Move over Richard Simmons. Here comes the Lubavitcher rebbe, starring in a 30- minute “Moshiach Infomercial,” slated for production this spring and to air, on network and cable television, by the end of the year.
A two-minute commercial on the same topic is also in the works, according to Rami Antian, treasurer of the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach, and producer of the commercials.
“Every goy, every creature in the world, will say long live the Lubavitcher rebbe, King Moshiach forever and ever,” said Antian, who adds that the campaign to promote the view that the late rebbe is the messiah will be taken beyond the Lubavitch movement and will target the general population, Jews and non-Jews alike.
If a recent international satellite video broadcast celebrating the 46th anniversary of the day that Menachem Mendel Schneerson accepted the mantle of Lubavitch leadership is any guide, the Incomercial will splice together videos from when the rebbe was alive with images of his followers today to make it look as if he is still physically among them.
For the Jan. 31 telecast the rebbe’s table and velvet-covered chair were set up at Lubavitch headquarters as they were when he was alive, and Lubavitch movement elders were seen lined up behind the chair as they did when their leader was actually in the room.
Schneerson died on June 12, 1994.
“It was just like a farbrengen,” or prayer gathering led by the rebbe, said Rabbi Shmuel Butman, chairman of the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach.
The event brought together thousands of Lubavitch followers in Brooklyn, Moscow, 17 Israeli cities, Antwerp, Johannesburg, Melbourne and Paris, among other places, and was declared by its organizers to be an event “to declare the rebbe as King Moshiach.”
It cost $500,000 to accomplish, said Antian.
Antian, who says that he made millions of dollars when he took his N.J.-based detergent company public last year, is the major funding source behind the moshiach campaign.
He does not believe that the rebbe died, and refuses to visit the cemetery where many Lubavitchers make periodic pilgrimages to pray and ask for their rebbe’s heavenly intercession.
“The rebbe is physically alive,” said Antian in an interview in his New York television production studios, where he is preparing to launch the Global Shopping Network, which will compete with the cable television Home Shopping Network and QVC.
Schneerson “is living in 770,” said Antian, using shorthand for the address of the Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, where the rebbe lived as well as worked.
“We don’t know where in 770. We can’t see him” because “it’s an optical illusion,” said Antian. “He cannot be buried and will live forever.”
Antian, with a group of about 18 other promoters of the rebbe as moshiach campaign – several of them not religious, Antian said – are prepared to spend “up to $10 million” to convince the world that Schneerson is the messiah, he said.
For the rebbe’s birthday, which is a few days before the start of Passover, they hope to hook up 70 different cities by satellite.
While the campaign’s major publicity push, which also includes several billboards in New Jersey heralding the rebbe as “King Messiah,” seems to be attracting some adherents, it also has its detractors.
It has deeply divided the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights and around the world as people on both sides of the debate accuse each other of all kinds of nefarious plotting.
Both sides say that 99.9 percent of all Lubavitchers share their view of whether the rebbe is the messiah.
Butman said in an interview that if a follower of the rebbe says that Schneerson did die, and may not come back as the messiah, then he is not truly a Lubavitcher Chasid.
“It is very clear from the rebbe himself that he is moshiach, and that there can be no difference of opinion within Lubavitch, because Lubavitch and difference are a contradiction in terms,” he said.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky said in a statement that the view on the rebbe as moshiach of Butman and his associates “in no way reflects the movement’s position.”
Krinsky, the long-time spokesman for the rebbe and now a director of Agudas Chassidei Chabad-Lubavitch, the umbrella organization for the movement’s network of synagogues, schools and social service programs, refused repeated requests for an interview.
“While we do not intend to preclude expressions of individual opinion, they are, in fact, misleading and a grave offense to the dignity and expressed desires of the Rebbe,” Krinsky said.
“The Rebbe’s words are now being distorted and quoted out of context by a numbered few. This behavior, even if well intended, is antithetical in the extreme to all that Lubavitch represents as defined by the Rebbe.”
Shmuel Spritzer is one of a growing number of Lubavitchers who, every time they mention “the rebbe,” add the reference “Melech HaMoshiach,” or King Messiah.
“The rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach, is alive physically at this moment,” said Spritzer in an interview at the office of Bais Moshiach (House of the Messiah) magazine, a weekly periodical named for 770 Eastern Parkway.
No one can see the rebbe because “tzadikim (righteous sages) have two bodies, one in which they physically lived and another in which they move around. They can be in more than one place at once,” said Spritzer, a member of the magazine’s board.
“The rebbe will reveal himself, no question,” he said.
Butman, a long-time leader of the messianist faction of Lubavitch, disagrees with Antian and Spritzer about where the rebbe is.
He believes that the rebbe did die, but that “the physical passing represents a temporary stage” before the rebbe rises from his grave in the St. Albans section of Queens in New York City and reveals himself as the messiah.
A belief that the dead will be resurrected after the Messiah arrives is part of traditional Judaism.
Butman believes, however, that the rebbe and a few other great leaders of the Jewish people, will rise before the revelation of the messiah, and then the rebbe will make it clear that he is the redeemer.
Butman quotes essays written and talks given by the rebbe to back up his view, and cites as proof of the verity of his position the fact that the rebbe wrote in one essay “the resurrection of unique individuals has taken place, and will occur even before the coming of Moshiach.”
An informal survey of Chasidim walking down Crown Heights’ main street on a recent evening revealed that most people didn’t have an opinion on the matter, or didn’t want to get involved in “the politics” of the situation.
Yitzchak Rimler, at work behind the counter at his father’s Judaica and book store on Kingston Avenue, said that “We all want it and pray for moshiach to come, but you have to be crazy to say that the rebbe is physically here.”
“Most people are sheep,” said one Lubavitch woman, who asked that her name not be used. “Most people walk into 770 and say `Yechi’ (the chant proclaiming the rebbe as the messiah) whether they think it’s true or not.
“Lubavitch is being hijacked, and I worry about its future,” she said. “A lot of kids are going to leave Lubavitch because they’ll become disillusioned.”
The continual promotion of the rebbe as the messiah is beginning to have an impact on the work that Lubavitchers do to continue the work that the rebbe inspired.
Teenage boys from the Crown Heights community go out into the streets and offices of Manhattan on Friday afternoons before the Sabbath, to urge men to put on tefillin and women to light Shabbat candles.
Several boys were kicked out of one office on a recent Friday, said the woman, and accused of being un-Jewish because of the rebbe as messiah campaign.
“I can’t believe this will continue forever because the rest of the world doesn’t accept this. They [the messianists] might as well be Christians,” she said.
Antian, however, said that the accusations are no deterrent..
“The rebbe made each of us a prophet, and all prophets were unpopular,” he said.
“Who looks to be popular? We look to be true.”
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.