In the Brooklyn street outside the Lubavitcher headquarters, his followers were saddened by his death after a long illness but also joyful, some smiling and dancing little jigs, still clinging to their belief that the hour of redemption was imminent and that the rebbe would reveal himself as the Messiah. 'It's not something you can understand if you haven't experienced it,' said one young follower. 'It's something we know.'
The rebbe, his body weakened by strokes and seizures, had been on a respirator in a Manhattan hospital since 10 March.
The rebbe's death leaves an unspoken question among Lubavitchers: who will succeed him as leader of the nearly 200,000 members of the mystical, proselytising ultra-Orthodox Jewish group? He left no children, and, as far as is known, no heir apparent. The group could continue, as many similar Jewish sects do, without a leader for years, but jockeying for position by some of his subordinates suggests otherwise.
The rebbe was the seventh Grand Rabbi of a rabbinical dynasty that originated in the Russian town of Lubavitch in 1745. Scattered by the First World War and all but wiped out by the Holocaust, the community was led from the then Soviet Union by Rebbe Schneerson to the not quite promised, but certainly more sheltered, land of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where he set up the Lubavitcher headquarters. Sending messengers known as sluchim around the world, he gathered followers from Brooklyn to Tanzania.
The Lubavitchers believe that the more Jews observe the commandments, the sooner the messianic age of peace will arrive and God's glory will be revealed on earth. Millions of Jews have listened to his sermons, given in Yiddish, via a satellite hook-up that offers simultaneous translation. 'No one had ever seen this type of public relations before,' said Noach Dear, a local councilman.
The Lubavitchers have been under great strain since Rebbe Schneerson became ill more than two years ago. But the tension has been heightened by the question of succession.
The leading candidates, according to Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, are Rabbi Leib Groner, a secretary to the rebbe who had controlled access to him, and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a spokesman for the world-wide Lubavitcher movement.
Now that the rebbe has gone, so has his power and the status of his entourage. Rabbis Groner and Krinsky will have to submit to the examination of a committee which will seek a superior Jewish scholar, as the rebbe himself had been. It is not clear whether any of the Schneerson aides will replace him. One possibility is that two or more leaders will emerge, one in Crown Heights and others elsewhere.
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