, the King Messiah forever and ever.”
Much controversy arose when the rebbe’s followers burst into this song after Schneerson suffered a stroke two years ago. At the time, the rebbe seemed to pump his one good arm up and down, as though conducting this specific chant.
Many in the Lubavitch community claimed he was thereby acknowledging that he was the Messiah.
His followers cited many worldly occurrences that, to them, proved that the rebbe was the harbinger of the end of days.
The leadership of the Chabad movement was riven by disputes over whether to proclaim him the Messiah.
At the end of January, a group of followers was going to try to anoint the rebbe as “King Messiah.”
Only a last-minute move to prevent the rebbe from appearing prevented the ceremony from taking place.
During the rebbe’s final illness, the Lubavitchers, through their telephone hot line, would call for more fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, the reciting of psalms, learning Torah and giving tzedakah, or charity, in multiples of 92, so that the rebbe would reach that age.
The hot-line message was often spoken by a rabbi who was crying.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Dvorah Getzler in Jerusalem.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.