The Jewish world has never seen anyone like the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He was a mystic who built a global network of Jewish educational centers, spoke seven languages, and, some say, could heal the sick. The last in a long line of spiritual leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, Schneerson moved to America in 1941 and assumed leadership of the small New York Lubavitcher community in 1951. Over the course of four decades, he built a worldwide movement of Hasidism, which now has thousands of centers in over 80 countries. When he died in 1994, Schneerson left no successor and a gaping hole in the community. What would they do without their charismatic, wise Rebbe? Some followers believe he never died, but instead ascended to a higher plain; it’s said you can still feel his presence in the Brooklyn synagogue where he used to lecture. He’s been called an imposter, a charlatan, a miracle-worker and controversially, Messiah, the redeemer of the Jewish people. This year marks 20 years since his death. Each year, on the day of the Rebbe’s yahrzeit, 50,000 visitors make a pilgrimage to his grave.
1) The story of Hasidism starts with the Baal Shem Tov, the Jewish mystic who lived in the poor, rural countryside of 18th-century Ukraine and could speak with animals. He could also fly. All Hasidic traditions—Satmar, Bobov, Chabad-Lubavitch and others—trace their spiritual lineage back to this miracle-worker. He taught that earnest faith in God trumped rabbinic scholarship, that uneducated villagers could also be holy, that their prayers were as meaningful as those of scholars. Chaim Pil is a Crown Heights resident who tells me that the Rebbe is the Messiah. While all Lubavitchers believe this, there are grades of belief in the community, Chaim explains. Not everyone will take to the street and publicize their belief, some are more private. Chaim wears a button of the Rebbe on his jacket and ranks himself among the more outspoken believers.
2) Replicas of this building, 770 Eastern Parkway, have been built in Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and Milan. The original, where the movement was headquartered and the Rebbe kept his office during his lifetime, is at the intersection of Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway in central Brooklyn. On a summer day, old men smoke cigarettes on park benches in the shade and young Lubavitchers, some having traveled all the way from Israel, pray inside. They wear fashionable suits and gather outside the door of what was once Schneerson’s study, davening back and forth. The Rebbe, who never travelled to the Holy Land, has a global following of hundreds of thousands, and more than 400 Jewish centers in Israel.
3) “He taught us how to live our Jewishness to the fullest,” Avraham Berkowitz, a middle-aged member of the community, says about the Rebbe. “He is our model.” On the way to the tzadik’s grave, he packs his minivan full of friends and they ride in reverential silence as he plays a recording of one of Schneerson’s sermons over the stereo. “If you spend too much time on Facebook, on Twitter, you might think the world is falling into chaos and disorder,” Avraham says. “The Rebbe teaches us that this world is God’s garden. It’s easy to forget that.”
4) Not all Lubavitchers are equally devout. Shmuel prays and keeps the Sabbath, but admits he sometimes feels separate from the community he was born and raised in. Unlike his neighbors, he won’t be making the pilgrimage. He plays YouTube videos on his phone and flips through pictures of his brother in Israel. On Shmuel’s to do list (in no particular order): finish college, travel abroad, lose weight. “You can tell I don’t go to the gym,” he laughs, patting his gut.
5) Tzadikim, holy men, are buried in Ukraine, Israel, Iran, Morocco, Egypt and Yemen, anywhere Jews have lived. Annually, hundreds of thousands of Jews, from all denominations—and even non-Jews—make the pilgrimage to the Rebbe’s final resting place, in southern Queens. Jewish tradition teaches that a holy man’s soul is always hovering near his grave. Here, it’s said, the Rebbe is listening. Hearing prayers, he picks the words up in his hands and carries them to God.
6) After his death in 1994, the Rebbe was buried in Montefiore Cemetery alongside his father-in-law. Though there are few Jews who live in this largely black Caribbean neighborhood, Lubavitchers have bought a string of homes bordering the graveyard, as if to be as close to the Rebbe as possible, even in death. One single-story home has been converted into a visitors’ center. There are prayer books, instant coffee, and outlets to recharge a phone. Videos of the Rebbe lecturing on Torah play on repeat. Tables have been set up with pens and pads of paper. Here, pilgrims write letters to the Rebbe that will be torn and scattered at his grave. “These are deeply personal,” Avraham explains. “It’s as if we pour out our souls.”
7) Men stand in line for hours, shuffling forward, prayer-books in hand, to enter the small stone enclosure where the Rebbe is buried. Some have traveled thousands of miles to come here. Pilgrims are allowed no longer than two minutes at the tzadik’s grave and security guards are here to remind them of this. There is hardly room to breathe. It is a sea of black hats and beards. Having come all this way, they spend just moments at the grave. They kiss the headstone and keep moving, making room for the next wave of pilgrims.
8) After praying at the Rebbe’s grave, two young Lubavitcher yeshiva students navigate their way back to Crown Heights. It’s past midnight and at first they can’t find their car. “Where did we park?” They walk three blocks in the wrong direction before they find their spot. Then they get lost as they drive. They switch on the GPS and turn hesitantly through the city streets. It isn’t a divine hand guiding them on—they peer at the screen, then outside, then back to the screen—but they’re still looking for signs, and a way home.
Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer at the Jewish Daily Forward. Previously, he worked at The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah, and Beijing. Follow him on Twitter @skestenbaum.