Lubavitch Non-Messianists Win Court Battle

Decision would allow opponents of messiah fervor to remove banners at sect's Crown Heights headquarters.

The Jewish Week/January 3, 2008

In the fight for control of 770 Eastern Parkway- the headquarters and heart of the Lubavitch movement, which has been the site of passionate and sometimes violent fights between messianists and non-messianists - a court decision last week has come down clearly on the side of the non-messianists.

The strongly worded decision from Justice Ira Harkavy of New York State Supreme Court on Dec. 27 says that the only parties with the right to determine what happens at 770 are its owners, two of the movement's central organizations, Agudas Chasedei Chabad and Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch (Association of Chabad Chasidim and the Lubavitch Educational Organization).

The decision marks a victory for those in the movement who have been trying to marginalize the messianists - who believe Lasko Family Tours in proclaiming the last, late Lubavitch rebbe as the messiah -since the faction began asserting itself when the rebbe was debilitated by a stroke in 1992, two years before he died.

A spokesman for Agudas and Merkos, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, said, "We're very gratified by the court's decision. We're pained by the events that led us here and still harbor hopes that those responsible will recognize the error of their ways."

The judge ruled that the two organizations have the right to eject their opponents, an organization named Congregation Lubavitch Inc., which was incorporated two years after the rebbe died and whose trustees were elected by the Crown Heights Lubavitch community to run synagogue operations. Those four trustees, known as gabboyim, lost the case but have 60 days to appeal as long as they put up $500,000 bond and pay the synagogue operating expenses.

One of the gabboyim said to be most involved in the lawsuit, Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, did not return a message left at his home.

An attorney representing Congregation Lubavitch Inc., Edward Rudofsky, said, "Needless to say we're disappointed, and as we discussed with the judge we intend to appeal and expect to satisfy the conditions."

Rudofsky said that the judge, who retired from the bench this week, framed the case incorrectly.

"This is not an ejectment action, this is an argument over control over religious congregation and it did not belong in secular court. This is not a situation where someone is a trespasser or squatter, and we don't believe Merkos can simply decide who's going to be in charge of a religious congregation, which is apparently what their intention is," he said.

The messianist fervor currently dominates the atmosphere at 770, with a large banner proclaiming "Yechi ... Melech HaMoshiach LeOlam VaEd," calling the rebbe the "King Messiah Forever and Ever," with the slogan also embroidered on the curtain covering the Torah scroll ark, and chanted during many prayer services.

With the court victory, 770's owners could now remove the banner and discourage the singing of "Yechi." The decision also says the owners could also arrest gabboyim for trespassing but Rabbi Shmotkin declined to say anything specific about their plans.

There has been periodic physical and frequent verbal violence between the messianists and those who they feel are detracting from the rebbe's image as the King Messiah by disagreeing.

Some predict violence if the messianist faction is ejected.

Rudofsky said, "I certainly hope there won't be any violence and also hope Agudas and Merkos will respect the fervor and beliefs of the people who worship there.

"If people are provoked, I guess you can provoke anybody to the point where they don't do what they should do and would do under normal circumstances," said Rudofsky. "If they're provoked enough I don't want to speculate what will happen. I don't want to sound like I'm condoning it, because I'm not."

One Chabad emissary says that in recent months the bellicosity has waned, however.

In November 2006, just after the annual banquet of over 3,000 emissaries, Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie wrote an article posted on Lubavitch Web sites.

A contingent of the emissaries went to 770 for fellowship and words of Torah. But their farbrengen was disrupted by angry young men, "a group that has made violence and terror their symbol," and who threw benches, prayerbooks and fists at the gathered emissaries, wrote Rabbi Eliezrie in his article, "The Tragedy in 770." One shaliach had his leg broken, he wrote.

The young men at issue are collectively known as the "Tzfatim," because most studied in a Lubavitch yeshiva in the northern Israeli city Safed, or Tzfat in Hebrew. Too young to have known the rebbe when he was well, the young men come to the yeshiva at 770 to study.

"Are any of us proud of 770 today? Or do we cringe with distaste when we walk in and see how craziness has become dominant," wrote Rabbi Eliezrie, a veteran shaliach, in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Ofer Braunstein, a Lubavitch resident of Crown Heights, said, "It's mostly bochurim [unmarried young men] from Safed, but it's also old hasidim" who are violent, he said. "They fight mamish [truly] physically. I saw it many times," he told The Jewish Week in an interview outside 770 on Sunday night.

The lawsuit that brought the conflict to a head started three years ago, when at 4 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2004, several young men wrenched off from the synagogue's exterior wall a plaque next to the cornerstone placed by the Lubavitcher rebbe, which referred to him with a Hebrew honorific used after the name of someone deceased.

They tried to replace it with their own plaque with an Aramaic term used after the name of a living sage.

Several people tried to stop them, blows were thrown, the police called and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos, got a restraining order against them. The following month, Agudas and Merkos filed the civil court case against three named young men and 30 "John Does." Congregation Lubavitch Inc. soon joined the lawsuit as defendants.

Last year Justice Harkavy deemed Agudas and Merkos the rightful owners of the property, and this latest legal chapter was their effort to win the right to eject Congregation Lubavitch Inc.

The Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway is open around the clock and inside the cavernous space with worn linoleum floors and rundown benches, hundreds of men gather for minyans that take place at all hours. At any given time some men are praying, while others schmooze, study a page of holy text, or chat on cell phones.

The women's section, a balcony upstairs hidden from male view by darkened windows, is likewise open to anyone who cares to enter. While on Sunday evening women chatted and a few young children scampered around, the women's section does not have quite the same feeling of being a loud learning hall cum social club. A leaflet taped to the wall announces the times for "Radio Moshiach and Redemption" broadcasts, below a plastic rack with issues of "Living With Moshiach."

The turmoil at 770 has affected the reputation of the Lubavitch movement, whose influence outweighs its numbers because of its network of deeply committed, far-flung emissaries.

"People look to Lubavitch and are confused. People don't understand the internal dynamics of Lubavitch, what's going on inside. And 770 is a symbol within Lubavitch and beyond Lubavitch," said one shaliach, who asked not to be named.

Rabbi Eliezrie said, "We allowed this to be strong for a while, but it will change now. The community is ready. A lot of people feel there has to be change there."

Others say that the anti-messianists will not be able to win the war over 770 even if they are victorious in court.

"The shul will not change at all," said Avraham Hirsch, a Crown Heights resident leaving 770 after davening. "I doubt they will be able to disregard the feelings of the people who come here."

The essence of the problem, said Rabbi Eliezrie, is larger than the fight over 770.

"Today we have this dilemma who do we turn to for direction?" he said. "It's a community which is struggling with itself right now. There are real issues of how do we instill chasidishe values, how do we give our children an education when you don't have the rebbe there physically to serve as a role model?"

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