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Columbia rabbi remembers his 'hero,' the leader of the Hasidic Lubavitchers


When he was age 4, Hillel Moshe Baron went with his father to see the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in New York, a common thing for Hasidic Lubavitch Jews seeking his guidance.

When the boy turned 13, his father took him to see the rebbe again, this time for his bar mitzvah. And although the rabbi had counseled thousands of visitors daily, he had not forgotten the youngster he had met nine years earlier.

"He addressed himself to me without any introduction," he said, adding that others had often confused him with his younger brother. "That was something really special. The rebbe took a personal interest in everyone, that was obvious."

Now 31 and a rabbi at the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia, which attracts more than 40 families at Saturday services, Rabbi Baron recalls those moments vividly.

But time has past. The Ukrainian-born Rabbi Schneerson, who guided more than 250,000 Lubavitchers worldwide, died June 12 at age 92 after complications from a stroke in March. Many of Rabbi Schneerson's followers believed that he had the potential to be the long-awaited Messiah that the Torah prophesied.

"He was the hero," Rabbi Baron said.

"We were upset to hear that the rebbe had past away," he said, explaining that he learned of the death in the middle of the night. "We were keeping our hope, which is a Jewish tradition."

Rabbi Baron and his family drove from their Hickory Ridge home to Brooklyn to attend the funeral. Jewish custom dictates that a burial be held the same day a person dies.

The rebbe, as he was called, was the grand rabbi or spiritual leader for Lubavitchers. During his leadership, the movement grew into a powerful force in Judaism, aiding Soviet Jewry at the height of Jewish repression in the former Soviet Union. Some critics have contended that the rebbe built a cult of personality.

Every Sunday in the Crown Heights section of New York, the rebbe stood for hours meeting adults and children from around the world who sought his blessings and advice. He'd give each a crisp dollar bill to give to charity.

The Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic Jewish sect, was founded more than 200 years ago in Russia. Lubavitchers adhere to the Jewish customs and traditions and the commandments in the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

L Though the rebbe is gone, Rabbi Baron said his spirit lives.

"Righteous people, even after their deaths, are very much alive," said. "Basically what that means is that the legacy carries on."

There are no plans to pick a successor to Rabbi Schneerson because there is no one of his caliber, said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a secretary for the rebbe at the Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. He said Lubavitchers can refer to the 200 volumes of teachings the rebbe left.

"We will continue studying his teachings and do what he wanted us to do," said Rabbi Krinsky, who was appointed executor of the rebbe's estate, valued at less than $50,000.

"There is an indescribable void that we all have to attempt to fill collectively," said Zalman Shmotkin, an aide to Rabbi Krinsky.

Bernard Cooperman, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Maryland College Park, said the commitment to reach out to Jews will continue.

"There's no doubt that the majority of the movement will simply move on," he said. "There are small minorities in the movement who may indeed become split off [and] become a splinter group that awaits the . . . return of the rebbe from the dead."

He added, "It took over a year to pick [Rabbi Schneerson]. It will take over a year to pick another."

Rabbi Baron, who got his rabbinical ordination at the United Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn, said he will perpetuate the rebbe's teachings at the Lubavitch group in Columbia, which was established in 1984.

The Baltimore native volunteered to help Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of the Maryland Lubavitch, start the group.

During the early years, the Columbia group met at the Stevens Forest Professional Center until members sought and got their own building on Rodona Drive.

The Hickory Ridge center is the only Orthodox Jewish congregation in the county and the only county Jewish congregation with a synagogue building. It is among five Maryland Lubavitch synagogues.

The center has an annual budget of $200,000, a preschool, Hebrew school and day camp.

Rabbi Baron said many Jews from other congregations visit the center for educational and recreational purposes, especially for the demonstrations on making matzos and shofars -- ram's horns blown in synagogues -- during Jewish holidays.

"There are about 200 families or so that participate in one or more holiday or social event," he said. "That's pretty good considering we started out with four or five families."

In the future, Rabbi Baron said he'd like the center to continue to grow. "We feel very much at home in the community."


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