Ailing Rebbe Faces Life in Bed — and CNN

As Key Anniversary Nears, Role of Lubavitch Leader Grows Less Grand

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The Forward, January 21, 1994

CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn — Menachem Mendel Schneerson will celebrate the 44th anniversary of his ascension to the throne of the Lubavitch Chasidic kingdom this weekend in a spare room whose blinds are tightly drawn. He will be prostrate in bed, and, barring divine intervention, he will not speak or see.

If his followers are lucky, they might get a glimpse of their Rebbe, who on special occasions is lifted into a wheelchair and taken down the hall of Lubavitcher headquarters to a balcony that overlooks the main synagogue. He may, depending on his strength, wave his left hand — his right side is paralyzed — in the direction of the gathered throng, which, if the past is a guide, will respond by singing a song praising him as “Moshiach,” or messiah.

If this happens, it will be to the chagrin of the Rebbe’s closest aides, who have been unable to control the messianic fervor rampant in their movement. Then the Rebbe will be returned to his room, where his constant companions — his personal secretary, his servants and his all-male and mostly black and Christian nurses — will tend to him.

Medical Battle

To say that the Rebbe, now well into his 91st year, does not lead the life he once led is to understate the severity of the stroke he suffered in 1992. As the Rebbe’s secretaries battle over the direction of his medical care and of his kingdom, Rabbi Schneerson passes the time in bed, listening to CNN on his television set; he is particularly interested in the situation in Russia, one of his doctors, Joseph Minkowitz, said.

These days, the Rebbe will often wake at 2 or 3 a.m., Dr. Minkowitz said. “It’s his most alert time,” he said. Rabbi Leib Groner, Rabbi Schneerson’s personal secretary, will read the Rebbe some of the hundreds of letters of supplication he receives each week. Lubavitch custom says the Rebbe must bless all engagements before a couple can be married, and few Lubavitchers make serious decisions without seeking the Rebbe’s blessing and guidance. Joseph Spielman, a prominent Crown Heights rabbi, said recently the Rebbe’s work in this area goes on as usual, more or less — less because the Rebbe’s answers are limited to hand movements or shakes of his head.

Most of the members of the Rebbe’s court have been silent about events inside 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters building. There is even a sign posted in the main synagogue that warns the devout against speaking to reporters. The ban does not seem to hold for Lubavitcher tipsters, who telephone reporters to gossip about this rabbi and that. Nor does the ban extend to the doctors, including Dr. Minkowitz, a Canadian cardiologist who until recently served as the coordinator of the presidential-size medical team — 10 doctors and growing. These doctors have provided the Forward with the closest look yet inside the Rebbe’s room.

Doctor Quits

Though he often awakens in the early morning hours, the Rebbe formally begins his day around 8 a.m., when he is washed and fed. His assistants — a group of longtime aides with little medical knowledge but with feelings of great devotion to their master — will help the Rebbe lay tefillin. Then comes a visit from the primary-care physician. Until last week, it was Eli Rosen, a Chasid with a practice in Crown Heights. Dr. Rosen quit after being targeted for vilification in the community — he was seen by some as an ally of Rabbi Groner, who one Lubavitch faction blames for the Rebbe’s worsening condition. Insiders say the criticism took a toll on Dr. Rosen. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The new primary-care physician, and medical coordinator, is Yitzhak Kupfer, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with Brooklyn’s Maimonides Hospital. Dr. Kupfer is now the one who gives the Rebbe his daily physical.

The Rebbe spends most of the day in bed resting, or listening to his aides read from the Bible, or from the newspapers. He is turned once an hour by the nurses and has never had a bedsore, doctors say. He is seldom, if ever, left alone. “He loves the nurses,” Dr. Minkowitz said. “The…black nurses are incredibly warm.” The Rebbe’s Chasidic aides won’t leave him alone with the nurses, however. “I asked them why they are there,” Dr. Minkowitz said. “The Rebbe is a holy man,’ they said. ‘We want to make sure everything is done correctly.’ If they’re there to keep holiness in the room, they should stand in the back and recite Psalms.”

Another of the consulting physicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the aides exacerbate existing tensions over the Rebbe’s treatment. “The Rebbe’s aides don’t like having black nurses handling the Rebbe’s intimate needs, and they spread rumors in the community about mistreatment that doesn’t exist.” Those allied with Rabbi Groner see the aides as an intrusion forced on them by the camp allied with Rabbi Groner’s arch-rival, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat who controls the all-important international network of Lubavitch emissaries.

Psychotherapy Urged

Asked if the conflict between the nurses and the Rebbe’s longtime assistants is the prime cause of the tension at 770, the doctor responded, “I wish it was the only one.”

More serious, doctors say, is the issue of therapy, which has torn at the Rebbe’s secretariat like no other problem. It is, in a way, a metaphor for the Lubavitch movement’s dilemma. On the one side are Rabbi Krinsky and the emissaries, those charged with spreading the Rebbe’s word to the hinterland. They are, by Chasidic standards, modern men, at home with technology, comfortable with secular Jews and even non-Jews. It is this camp, and the medical consultants aligned with it, who believe the best course of action for the Rebbe would be radical physical and speech therapy, even psychotherapy.

“Wouldn’t it be normal to have a conversation with him in which you discuss the kinds of emotions people who suffer from speech-loss experience?” asked Jonathan Lieff, a geriatric psychiatrist from Boston brought in by Rabbi Krinsky. “Wouldn’t you do that for your own father? They’re not doing this, and the man is deteriorating.”

Rabbi Groner and his allies, who are mostly older men in the more traditional, separatist mold of other Chasidic movements, have told Lubavitch insiders they are only carrying out the wishes of the Rebbe when they recommend against dramatic rehabilitation efforts. “The Rebbe has always said he won’t leave 770 to go to a rehab hospital, and they respect that,” said one source who is allied with Rabbi Groner.

Rabbi Groner seems to have the support of the medical team, but that support comes at a price, doctors say.

“I recognize that what I could do for my father would be different than what I could do for the Rebbe,” Dr. Minkowitz said. “I understand where Lieff is coming from, but he doesn’t understand the Rebbe. You have to be out of your mind to think that psychotherapy would work. You can’t walk and say, ‘Hi, Mr. Schneerson, tell me about your feelings.’ This is the Rebbe. Nobody has the guts to do that.”