Billboard latest sign of Messianic fervor among some
and “Long live the Rebbe King Messiah forever.”
A new billboard on the West Side Highway and 44th Street proclaims “Moshiach,” or Messiah, “Is Here” under a picture of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Crown Heights — the charismatic Jewish leader known as the Rebbe who died 11 years ago.
The billboard, put up Tuesday and paid for by a group called Jewish Women United for the Redemption, is the latest sign of the messianic fervor continuing to grip parts of the Lubavitch community that Schneerson once led.
“If people take the Rebbe’s words to heart, it will be good for them and good for the whole world,” said Shterna Spritzer, a member of the group.
But within the ultra-orthodox Lubavich sect, which is bitterly divided over the messiah issue, some say they are embarrassed by such pronouncements. And most in the mainstream Jewish community see heresy in the idea that a person who died and was buried in an unredeemed world could be the Jewish Messiah.
In the tough town that is New York, meanwhile, reactions to the billboard Friday seemed anything but reverent.
“It’s intrusive,” complained Jessica Maisson, who works across the road at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.
“To be honest, I think the average joe would not know what it’s all about,” said Christopher Vulpi, a Unitarian from Teaneck, N.J., now living in Düsseldorf, Germany. He took a photo of the billboard from the deck of the USS Intrepid.
“I didn’t know who he was. But I like that it says underneath: ‘Just add in goodness and kindness.'”
Others had set ideas about the identity of the Messiah that they were not about to abandon. “Actually, as Roman Catholics, we think the Messiah appeared quite a while ago,” said David Stanford, visiting from western Ontario.
Still, members of Jewish Women United for the Redemption are not discouraged. Spokeswoman Basha Oka Botnick said that they believe that publicly acknowledging Schneerson as the Messiah would hasten the process leading to the End of Days, when, according to Jewish teaching, all people will live in peace.
They point to the Rebbe’s extraordinary charisma and wisdom, and to the prophecies they say he made about world developments as well as about the Messiah’s imminent arrival as evidence he is the Redeemer. The Rebbe, who died at 92 without a successor, had rebuilt a group nearly annihilated during the Holocaust in his 44 years leading the sect.
“If the world is more receptive, people will start to behave differently and we’ll have a better world,” she said.
The Hebrew word “moshiach” translates literally as “the anointed one,” referring to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil. The moshiach is the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days, ushering in world peace, according to Jewish teaching.
Throughout Jewish history, many Jews have been seen as the Messiah, from Shimeon Bar Kochba, who led a second-century revolt against the Romans, to Jesus, whose followers went on to found a new religion. But none of them were judged to meet the requirements set down in Jewish teaching.
Officially, the Lubavitch movement refuses to address the question of whether the Rebbe is the Messiah, simply encouraging followers to prepare for his coming with faith and good deeds.
This is not the first time a messianic Lubavitch group has proclaimed its beliefs on metropolitan area roadways. Another group posted similar billboards about Schneerson near the entrance to the George Washington Bridge and in Atlantic City about 10 years ago. That effort ended after several months because of the cost.
Botnick said her group hoped to raise from the community the $20,000 per month required to keep the billboard up indefinitely.