The balcony curtains suddenly parted. The Rebbe sat motionless surrounded by his three trusted rabbinical aides. On cue, the singing and chanting began: “Long live our Master, Teacher and Rebbe, King Messiah, Forever and Ever!” Hundreds of men dressed in black suits stood shoulder to shoulder on the synagogue floor craning their necks towards the balcony. I was determined to see for myself how the Rebbe really looked after his recent stroke, and was frightened to discover that the right side of his body was paralyzed. I had been taught that the Rebbe sustained the whole world. I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t even lift his own arm.
It was 1994, and I was fourteen years old and a member of the ten-thousand strong Lubavitch Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. For us, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was not only a father figure, community leader, and rabbi, he was also the Messiah. The Rebbe and his emissaries around the globe were conquering country after country, setting up Chabad Houses in the most far flung places on earth. I looked forward to the day when I, too, would set up a Chabad House in some remote locale. Despite the Rebbe’s advanced age of 91 and his physical infirmities, there was no doubt in our mind that he was the long-awaited Messiah. The Rebbe’s success in reaching out to every Jew surely qualified him. We were just waiting for God to give him the sign to reveal himself.
Relating to my own father was awkward. My father grew up in Brooklyn, a secular Jew. Sure, he had a bar mitzvah, attended Hebrew Sunday school, but that was the extent of his Judaism. He excelled at his local public school in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and even sang in the Metropolitan Opera Boys Chorus for three seasons. He loved opera. But following his graduation from Columbia College and Harvard Medical School, he chose a religious lifestyle and joined the Hasidic community. He was subsequently set up by a matchmaker with my mother who had also recently joined the community. Once ensconced in our insular neighborhood, his passion for opera and other non-Jewish hobbies faded away.
My parents didn’t speak Yiddish, but they sent me to a Yiddish-speaking school devoted exclusively to religious instruction. It was a sort of Sunday school that happened to last all week. We studied the Bible, Talmud, and the Code of Jewish Law from sunrise to sunset. There was no instruction in English, math, or science. With the Messiah on his way, what need was there for secular studies? But I was troubled. My father’s college and medical school diplomas hung on the wall of his small home office. He surely knew the value of a well-rounded secular education. I couldn’t understand how my learning the ABC’s would delay the arrival of the Messiah.
Whenever I thought about this disturbing question, I reminded myself, “We have the Rebbe… He is surely the Messiah…Any minute now he will reveal himself…”
Each night I struggled with the Yiddish homework. So, on the recommendation of a neighbor, my parents hired a private tutor named Levi. I was practicing my jump shot at a hoop in the backyard when Levi first came to our house. “Hey, Yossi, pass the ball!” he hollered. I had no idea who he was but he knew my name so I passed him the ball. Without any effort, he sent the ball sailing through the hoop. At that moment Levi became my model of a rabbinical student. My favorite part of Levi’s visits was when he would chat with my father while they tallied up his hours to determine how much he would be paid. Only with Levi, who was practicing to become a cantor, did my father feel comfortable discussing his youthful experiences on stage in the opera. With his kids, he feared such talk would negatively influence our religiosity. My father would discuss famous tenors who sang at the Met. “Have you ever heard a recording of Caruso?” he once asked. “Caruso, why of course, who hasn’t heard Caruso?” Levi admitted. Caruso died in 1921, but my father did perform on stage with Richard Tucker and Robert Merril, two of the greatest voices in operatic history.
The Rebbe had had a stroke a few months earlier, but he would join the evening services in the cavernous main synagogue from a specially built alcove with tinted windows. He could see the crowd below, but they couldn’t see him. Following the service, he would be wheeled onto an adjacent balcony overlooking the crowd. When the curtains were parted the Rebbe, with his long white flowing beard and wearing his customary black caftan and black fedora, came into view. The crowd would look up to him and sing, “Long Live the Rebbe,” over and over again, with the hope of ushering in the messianic age. From time to time, he would nod his head and wave his usable hand to encourage the singing. After a few minutes the curtains were closed and we, his faithful, would not see him again until the next evening’s service.
This particular night, the 19th of Kislev, was a mini-holiday in Crown Heights celebrating the release of the first Chabad Rebbe from a Russian prison in 1798. To get a better view of the Rebbe on the balcony, I climbed on top of a dozen stacked plastic milk crates. After the singing was over, the curtains closed and everyone headed towards the exits. I was nearly out the door, when I heard someone shout, “The Rebbe is on the balcony again!” Within an instant, the synagogue was packed. In a mad dash, I reclaimed my spot atop the milk crates. The Rebbe was seated in his wheelchair, looking down at his followers. No one knew what to do. A paralyzing fear began to set in. It was clear the Rebbe wanted something, but his recent stroke had taken away his speech. All he could do was nod.
The Rebbe’s three long-time aides couldn’t determine what he had in mind, so an elderly hasid wrote down suggestions. A small piece of paper was passed hand to hand until it reached the Rebbe’s main aide on the balcony. He bent down and whispered into the Rebbe’s ear, “Should we all move now to the Land of Israel?” The Rebbe shook his head. “Should we rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?” Again, the Rebbe shook his head. More men started scribbling suggestions. “Should we build a wall around Crown Heights?” “Should we study a particular Hasidic treatise?” After each suggestion, the Rebbe shook his head. The crowd below became frantic. The Rebbe, who guided the community for forty years, was never at a loss for words or indecisive. But now he couldn’t speak. His aides panicked and closed the curtains.
This time I did not budge. I had a feeling the curtains might open again, so I remained on the milk crates. The hundreds below also stayed. All of a sudden, my tutor, Levi, who now was a senior rabbinical student and a cantor, took a gulp from a bottle of vodka. Since the mood in the synagogue was anxious and gloomy, Levi took it upon himself to lift the spirit of the hasidim. He sang and recited words of Torah. He took a few more shots of vodka and his speech began to slur. He went from singing Hasidic melodies to reciting a Hasidic discourse in the same breath. Levi’s performance was a momentary distraction from the sad reality. The Rebbe was in pain. He couldn’t speak. And no one knew what he wanted.
Eventually, the curtains reopened, only to close again a few minutes later. This opening and closing went on for five hours. As I walked home later that night, I was deeply confused and scared.
The next day at yeshiva, our teacher tried to reassure us. “The Rebbe is still in charge of the world,” he insisted. “Even if he can’t speak, we know every generation can only endure due to its leader, the Moses of our generation.” I raised my hand and asked our teacher, “If the Rebbe couldn’t give directions anymore, how could he still be in charge of the world?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “We must continue to believe,” he said.
As the weeks and months wore on, the Rebbe’s condition deteriorated. He slipped into a coma and was moved to Beth Israel Hospital on the East Side of Manhattan.
The Rebbe’s worsening condition posed another difficulty for me. Ever since I turned bar mitzvah, I went with a classmate into the city every Friday afternoon to visit Jewish men at their workplace. We would go from office to office looking for secular Jews, and when we finally found someone Jewish, we would tell them about the Torah and have them put on tefillin.
The most important part of the visit was spreading the message that the Messiah was on his way. However, with the Rebbe lying in a coma, convincing people that the Rebbe was going to reveal himself as the Messiah was getting harder. One Friday, a friendly man who we visited regularly said to me, “You know, the Rebbe is very ill… maybe you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I gave him the party line: “Just when the darkness seems impenetrable, the morning light shines through.”
On the subway ride back to Crown Heights, though, I kept thinking about what he said. Maybe he had a point. But my teachers and friends kept insisting the Rebbe must be the Messiah. He had no children. There was no one to take over after him. This being the case, God would surely not allow us to be left without a leader, a Rebbe. So it followed that the Rebbe would very shortly reveal himself as the Messiah. We must continue to believe in him.
Spring slipped into summer. Once a week, my friends and I would travel by subway to visit the Rebbe at Beth Israel Hospital. While his room on the seventh floor was off limits, we would join the older boys who were camped out in the tiny chapel on the first floor. Ever since the Rebbe was admitted to the hospital, a group of young students in their early twenties maintained a vigil in the chapel around the clock. They prayed, ate, and slept in the chapel. My friends and I would recite psalms in the small chapel for the Rebbe’s recovery.
The Sabbath of June 11, 1994, was hot and muggy. At sundown, I sat down at the small desk in my bedroom to go over the Talmud for the next morning’s final exam. At midnight I heard a loud siren. Usually, this siren only went off on the eve of the Sabbath, before sundown, to alert the community of the impending Sabbath. Why would the Sabbath siren go off Saturday night, I wondered. I raced outdoors to see what was going on. I saw men running in the direction of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Tudor style synagogue where the Rebbe had held court for the past forty years. I quickly put on my black jacket and fedora and joined the crowd converging on 770.
As I neared 770, I noticed men looking at their beepers called “Messiah beepers.” They had been introduced by an entrepreneurial Hasid who wanted to alert the faithful when the Rebbe would be making a public appearance. I asked the man next to me what the beeper message said? “It’s not for you,” he said. I felt there was trouble.
Without saying a word, I made eye contact with a man driving a Lincoln Town car on his way to Beth Israel Hospital and he stopped for me. I squeezed into his car. Not a word was uttered by the four passengers the whole way to the hospital.
When we arrived at Beth Israel, there was already a crowd of about 1,000 men milling around outside. I climbed onto the fence at Stuyvesant Park to get a better view. I saw the outlines of a stretcher as it was loaded into a waiting ambulance. I felt sure the Rebbe was still alive, and that he probably wanted to be back at his synagogue at this crucial moment. I hitched another ride back to Crown Heights with eight other young students crammed in the back of an old station wagon. The driver turned on 1010 WINS news. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe, age 92, passed away tonight at 12:30 AM,” the announcer said. No one in the car said a word.
“Could this really be true?” I thought. If the Rebbe had really died, that would mean he wouldn’t be the Messiah. If he wasn’t the Messiah destined to take us back to Israel, how would I ever make it in modern America? I had no secular education. My high school didn’t give out diplomas, as we only studied the Bible and the Talmud. In my head, I heard the old man’s voice, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” We arrived back at 770 Eastern Parkway by 1:30 am.
When we arrived, I heard someone announce that men and boys over the age of thirteen could line up to pay their last respects at the Rebbe’s room I joined the hundreds already on line. When I arrived at the door to the Rebbe’s room, I saw the outline of a body lying on the floor — as is our custom to do with a dead body — covered in a prayer shawl, surrounded by ten candles. A number of elderly Hasidim were standing around the body reciting psalms. Was this form under the sheet the Rebbe? After walking past the room, I continued on into a small synagogue down the hall. I sat down on a crowded bench to collect my thoughts. Some men were reciting psalms, others were crying uncontrollably. I didn’t know what do, so I went outside to see if any of my school friends were there. It was 3 am.
Outside, I saw a small group of about twenty men holding cups of whiskey and dancing. One of the leaders of this group was a former camp counselor who I respected for his knowledge and piety. If he was dancing, I thought, it must be the right thing to do. So I joined the dance, chanting with the others: “Long live the Rebbe, King Messiah, forever and ever.” We were convinced if we kept dancing, we could hold off the funeral. Surely the Rebbe would be resurrected and continue his leadership on earth, and not, heaven forbid, be buried in the ground. I continued dancing until 6 AM. With the first light of dawn I joined the morning service (Shacharit) getting underway inside the synagogue. Following the service, I walked home exhausted. I collapsed into bed at 9 am.
After a few hours of sleep, I was back at 770. Hundreds of men were inside the synagogue singing Hasidic melodies. They had no intention of joining the funeral procession which was scheduled for 4 pm. They felt that since the Rebbe was going to be the Messiah, attending the funeral would be wrong. He would come back to life. I wanted to stay with them, but I also wanted to follow my Rebbe. I waited and prayed and waited-but there was no resurrection. I slipped out and joined thousands of people gathered in front of the synagogue.
Thousands more lined up along Eastern Parkway. The women stood across the service road. It started drizzling. Some men opened umbrellas. The moment the casket came out of the front door of the synagogue, a ray of sun broke through the darkened clouds. The hysterical shrieking from the women’s side of the street was terrifying. The casket was passed shoulder to shoulder, across the packed crowd, until it made its way into the waiting hearse. The back door of the hearse was slammed shut and it slowly, fought its way through the crowd. I desperately tried to hold on to the sight of the hearse. I could barely breathe as the hearse carrying my Rebbe got smaller and smaller and disappeared in the distance.
As I stood paralyzed, a man came over to me holding a knife, pointing at my lapel. He wanted to cut my jacket as a sign of mourning. I hesitated. He insisted, “It’s the law, you must tear kriah for your Rebbe!” But I didn’t want to let go of my Rebbe. To no avail, he grabbed my lapel and started cutting. Every motion of his knife felt like a stab in my heart. My Rebbe was gone, my dream of a Messiah was gone, and I was left all alone.
After many twists and turns, I ended up in the legal field, where fealty to the text is what counts. To succeed in law, one must critically read all documents. I have no doubt that my youthful experience of coming face to face with my shattered hopes and dreams, has informed my decision to focus on verifiable facts. Ever since the Rebbe’s death, I am weary of any and all dogmatic pronouncements and predictions. Charismatic leaders, such as the Rebbe, have the capacity to inspire, but are also non-replaceable. There is no doubt, the Rebbe’s tremendous charisma informed his followers to believe he was the Messiah. To this day, many still cannot let go of this dream. For me, when I think back to the funeral, I like to believe, “We came so close.”
Yossi Newfield is the founder of Jewish Pastoral Services.
The Night We Lost Rebbe Schneerson
Rabbi Yossi Newfield is the founder of Jewish Pastoral Services.