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He also goes out of his way to avoid controversy. Kotlarsky has been reluctant to speak critically of the strain in Chabad that has insisted on proclaiming Schneerson to be the Messiah after his death. Shemtov and Krinsky have loudly denounced the so-called messianists. Kotlarsky, however, treads carefully.
“Rabbi Krinsky is the chairman of the board,” Kotlarsky said when asked by the Forward about his position on the messianist movement. “Whatever his policy is, that’s my policy. There is no schism between us on any of these policy issues.”
Kotlarsky isn’t suspected of harboring messianist beliefs. Rather, his reticence is seen as a canny bit of internal politics. “He’s less willing to alienate people who might not agree with him, because he likes to be friends with everyone,” a longtime Chabad activist said. “It’s a political thing, not a theological thing.”
Each year it’s Kotlarsky who organizes the annual convention that welcomes the missionaries to Crown Heights. He serves as master of ceremonies for the banquet, the weekend’s main event, speaking to the thousands of emissaries who attend and serving as the face of the Merkos.
That leaves Krinsky, in a sense, in the shadows. Krinsky is now 79; Shemtov is 75. Krinsky entered Schneerson’s service as a young man, serving as his driver and his close adviser. During Schneerson’s last years Krinsky led a faction of younger aides who argued for more intensive medical intervention for the Rebbe. His opponent at the time, longtime Schneerson secretary Rabbi Leib Groner, was effectively pushed out of the movement’s leadership after Schneerson’s death.
Shemtov is a member of a sprawling clan of influential Chabad officials. His brother, Rabbi Berel Shemtov, is a powerful Chabad rabbi based in Michigan. Abraham Shemtov was appointed by Schneerson to serve as his emissary to Philadelphia and continues to work from there, rather from movement headquarters in Crown Heights.
It’s not as though Kotlarsky is openly campaigning for Krinsky or Shemtov’s jobs. “I try to be a very humble servant serving the Rebbe’s mission,” he told the Forward. “I’m here to serve… I just work in the things that I’ve always been working.”
It’s hard, however, not to wonder what will happen after Krinsky and Shemtov die or retire. The two have held together the Lubavitch movement at a time when other Brooklyn Hasidic sects have been torn by internal rivalries and by dueling claims to leadership.
That’s despite a handful of serious challenges to their authority. The messianist movement, which bitterly opposes Krinsky and Shemtov, has gained currency in Crown Heights, where men on the street wear yellow messianist flag pins on their lapels, and where Krinsky has had to fight to maintain control of the synagogue in the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway.