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A maverick group of US Chabad Hassidim will mix free booze and theology Monday night to promulgate among pub-going Israelis the message that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who passed away 13 years ago, is the Jewish Messiah.
The strikingly Christian idea that a deceased man will be resurrected to bring salvation to the material world will be spread throughout some 60 drinking holes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Monday night. Monday is the third day of Tammuz, the thirteenth anniversary of Schneerson's death or "disappearance," as some Chabad Hassidim prefer to call it.
Meanwhile, mainstream Chabad representatives disowned the initiative. Rabbi Menahem Brod, official spokesman for the Youth Union of Chabad (Agudat Tzeirei Chabad) said that that the campaign was giving Chabad a bad name.
"Not a single Chabad rabbi has stood up to take responsibility for the campaign," said Brod. "Whoever is behind it has no right to use Chabad's name." Despite attempts by The Jerusalem Post to identify the initiators, none of the US Chabad rabbis behind the actual planning were willing to divulge their names.
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Matisiyahu Hirsch Hacohen Abravenel, who said he was a spokesman for the group organizing the pub initiative, explained that hundreds of Chabad rabbis from all over the world were behind it. But he refused to give their names.
Abravanel said that it was not Brod, but the Rabbi Messiah [Schneersohn] who represented Chabad Hassidism. In a press conference entitled "Free Drinks on the Messiah," Le'Omek Hatoda'ah and Morel Tzur PR firms described how stewardesses, armed with liquor, would visit bars in the nation's two largest cities to drink to the Messiah.
But according to Rabbi Tzik Zimrony, head of the Association for the True and Complete Salvation (Ha'aguda le'ma'an ha'ge'ula ha'amitit ve'hashlema) and a Messianic Chabad rabbi in Bat Yam, the stewardesses would be dressed modestly and would only approach females. Meanwhile, stewards would approach men.
Zimrony said that the stewards would ask the bar clientele to leave the confines of the liquor-serving establishments for two "festivity compounds," one at the Tel Aviv Port and one near Jerusalem's Russian Compound, where they would be greeted by Chabad rabbis from the US.
"It is not right for Chabad rabbis to go into the bars," he said. Zimrony denied that the campaign was aimed at exploiting pub-goers' inebriated state to inculcate a heady leap of faith.
Rather, the goal was simply to reach out to a less devout crowd.
"Israeli backpackers have had very positive experiences in Chabad Houses in Peru, Brazil, Thailand and Nepal," said Zimrony. "But they often don't follow up here in Israel. I think part of the reason is because the local Chabad Houses are too conservative, too staid. A group of US guys wants to change that."
But local Chabad rabbis and activists said that the US Chabad Hassidim, backed by a US businessman, were not obeying Chabad's outreach etiquette. "Going into a pub and offering drinks gives the wrong impression," said Yoni Kahana, a Chabad activist, "as if we were adapting yiddishkeit to the needs of the bar-goers. Chabad's message has always been, 'come and join us where we are at.'"
Rabbi Yigal Pizem, one of Chabad's more Messianic rabbis and a close associate of Zimrony's, who is normally at odds with Brod and other more mainstream Chabad figures, agreed that the pub campaign was not Chabad's style. Pizem, who heads a high school with 80 students in Kiryat Shmuel, said that going into pubs was wrong.
"We have to bring Jews closer without joining them in their secular behavior." But Zimrony rejected the criticism.
"The rebbe [Schneeersohn], may he live a long life, supports the campaign enthusiastically." Zimrony said that Schneersohn, who died of a stroke in Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center in June 1994, still communicated with his faithful. A Hassid with a question writes it down on a small piece of paper and places it randomly in one of the rebbe's collections of letters. If performed properly, the answer to the question is provided by Schneersohn in the letter that appears on the page where the piece of paper is placed.
Brod said that ceremonies commemorating the 13th anniversary of Schneersohn's death would be celebrated in Chabad Houses all over the world. In Israel, the main ceremony would be in Kfar Chabad.
Asked if he believed that Schneersohn was the Messiah, Brod answered, "We hope that when the Messiah comes the rebbe will come also."
But was Schneersohn the Messiah? "Some things are better off being handled by God."