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Lawsuit Over Chabad Building Puts Rebbe’s Living Legacy on Trial

The neo-Gothic brick building at 770 Eastern Parkway, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, has become the defining symbol of Chabad Lubavitch as the ultra-Orthodox movement has spread around the world with its philosophy of reaching out to all Jews.

The building was once the headquarters of the Hasidic movement’s grand rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who preached in the downstairs synagogue until his death in 1994. Today, though, the building is at the center of a sometimes violent schism between the rebbe’s followers.

In a lawsuit winding its way through New York Supreme Court, two groups of Chabad leaders are fighting for control of the synagogue in 770, which sprawls through the basement of the rebbe’s former residence and a building next door. This week, the judge in the suit decided that neither side had an open-and-shut argument, and so the case would go forward to a full-blown trial.

At stake is the ultra-Orthodox movement’s most famous synagogue. But the trial will also help decide the public face that Chabad presents to the world. In short, will this be a movement defined by a Messiah, or not?

On one side of the dispute are the tight-lipped global leaders of Chabad, who own the buildings above the synagogue and oversee the flow of Chabad rabbis to almost every corner of the earth. On the other side is a group of leaders elected from the local Chabad community of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, who say the movement’s global leaders are trying to publicly blur and deny what they describe as its doctrine about the late rebbe’s status as the messiah.

The roots of the lawsuit lie in a fracas over just this very matter back in 2004. In the middle of a November night, a band of rowdy youngsters tore out a plaque that had recently been installed at 770 by the global leaders of Chabad, who own the building. The youths were angered by the plaque because it referred to Schneerson with a Hebrew acronym used for dead people, which conflicted with the youngsters’ view that the rebbe is a still living messiah.

There probably would not have been a protracted lawsuit if it were not for the fact that the views of the young vandals coincided with the elected leaders, or gabbais, of the religious congregation in the basement of 770.

In his affidavit, the lead gabbai, Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, wrote that “the real issue in dispute involves conflicting views on how our faith views the passing of the Grand Rebbe Schneerson and whether or not at this time he may be referred to publicly as the Messiah.”

Lipskier and the other gabbais were chosen most recently in a 2005 election that was open to Lubavitch community members in Crown Heights. The gabbais have long been able to control discourse in the synagogue because they have run the day-to-day affairs in the downstairs area of the building. For the lawsuit, they have submitted documents showing that they pay the electric bills and also that they have paid for the entryway in which the offending plaque was installed.

In the wake of the plaque-stealing incident, however, the organization that owns the building, Agudas Chassidei Chabad, decided that no one else would dictate what happens on the organization’s property.

Arguing before the court, the organization’s lawyer, David Zaslowsky, said that “there should be little doubt that on the day we moved in back in 1940, if we wanted to put a plaque on that building we’d have the right to do that, and that plaque could say anything we wanted.”

A recent visit to the synagogue downstairs indicated the strong influence that the messianic gabbais have over the sanctuary. During the services, most worshippers joined in a spirited prayer that celebrated the rebbe as the messiah. On the northern wall of the sanctuary is a long banner that says “Live Our Master, Teacher, Rebbe King Moshiach Forever and Ever.”

“What does it mean, he is alive?” said Yitzhak Fuchs, a 47-year-old congregant who was standing outside in a worn suit.

“We learned the king messiah is not going to die. He is going to disappear, but he’s not dead,” said Fuchs, who, like many of the other worshippers, wore a small, yellow lapel pin with a crown and the word messiah in Hebrew.

The unanswered question at the core of the lawsuit is whether the global leadership of Chabad — men like Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky and Rabbi Yisroel Shemtov — actually disagree with Fuchs and the gabbais about the rebbe’s status as messiah.

A number of affidavits in the lawsuit assert that almost all Chabad leaders do privately believe that the rebbe was the messiah but have been afraid to talk about it publicly, for fear of scaring off the unaffiliated Jews who attend Chabad services around the world.

The head of Chabad in southern Ohio, Rabbi Sholom Kalmanson, gave an affidavit in which he argued that while most Lubavitchers believe that the rebbe is the messiah, “others believe that while the scenario is possible, it should not be a public position. A very small minority have abandoned the notion that the rebbe is Moshiach.”

Kalmanson is no longer recognized by the New York offices as an official representative of Chabad.

In the court case, the global leaders of Chabad avoid commenting on the messiah issue, and state that the matter to be settled is one of real estate and not religious dogma. But the court papers nonetheless record the back and forth on the issue.

One statement, signed by close to 250 Chabad rabbis, identifies the rebbe as the messiah. Another, signed in 1998 by eight of the most powerful Chabad rabbis, says that “the preoccupation with identifying the Rebbe as Moshiach is clearly contrary to the Rebbe’s wishes.”

David Berger, a rabbi and historian who has studied the question and been very critical of Lubavitch theology, said that neither side in the case would deny that the rebbe is the messiah. But he also noted that this does not mean there are not significant theological differences in the debate. According to Berger, there are strenuous disagreements within Chabad over whether the rebbe died to return in the future or just disappeared for a time.

In any case, Berger said, the top leaders in Chabad “don’t want it to be in the liturgy. They realize it’s very bad for the movement.”

In the basement at 770, the fervent messianists appear to be carrying the day for now. Despite repeated attempts to install a new plaque, the only sign of it today is a gap in the wall, with messy streaks of plaster. In the middle of the gap is a brown stone that was originally put there by the rebbe. As men walk into the synagogue at all hours, they touch the stone and kiss their fingers.

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