Scraps of paper at Rabbi Schneerson’s grave 311.
(photo credit: Gil Shefler)
NEW YORK – One hassid had come because he was having difficulties dealing with a
sense of emptiness and doubt. Another, who had reluctantly agreed to be an
emissary in a foreign country not of his choice, longed for some companionship
that might soothe his loneliness. Yet another asked for a steady source
of income to help support his growing family.
The devout Jewish men
shuffled into the small court surrounding the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson on Tuesday with about two dozen others. There, they recited
prayers and read out their innermost thoughts and desires from pieces of paper
they had prepared in advance.
After two minutes, their time was up. They
tore the hand-written letters to shreds, threw them into a large basin placed in
front of the rebbe’s grey tombstone and moved on to make way for the next batch
of worshipers standing in line for hours under the scorching summer
The hassidim were part of an estimated 50,000 devotees who took part
in Schneerson’s memorial at the Montefiore cemetery in Queens, starting at
sundown on Monday. Each year, the faithful come from as near as Chabad
headquarters in Brooklyn to as far away as China, South Africa and Australia to
pay their respects to the late leader of the hassidic religious
“On a day like today, you get to feel the rebbe just for a few
moments,“ said Rabbi Binyamin Wolf of Helsinki, Finland, who said he has never
missed a memorial day since the rabbi’s passing in 1994. “I don’t think there is
any of us in the rebbe’s presence who doesn’t feel emotional,” he
Rabbi Joseph Greenberg of Anchorage, Alaska, also said he and his
family of six never miss the event.
“The rebbe is like a parent to us –
more than parent to us,” he said. “It’s a day we reconnect and feel the love the
rebbe has expressed to each one of us and the Jewish people.” Worshipers believe
the presence of the rabbi’s soul on the day of his memorial increases the
chances of their prayers being answered. They queue for hours under the
baking sun, clad in stiflingly hot hassidic attire, for the chance to pray
beside the rabbi’s grave and ask him for guidance.
While the majority of
those who attend the yartzeit memorial are men, arrangements are in place to
allow women to visit separately.
“It’s a very special time,“ said Nechama Greenberg, who came from China, where she and her husband are Chabad emissaries. “I
actually came with my whole family from Shanghai, so it’s something my kids were
looking forward to. We come almost every year. It’s a time for them to come and
see other children like them, so it’s many things.”
About two dozen New
York Police Department officers secured the perimeter of the gathering on
Tuesday and kept the traffic running. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s
predominantly non- Jewish residents watched from their homes.
problem with them,” said James, who lives in a house located opposite the Jewish
cemetery and declined to give his surname. “They got to do what they got
to do. It’s alright.”
This year the rabbi’s yartzeit, which marked the
70th anniversary of his arrival on American soil from Europe, where he had fled
Nazi persecution, also coincided with US Independence Day.
rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who had traveled from Moscow to take part in
the ceremony, commented on the role the safety and freedom of religion in the US
played in rejuvenating the Chabad movement.
“When you think of where
Lubavitch [Chabad] started, and what it has reached today, there’s no question
that the rebbe’s coming to America was the biggest blessing in bringing Judaism
all over the world,” Lazar said.