Still waiting for Rabbi's death and God's glory

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NEW YORK - A handful of Lubavitcher Hasidim, in their black coats, hats and curls, still gather each day outside the Manhattan hospital where their leader, Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, has been on a life-support system since suffering a stroke on 10 March. Although he shows no signs of recovery, his followers believe he will eventually reveal himself to be the Messiah, writes Peter Pringle.

With a van as their headquarters, the Lubavitchers have set up a small yeshiva at the hospital, and at times they turn to the hospital wall, heads bobbing as the rite ordains, and intone ancient Hebrew from the Book. Yesterday Yeshaya Kay, aged 39, was keeping the vigil. 'We expect him to get well,' he said. 'We gather here to induce the process of redemption.'

The Grand Rabbi's death will leave an unspoken question: who will succeed as leader of the 200,000 members of the mystical, proselytising ultra-Orthodox Jewish group? He is the seventh Grand Rabbi of a rabbinical dynasty that originated in Lubavitch (City of Love) in Greater Russia in 1745. He has no children and no heir apparent.

Scattered by the First World War and all but wiped out by the Holocaust, the community was led by Rabbi Schneerson to the New York borough of Brooklyn, where he set up the Lubavitch headquarters in 1940. From there, sending messengers known as sluchim around the world, he created followers worldwide. The emissaries direct more than 1,500 synagogues, schools and community organisations, and the community's publishing division is the world's largest distributor of Jewish books.

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.

The image Lubavitchers project of themselves is that of being one large family, which has been under great stress and strain since Rabbi Schneerson became ill more than two years ago. Such tensions have been exacerbated 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 Grand Rabbi who controlled access to him, and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a spokesman for the worldwide Lubavitcher movement. They have quarrelled over the Grand Rabbi's medical care. Several doctors came and went, some complaining they could not deal with all the officialdom.

When the Grand Rabbi has gone, so will the power and the status of his entourage. Rabbis Groner and Krinsky will have to submit to the examination of a committee that will seek a superior Jewish scholar. It is not clear that any of the Schneerson aides will replace him.

(Photograph omitted)