From ........... U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT

JUNE 27, 1994

AWAITING THE MESSIAH. "How is the rebbe?'' the air traveler asked the man seated next to him, easy to identify by the high-crowned black hat and dark suit as a follower of Brooklyn's Menachem Schneerson. Called the rebbe--Yiddish for rabbi--Schneerson had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1992. "The rebbe will surprise all,'' the man said cheerfully. He opened a book and pointed to predictions that the messiah will announce himself after doctors give up. "The rebbe will lead all of us to Jerusalem,'' he said, "and you and I may find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder.''

For 44 years, Schneerson headed the Lubavitch movement, named after the Belarussian village where it was born 250 years and six rebbes ago. A student of medicine and physics as well as the Talmud, he devised an electronic network with faxes and cable TV linking 200,000 followers from Budapest to Bogota. But he also believed in personal contact and probed visitors' souls with an intensity some likened to a spell. In the early 1980s, his teaching began to focus on the messianic era. Speaking in a low, soft voice each Friday night at his headquarters, he prophesied the Soviet empire's downfall and the crippling of Saddam Hussein's army. He inspired Jews to take seriously the ancient prayer: ``I believe with perfect faith that though he may tarry, the messiah will come.''

Followers were sure he would recover from his stroke and say he was the messiah, the harbinger of the end of war, famine and injustice. But last week, his 92-year-old heart quit beating. Suddenly leaderless, many Lubavitchers now believe that the rebbe's soul will return in another body and lead the world to redemption.