Who Owns 770?

The Battle for the Rebbe's House

New Voices, Jewish Student Magazine/September 24, 2008

It's an oft-repeated bit of Chabad trivia that the sect has built full-scale replicas of its headquarters, the red brick row house at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in at least twelve locations around the world. You can visit 770 next door to a gas station on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey, or on city blocks in the middle of Melbourne, Sao Paolo, and Buenos Aires. There's even a 770 at a summer camp near Montreal. Everyone wants a piece of 770. The propagation of this architecturally unremarkable structure has accelerated in the past decade and a half, as the faithful have struggled with the death of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who many in the movement believed to be the Messiah. A symbol of Chabad in general and the Rebbe in particular, 770 has become central to the identity of the now-leaderless movement. Back home in Crown Heights, the original building is the subject of a fierce battle over nothing less than the future of Chabad as a whole.

On January 31, 1993, thousands of Lubavitch Hasidim gathered in the shul in the basement of 770, expecting to see Schneerson reveal himself as the Messiah. The event marked the apotheosis of a fervor that gripped Crown Heights in the last months of the Rebbe's life. Chabad has had a particularly messianic orientation since the time of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, in the 1890s, and so was perhaps particularly primed to see redemption in the person of Schneerson, the first post-Holocaust leader of the sect. Men bought special beepers that rang whenever the Rebbe made a public appearance, and women played tambourines to herald the arrival of a messianic age. On that evening, Schneerson appeared on a balcony above the teeming crowd, mute and nearly paralyzed after the stroke he had suffered the previous year. The crowd prayed, begging him to acknowledge what they all wanted desperately to believe. He did not. A year later, he died.

Before his death, many in the movement believed or were prepared to believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. Afterwards, deep schisms grew between those who continued proclaiming that belief and those who accepted it as mistaken or sought to downplay it for other reasons. The idea that the Messiah could die before the dawn of the Messianic Age is particularly problematic in Orthodox Judaism, given that it blurs a line drawn by anti-Christian polemicists that has defined the borders of the faith since the dawn of Christianity. The Rabbinic Council of America, a leading Orthodox body, issued a resolution in 1996 in response to the lingering messianist sentiment that explicitly rejected the possibility that a Messiah could return from the dead.

In the years since the Rebbe's death, it's become increasingly difficult to determine exactly what the Lubavitch believe. At one extreme are the messianists who continue to loudly proclaim the Rebbe's messianic status, some saying that he never died, others that he has died but that he will somehow return. The public position of the mainstream Chabad organizations, including the group responsible for Chabad's famous emissaries, is that the Rebbe is not the Messiah. But critics such as Yeshiva University professor David Berger doubt the sincerity of these claims, arguing that some in the mainstream actually do accept the idea that the Rebbe is the Messiah, but are unwilling to compromise Chabad's extensive outreach efforts by preaching such a belief.

Regardless of the specific positions of the messianist and mainstream factions, there exists a deep acrimony between the groups that has played out in a series of public disputes over the past decade. Chief among these has been the fight over 770 Eastern Parkway.

The building itself, as was recently affirmed by the New York State Supreme Court, belongs to the central bureaucracies that make up the official post-Rebbe leadership of Chabad. These organizations, called Agudas Chasedei Chabad and Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, hold the title to the property. However, they have very little control over the large shul in the basement, the most important Lubavitch synagogue in the world. Although it is situated in a building owned by the bureaucracies, it is run by a separate organization, called Congregation Lubavitch, Inc. That group, whose leaders were elected by the community, is decidedly more messianist in flavor. The shul is known for the recitation of the Yehi, a messianist prayer, and is decorated with a large banner that bears a messianist slogan.

The Court was asked to weigh in on the ownership of 770 in the wake of a series of disputes that began with the disappearance of a plaque that Merkos had placed the building that referred to the Rebbe as being dead. Messianists had scratched the offending phrase off the plaque as soon as it was erected in 1995, but apparently didn't raise the ire of Merkos until 2004, when they actually removed it and replaced it with a plaque that referred to the Rebbe as the Messiah. Later, a group of messianists got in the way of the workmen sent to reinstall the original plaque. Three of the young messianists involved were identified and sued by Agudas and Merkos. Congregation Lubavitch, Inc., joined as co-defendants in the case, which turned on whether the shul's administrators or owners had the right to determine what went on there. After Agudas and Merkos won, they sued a second time for the right to expel Congregation Lubavitch from the shul entirely. They won that case in December of 2007. It is currently being appealed.

For now, the shul remains the domain of the messianists, while the bureaucrats hold sway upstairs. Soon that may change, and the messianists may be shunted to darker corners. The future of one of the movement's most powerful symbols hangs in the balance.

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