‘On a day like today, you feel the rebbe’

Some 50,000 Chabad faithful from near and far commune with late leader in emotional memorial gathering at New York gravesite.

Scraps of paper at Rabbi Schneerson’s grave 311 (photo credit: Gil Shefler)
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 sun.
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 movement.
“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 added.
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.
“There’s no 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.
The chief 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.