‘People are still getting killed’: Ukraine rabbis bring refugee prayers to New York

50,000 visit grave of Chabad Rebbe on 28th anniversary of his passing, including Ukrainian Jewish leadership, conveying pleas for peace from the displaced, orphaned and besieged

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A man visits the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement's spiritual leader, on the anniversary of his passing, New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
A man visits the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement's spiritual leader, on the anniversary of his passing, New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of worshipers streamed to a New York City cemetery over the weekend to mark the anniversary of the passing of the Chabad Hasidic movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, including Ukrainian rabbis bearing prayers from the displaced, orphaned and besieged.

Around 50,000 people visited the site to mark the 28th anniversary of Schneerson’s passing, a major yearly event for the movement, which dominates Jewish life in Ukraine.

“Because it’s so hard in Ukraine right now, it’s an even better reason to come here. Because, aside from a miracle, nothing is going to help us. For [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to leave us, we don’t need an army, we need a miracle,” said Rabbi Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of Odesa.

He brought with him handwritten and verbal “requests” from Jews in his community to deliver to the gravesite of Schneerson, revered by his followers as “the Rebbe,” which means “rabbi” in Yiddish. He said all of Ukraine’s rabbinical leadership was in New York for the event.

Schneerson was from Ukraine, as were some of his relatives who are buried near him in the Montefiore Cemetery in the borough of Queens. He is buried next to his father-in-law, who preceded him as the leader of Chabad, and his wife and mother-in-law’s graves are nearby.

The Chabad movement, also known as Chabad-Lubavitch, revived Ukraine’s Jewish community following the fall of the Soviet Union, and has  been playing a central role in its response to the Russian invasion, helping to evacuate tens of thousands. There are around 400 Chabad emissaries in 32 Ukrainian cities and towns, the group said.

“I came to pray, to be close to the Rebbe, to bring the requests from the refugees. I brought a bag of letters, and then I’m heading back,” Wolff said. “The war is still going on.”

“All the rabbis from Ukraine are here, and everyone has a bag of requests.”

Rabbi Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of the Ukrainian city of Odesa, during a visit to New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Jews mark the anniversary of a relative’s death, or yahrzeit in Yiddish, each year, usually according to the Hebrew calendar. Schneerson’s yahrzeit this year fell on Saturday, and worshipers streamed through the cemetery throughout the weekend, leaving a heap of notes with prayers at his gravesite.

This year the number of visitors returned to pre-pandemic levels after travel bans and other restrictions barred many from visiting over the past two years.

It is also significant because Schneerson would have been 120 years old this year, which is a significant age in Jewish tradition. Moses was said to have been 120 when he died, and the traditional Hebrew birthday blessing is “until 120,” meaning, may you live to that age. The Chabad movement marked Schneerson’s 120th birthday with a global celebration earlier this year that included 120 outreach vans rolling through New York City.

This year’s yahrzeit is also the first since the start of the Ukraine war. Schneerson was born in Mikolayiv, Ukraine, in 1902 and fled Nazi-occupied Europe for the US, settling in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, where Chabad is still based. He believed the US was a special place for Jews and was committed to the neighborhood. He took the helm of the movement in 1951, and remained its leader until his death in 1994, becoming one of the most influential figures in modern Judaism.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. (Mordecai Baron/Wikipedia)

He was not replaced in his position, and is still Chabad’s spiritual leader and guiding light, remaining very much alive for the community today. His image is everywhere and his followers sometimes still speak of him in the present tense. Chabad’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway (or “770” for short), where he lived, is iconic for the movement and a centerpiece of the neighborhood community. His teachings have been collected in about 250 volumes and 2,000 hours of recordings.

He preached a policy of outreach and outward-focused activity and empathy, mainly through performing mitzvahs, or religious commandments, and broadcast his message using the latest technologies, which is still part of Chabad’s method.

The group is also known for its outreach on city streets, asking Jewish passersby to pray as part of that mission and driving around “mitzvah tanks” that do things like pass out menorahs on Hanukkah. Thousands of Chabad houses around the world also offer Shabbat meals and other assistance to travelers in over 100 countries. The policies helped transform the movement into one of the world’s leading Hasidic groups after the destruction wrought by the Holocaust.

Schneerson’s resting place is now a pilgrimage site and considered a deeply spiritual place, particularly on the anniversary of his death. Around 400,000 people visit from across the world during the course of the year, including many Jews who are not part of Chabad and some non-Jewish people. New York City Mayor Eric Adams visited the site on Sunday, and New York State Governor Kathy Hochul issued a statement marking Schneerson’s yahrzeit.

Worshipers prepare to enter the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the chief rabbi of Thailand, traveled for 24 hours to attend the event in Queens and said the anniversary of his passing was both powerful and empowering.

“The day of passing is not just a date in a calendar that’s memorializing something. It says in the Kabballah that there’s an elevation of the soul,” he said, referring to Jewish mysticism. “On the yahrzeit itself there is something cosmic happening.”

In Thailand, a large part of his work is outreach to young Israelis during their post-army travels, many of whom did not grow up religious. He said many are open to spiritual and Jewish experiences during their trips abroad and can connect with each other. Chabad runs houses in the country that offer Shabbat dinners and traveler lounges with some services.

Worshipers at the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel.

The yahrzeit refocuses him on that mission, he said.

“It’s a recommitment and a realignment, an adjustment to make sure everything is as straight on target as possible in a spiritual way,” he said. “It feels like I’m accepted, like a fatherly acceptance, and I’m acknowledged for the efforts I’m putting forth in doing the Rebbe’s mission.”

“I also feel a sense of expectation,” he said. “I feel the Rebbe’s spirit. ‘I’m expecting you to do more, because you can do more.'”

People crowded into the area around the gravesite on Sunday, the last day of the yahrzeit events this year. Parked cars lined streets in the suburban neighborhood and hundreds of people milled around the area as police directed traffic. The heavy summer sun made the cemetery stones hot to touch and jets bound for JFK airport drifted overhead. Security guards kept lines moving fast to prevent overcrowding, so worshipers prepared themselves for the visit in a packed, low-key building nearby, writing down their requests, praying and chatting in  English, French, Hebrew and other languages.

Worshipers prepare to enter the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in New York City, July 3, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

At the entrance to the cemetery, separate lines for men and women led worshipers inside, where they lit candles lined up on shelves. Security ushered people through the gravesite, which is enclosed by a stone wall but open on top, casting the people in shadow and exposing the notes to the glaring sunlight. Some people disbursed letters from sacks sent from those who could not attend onto the pile of paper on top of the grave and a crowd prayed together outside amid the densely packed tombstones.

Wolff, the rabbi from Odesa, said he had attended every year since Schneerson’s death, but that this year was particularly important.

“I feel even more obligated to come because this year I’m coming as a public representative of thousands who requested blessings,” he said.

He set out from Odesa days before, driving to the Moldova border, crossing it on foot, then driving two hours to the capital Chișinău. From there he flew to Austria, then to Berlin, where around 450 refugees are staying in a hotel, including 120 children orphaned before the war. While in Berlin, he performed a bar mitzvah for an orphaned boy and officiated a marriage for two people who had also lost their parents.

Firefighters clear debris from a residential building damaged by a Russian airstrike in the town of Serhiivka, southwest of Odesa, Ukraine, July 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Maxim Penko)

He came to the site with 10 refugees, although he said many more wanted to come. Other Ukrainians called their rabbis if they were unable to get them letters, asking them verbally to deliver their prayers to the site.

Wolff estimated that there are around 20,000 Jews remaining in Odesa from a pre-war population of around 50,000. He said Odesa is better off than other large cities, but the situation is still dire. The day after he left, Russian missile strikes on residential areas around Odesa killed at least 21 people. Wolff said the community is hunkered down, unable to work and low on food and water, and the cities in the east, and their Jewish communities, were much worse off.

“There’s a lot of fear. Mostly the people who are still there can’t leave,” he said.

“I want to tell the world that the war is not being stopped and people are still getting killed. The people in Ukraine need help. The Jewish world and the world at large need to remember that,” he said. “People need help to survive this war.”

Mostly, they pray for home, he said.

“We took letters from all the refugees to the Rebbe,” Wolff said. “Prayers that the war will end, and they will be able to return to Odesa.”

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