A controversial figure in life, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson remains so today, nearly two decades after his death in 1994 at age 92.
Much of the talk surrounding the longtime leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement centers around the question: Might he be the Messiah, or Mashiach, who, in a fundamental part of Judaism, is believed to be a leader anointed by God who will herald the Age of Global Peace?
Many of the estimated 35,000 followers who gathered outside Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn following his passing would likely have answered in the affirmative.
And the tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world who make an annual pilgrimage to his graveside in Montefiore Cemetery on Springfield Boulevard in Cambria Heights would probably agree.
The belief that Schneerson is the Messiah can be traced to the 1950s. It picked up momentum during the decade preceding his death.
Though by some accounts he generally discouraged such talk and publicly rejected the notion, the belief continues to this day.
Without a doubt, he is among the most revered Jewish leaders of the past century, and is recognized as a pioneer of outreach. He built a network of more than 3,600 institutions, including schools, synagogues, and Chabad houses, in over 70 countries and 1,000 cities around the world.
Born in 1902 in present-day Ukraine, Schneerson was the son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi. He was fifth in a direct paternal line to the third Chabad Lubavitch rebbe, or Hasidic leader. In 1951, a year after the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, he assumed leadership of the movement, a natural candidate on dynastic grounds and on the basis of his scholarship and personal qualities.
When Schneersohn died, the Hasidim rallied around Schneerson to succeed. He was reluctant and refused to officially accept leadership for an entire year, but was eventually cajoled into accepting by his father-in-law’s followers.
In 1977, Schneerson suffered a massive heart attack, but he refused to be hospitalized.
He was opposed to retirement. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, he proposed the establishment of 71 new institutions to mark the beginning of the 71st year of his life.
In 1992, he suffered a serious stroke while praying at the grave of his father-in-law. He was left partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Still, he responded daily to thousands of requests for blessings from around the world. It was around this time that the belief in Schneerson as the Messiah became more widespread.
When Schneerson died, he was buried alongside his father-in-law. Today, the site, at the corner of Francis Lewis and 121st Avenue, is Schneerson’s Ohel, or shrine, a place of prayer to which thousands of the faithful flock.
Naming no successor, Schneerson would become the movement’s seventh and last rebbe, the one still known today simply as The Rebbe.