770 Eastern Parkway-Home of the Messiah?
Orthodox and Lubavitch Judaism

 

On 770 Eastern Parkway, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, stands the former home of the man whose followers regarded him as holy. The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom many believed to be the messiah himself, was the leader of the Lubavitch movement of Chassidic Judaism for forty-four years. Rabbi Schneerson lived in New York for more than fifty years, and almost single-handedly created one of the largest minority communities in Brooklyn. Religious Jews from all sects concentrated in areas all over Brooklyn such as Crown Heights, Boro Park, and around Ocean Parkway. This phenomenon attracted religious and non-religious Jews from all over the world to visit Brooklyn and meet religious leaders among whom Rabbi Schneerson was the most prominent figure. Rabbi Schneerson not only represented an icon to his followers, but was also heralded universally as a very influential and moral figure. President Clinton spoke these words at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony that took place after the Rabbi's death:

"The late Rebbe's eminence as a moral leader for our country was recognized by every president since Richard Nixon. For over two decades the Rabbi's movement now has some 2000 institutions; educational, social, medical, all across the globe. We, (The United States Government) recognize the profound role that Rabbi Schneerson had in the expansion of those institutions."

The Chassidic sect of Judaism originated as a liberal alternative to Orthodox Jews. The main difference between Chassidism and the preceding sects of Judaism was that Chassidic Jews did not banish those that did not follow them, but rather attempted to educate and even convert non-orthodox Jews. Other variations between the two sects included a looser interpretation of Jewish law by the Chassidim, and a more earthy approach to religious rituals [such as songs, dances, and festive meals]. Different sects of Chassidism formed as it grew in size, but these sects differed very little from each other. These sects grew around the court of a particular rabbi or tzaddik, who passed his teachings on to his followers. The Chabad-Lubavitch sect was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman towards the end of the eighteenth century in the city of Lubavitch, Belorussia. "Chabad" is an acronym deriving from the Hebrew words for wisdom, intelligence, and faith.


Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism continued to be a major force among Russian and Lithuanian Jews from its inception. Under Soviet rule, the dedication of the movement provided a powerful underground force active in keeping traditional Judaism alive in spite of government persecutions. With the collapse of Russian Communism, Lubavitch-Hasidism was one of the important participants in educating a generation of Jews that had been forcibly deprived of their religious heritage for generations. In 1940, the head of the movement, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, moved from Russia to America. His move came at a time when many Jews were attempting to leave Europe to escape religious persecution. Along with Rabbi Isaac Schneerson's move came the birth of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism in the United States and in New York.

Rabbi Isaac Schneerson's daughter, Chaya Mushka, married a very educated man who was accomplished both as a Rabbi and as a mathematics and science scholar. They lived in Berlin and eventually moved to Paris as the Nazi party took over Germany. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his wife, [Chaya Mushka], migrated from Paris to New York in 1941 to, once again, escape religious persecution.


When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in New York, a Chassidic community had already been established for over twenty years. Orthodox Jews had resided in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn since 1920. Brooklyn was ideal for such communities for several reasons. First, it was conveniently accessible for the European immigrants. Second, the Chassidim immigrating to America were poor, and the housing and cost of living were cheaper in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. Third, living piously in closed communities enabled Orthodox Jews to minimize exposure to the secular way of life of the City.


A major increase in the population of Orthodox communities occurred during the early 1950's because of the Displaced persons act and refugee programs following World War II. The Chassidic immigrants favored Brooklyn because there they could find the highly structured system of Judaic practices that they followed. Their migration soon turned small communities into larger ones, and due to their beliefs against birth control, the Orthodox population in Brooklyn grew rapidly.

 

When Rabbi Isaac Schneerson passed away in 1950, he left his son-in-law to succeed him. At first, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was reluctant to accept the mantle of leadership. A year later he formally assumed the title of Rebbe, explaining to members of the movement that while he would be devoted to his work as leader, each man and woman was ultimately responsible for his or her own actions, and for his or her pursuit of G-dliness.


The ensuing forty-four years of the Rebbe's leadership saw the Lubavitch community grow from a small movement nearly devastated by the Holocaust to a worldwide community of 200,000 members. The Rebbe, recognizing the unique needs of the current generation and anticipating the societal needs of the coming decades, began to establish education and outreach centers, offering social-service programs and humanitarian aid to all people, regardless of religious affiliation or background. He established a corps of Lubavitch emissaries and sent them out to build Chabad-Lubavitch centers worldwide, to serve the spiritual and material needs of the local communities. By blending his intense religious and secular training with deep compassion and insight, the Rebbe quietly became a leader to whom other leaders turned for advice. Beginning in 1986, he would personally greet thousands of visitors each Sunday, distributing dollar bills that were meant to encourage the giving of charity. Many people would actually save the dollar bills as a memento of their visit with the Rebbe, a testament to being moved by his presence.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson rarely left his community in Brooklyn and didn't leave New York during his 44 year tenure. His contention was that he would not travel, not even to Israel, as long as the Messiah did not arrive. The arrival of the messiah in the Jewish religion symbolizes the redemption of all Jewish people and their migration to the Holy Land, Israel. Thus, the headquarters for the Lubavitch community grew and developed in Brooklyn, around the Rebbe. Followers from around world migrating to the United States preferred to settle down in and around the Crown Heights area to benefit from the religious infrastructure that was already established. A small congregation grew into a large community due to accessibility of synagogues, kosher restaurants, kosher grocery stores, and religious schools [Yeshivas]. In many respects, the Chassidic communities in Brooklyn resemble that of the Eastern European Shtetyls of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Lubavitch community that developed in Brooklyn soon spread to over one hundred and ten countries worldwide. In the process, Chabad emerged as the most prominent faction in the Chassidic world.


"Chabad is a franchise now. Like there's a McDonald's in every town, there's a Chabad House in every town. I call it the McDonaldization of Hasidism."
- Professor Samuel Heilman [City University of New York]

"The key to success is the ballroom in the Brooklyn Mariott: the emissaries. Here, Thousands of smart, idealistic young men and women, filled with zeal, energy, and love of the Jewish people, leave comfortable homes and families and move to Fairbanks or Peoria or Hong Kong or Khabarovsk, where they dedicate their lives to running Chabad Centers they usually build themselves, from the ground up. And they do it, they say, because the Rebbe wants them to." - Sue Fishkoff [Moment Magazine]

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed away on June 12, 1994, at the age of ninety-two. His death came two years after he suffered a serious stroke. There has yet to be a successor named to the Rebbe, and many believe that one will never be named. Many of the Rebbe's followers are still awaiting his return, as they believe him to be the messiah. An exact replica of his house on 770 Eastern Parkway was constructed in Israel, so that if he were to ever make the trip, he would feel at home.


As it stands now, however, Brooklyn remains the headquarters of the worldwide Chabad movement. All plans, budget spending, guidelines, and policies are determined in Crown Heights by a small group of Rabbis, who are, as a group, filling in for the Rebbe. Ever since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the movement's leader, the Brooklyn Lubavitch community has emerged as the largest and most influential group in the Chassidic world.

 

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