NEW YORK — Wayne Abrahami, a middle-aged real-estate developer from Las Vegas, pays the same visit every time he’s in New York. Though bound for an international flight, Sunday morning found him rushing to say a quick prayer at the “Ohel,” the burial site of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“This is where I reconnect,” said Abrahami, dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap, white hair showing beneath. The child of Holocaust survivors and a father of three, he said Schneerson’s memory gives him strength. “It’s not that easy to find inspiration,” he said. “I find it here.”
Abrahami was among the more than 50,000 visitors who flocked to the “Ohel” (“tent” in Hebrew) in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York, to mark the 21st anniversary of the death of the Hasidic leader largely considered one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century.
Schneerson (1902-1994), known to many as simply “the Rebbe,” was the seventh and final leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty. A pioneer of Jewish outreach, he revitalized the then insular Hasidic group which had nearly been destroyed during the Holocaust, and turned the movement into one of the most powerful forces in world Jewry. Today, there are 4,200 Chabad-Lubavitch emissary families, or “shluchim,” who operate 3,500 education and social centers in 85 countries.
Schneerson’s grave is now a pilgrimage spot, attracting hundreds of thousands every year from around the world. While graves of famous rabbis and righteous personalities crowd Eastern Europe, North Africa and Israel, this modern-day shrine is unique in America.
His yahrzeit, or the anniversary of his death, always attracts an especially robust crowd and this year’s turnout was one of the largest ever, according to a Chabad spokesperson.
Beginning in the middle of last week and continuing through the weekend, a steady flow of visitors waited to pray and deliver handwritten requests for blessings at the rabbi’s graveside. Separate entrances for men and women divided the crowd, and groups of about 50 people were permitted to enter the stone tomb enclosure, one group at a time.
Inside the enclosure, visitors were given two minutes on the clock to recite Psalms, pray, and deliver pre-written notes. A buzzer marked the end of the allotted time.
Rhanita, a single mother of four originally from Kazakhstan, said the Ohel represents her connection to Judaism and to her community. With a group of 55 others, she traveled from Toronto on a 10-hour bus ride to visit for the day. After spending about an hour at the site, the group was preparing to board the buses back.
In stilted English, she described how she had been afraid to admit her religion after leaving the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
“We were scared for people to know we were Jewish,” Rhanita said. “We did not talk about our past.”
After becoming involved with the Chabad house in Toronto, she began sending her children to Hebrew school. Today, two of her children attend a Jewish elementary school. “I came here to say thank you,” she said, describing the visit as “overwhelming.”
“The spirit here takes hold of you,” Rhanita said, gesturing widely toward the crowd of women writing notes in an air-conditioned room next to the graveyard. “Six years ago I came here in jeans and a tank-top,” she said, pointing to her updated garb. Though it was sweltering hot, she wore a hat and a colorful shawl on top of a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt. “Today I feel like a different person.”
Despite the euphoric experiences described by many, critics of the mainstream Chabad-Lubavitch movement worry that Chabad’s messianic wing, which glorifies the Rebbe, will be permanently severed from the movement, and from mainstream Orthodoxy.
Among other critics, Rabbi David Berger, a historian at Yeshiva University, claimed in a 2001 book that this messianic belief is tantamount to heresy.
In “The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” Berger argued that Judaism rejects the idea that the messiah can be a deceased person. That belief, he wrote, has differentiated Judaism from Christianity for 2,000 years. He admonishes the Orthodox establishment at large for not publicly denouncing the messianic elements in the Lubavitch community.
Even within Chabad itself, there is a plurality of opinion in how to engage its messianic wing. In a 2014 Times of Israel blog, Chabad-trained Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote with a certain jealousy of “the tremendous energy unleashed by the Chabad messianic movement as it congregates and detonates at world Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn.”
“Mainstream Chabad is uncomfortable with the messianists, believing they give both the movement and the Rebbe himself a bad name. The messianists are millennial, apocalyptic, and, to many minds, irrational. They want to push both Chabad and Judaism into the end of days.
“But there can be no denying that they have tapped into an energy source that appears near infinite,” wrote Boteach.
‘I’m most definitely not Chabad, but the Rebbe was a great man, and praying next to a great man is a privilege’
But not only disciples of the Rebbe visit his grave. Chaim, a 72-year-old Floridian in a floral print shirt, shorts and sunglasses waited in line for his chance to enter the gravesite’s stone enclosure, his colorful get-up standing out amidst the black hats and white shirts worn by the surrounding hassids.
“I’m most definitely not Chabad, but the Rebbe was a great man, and praying next to a great man is a privilege,” he said loudly, explaining that a trip to the Ohel is a staple of his regular visits to New York.
Chaim took three notes out of his pocket, hand-written by his grandchildren in Florida with prayers and special requests. “They haven’t been here themselves yet, but they know I’ll deliver these faithfully every time.”
Chaim’s repeat visits are not unusual here. Tzirel Reznik, a 12-year-old frequenter of the Ohel, said she’s been writing prayers to the Rebbe since she can remember.
“I ask him to be healthy and to go to camp, and I asked him for a baby sister last year and I got one!” the New York native said, enthusiastically bopping with the chubby blond baby on her hip. Her family makes the trip at least twice a year.
‘We come for engagements, we come for weddings — I can’t even count how many times I’ve been here’
“We come for engagements, we come for weddings — I can’t even count how many times I’ve been here,” she said.
Danielle and Michael Bitton, Moroccan Jews living in Montreal, shared a similar story. The couple had first visited the graveside when they were having difficulty conceiving, Danielle recalled.
“When I came here, 15 years ago, I wanted only one thing,” she said, sitting on the curb in front of entrance building, a line of impatient visitors trailing behind her. A scarf covered her head, and she rolled a suitcase packed for the overnight flight. Her 15-year-old daughter, Chaya, named after the Rebbe’s wife, wandered over curiously, and took a sandwich out of their backpack.
“Today, I brought my prayer with me,” she said, watching her daughter. “Now, I’m here to say thank you.”