Still Seeing the Rebbe
Just east of the last house in a row of modest, single family homes along Francis Lewis Boulevard, in the working-class and largely African-American neighborhood of Cambria Heights, Queens, one discovers a most extraordinary Jewish holy place. It is a site that the thousands of Jews who have come here during the last three and a half years consider as sacred as any of the other places on earth that they venerate. To reach it, most of those who come pass through a small opening in the backyard of this house, into a back section of Old Montefiore Cemetery. Here, where the bones of generations of American Jews lay buried, pilgrims pour in from all over the world. They come seeking what they have searched for at other holy places: personal blessings, the redemption of their souls from evil, the intercession of the Divine, cures for the ill, or endorsement of their important life choices and guidance from on-high.
Under the sun or stars, at all hours, in the nasty cold of the winter or the sweltering humidity of the summer, they come to pray, recite psalms, or simply to deliver notes, little missives not unlike those believers have for generations squeezed in among the tear-soaked stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem or deposited at the graves of the righteous. What brings most of the pilgrims to this graveyard, however, is not the remains of all those buried here — both the well-known and obscure. What has attracted them since June, 12, 1994 (3 Tammuz 5754, in the Hebrew calendar) is the grave of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and (as yet) the last grand rabbi or “Rebbe” of a 200 year old Lubavitcher hasidic dynasty, and the leading exponent of a philosophy of hasidism called “Chabad,” an acronym for the Hebrew words for “wisdom, knowledge and understanding.” It is to his tomb that they bring their notes and prayers.
There is surely an irony in this. At a time when many religious Jews agonize about their continued access to the ancient and hallowed vaults of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah located in the caves of Hebron or at the tomb of Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, this place in Queens has for growing numbers become no less sacrosanct. Moreover, while all of the Jewish faithful still look upon the Temple Mount and its remnant Western Wall in Jerusalem as the focus of their prayers and hopes, the supplicants and expressions of faith here seems no less fervent.
Who are these people who come by the bus- and planeload, sometimes traveling considerable distances just to visit the grave, and who is the man whose memory they honor and whose help and counsel they continue to seek? To understand them and something of their attraction to this Jewish pilgrimage site that has emerged in a nation that barely more than a generation ago many religious Jews called the “treyfe medina,” the state of defilement, I began to visit the cemetery and the house that has been established at the graveyard’s edge, talking with those who come and those who stay here.
It has been a journey not only to a place but to a state of mind, an exploration of belief in other-worldly redemption and contact with the departed by people who are very much in this world. And it has been a tour into an emergent collective consciousness and heart, a chance to see how a relationship between a group of followers and their dead leader is maintained even when prophecy fails, when an expected messianic redemption has not occurred.
For insiders, this sort of a visit to the cemetery was not “going to a grave.” They referred instead to their “going into the Rebbe.” They went “into” him and came away charged up with “feelings” and understandings that filled the interior imagination of their belief. They saw signs, got impressions, that the Rebbe had responded to them, as he did when he was alive.
“When I come here,” as one Lubavitcher, a dean at one of their yeshivas in New Jersey put it, “there’s no question that I feel different.”
As they had when he was alive, brides and grooms came “into the Rebbe” here to gain his approval for their marriage, and they always came away with answers. While most seemed to get the nod, there were reports of couples who, on the ride home from the ohel suddenly began to argue and understood by this that the Rebbe did not favor their being joined. As the pilgrims I met assured me, people who came here always left knowing what the Rebbe wanted, or soon found out.
The site had been expanded. What had simply been a tomb now included a new Chabad House several yards away, just outside the perimeter of the cemetery. Attached to the house, whose insides had been transfigured, was an office with several phone lines, a fax machine, and computer via which petitioners from all over the world sent messages and missives to the Rebbe, to be deposited on the earth under which the his remains were buried. The office was manned at all hours, most of them by a gentle young Lubavitcher from England who sorted and directed the electronic supplications. Outside the office was a small reception room in which a video mix composed of the thousands of hours the hasidim had recorded of the Rebbe ran endlessly and where visitors could sit and watch him on reruns while they composed themselves. In what was once a kitchen, people washed their hands at two sinks, in line with the tradition that all those leaving a cemetery must do so. By far the largest space inside the house was a library and chapel where people could pray (facing east toward the tomb and Jerusalem) and study the large body of literature and published talks and letters the Rebbe had produced in his lifetime and which were now part of the reverberating echo of his messages that believers studied and discussed to find the timeless wisdom they imagined was in it. One hasid called this “the Rebbe in the book.”
In addition to this place, the Lubavitchers had gradually purchased several other houses nearby to accommodate overnight guests and petitioners and a larger house on another street where they billeted students who came to plumb the meaning of the Rebbe’s texts. Next to this little yeshiva, they built a ritual bath for the daily immersions and for those visitors who wished to “purify” themselves before “coming into the Rebbe.”
Finally, in what was once the backyard of this small house, the Lubavitchers had erected a fiberglass hut nearly twice the size of the house itself. Portable heaters blew hot air inside to keep people warm in winter. Inside were rows of long tables, an ark that held Torah scrolls, and little stands that transformed the place into a study hall and chapel. The place looked much like the main space at Chabad World Headquarters on Eastern Parkway. Placed on tables everywhere inside the house and out here were small lucite boxes in which stacks of blank papers and pens were available for those who wanted to compose the little notes to God and the Rebbe, “pidyonos,” redemptions, the hasidim called them. In a corner there was a constantly replenished supply of cookies, tea and coffee; the body needed a lift even where the soul was king.
At the side of the hut, near the path that led to the cemetery was a small shelf on which were some spare gartels, the black sashes hasidim wrapped about their waists during prayer and with which they separated the higher from the lower parts of the body and the mind from the animal inclination. Underneath the gartels shelf was a stack of worn slippers, for those who wanted to remove their shoes before entering the holy place inside the ohel but did not want to step on the cold stone with their socks. And here too were some psalters whose frayed pages showed the signs of the countless fingers that had traced their words in supplication.
Because strict Jewish law prohibits those who trace their family origins to the priestly caste, the family of Cohens, to enter a cemetery where their purity would be defiled by the presence of the dead, the Lubavitchers devised a new ritual instrument that would allow a Cohen to visit the Rebbe. These were small booths, really more like moving partitions, that one could step into, grab by handles on the inside and carry about him like a portable room. The Cohen who carried himself inside such a booth could walk through the cemetery and still not be spiritually in it. And once arriving at the ohel, he could move smoothly from the booth into the Rebbe.
“Visits to the graves of the righteous,” the Lubavitchers explained, “do not defile.” Hence when the Cohen left his booth to go into the Rebbe, his purity remained intact — or so the hasidim believed. After all, this tabernacle, most pilgrims assumed, was not a place of defilement but the antechamber to messianic eternity, a gateway to heaven.
But how could anyone believe that this undistinguished, plain-looking neighborhood in Queens was where Jews could find the gateway to heaven? Nowhere near the Holy Land over which Jews bleed and died, how did this New York neighborhood become a destination for the faithful? And who was this man whose tomb became for some the antechamber to messianic eternity?
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the man they call “The Rebbe,” was born in 1902 into a hasidic family that lived in the southern Ukraine. During his life he moved to Riga, Warsaw, and then to the more cosmopolitan Berlin and Paris, where he passed through the ferment of Jewish secularization, lived under communism, and fled the Nazis before arriving in New York in 1941. This man with the penetrating steel blue eyes, bushy beard and black fedora, who since his arrival here never left Brooklyn (except for occasional visits to the cemetery in Queens and a couple of short trips to the Catskills to visit a Chabad summer camp), nevertheless managed to beget an extraordinary network of Jewish outreach workers and institutions that span the world.
Schneerson sent his bearded, black-hatted hasidim and their wives –“shluchim,” emissaries, they called themselves — to places where bearded and black-coated hasidim had never gone before: from college campuses to airport terminals and town squares, from the Jewish ghetto of Crown Heights, Brooklyn to the wide open spaces of Hollywood and Los Angeles and every major Jewish population center as well as many minor ones, from the Jerusalem corridor and the village of K’far Chabad to the foothills of the Himalayas and Katmandu, behind the Iron Curtain and even into the domains of Latin American rulers, to distant Australia, and in the last years even to the furthest reaches of cyberspace on the World Wide Web. In these places, against all odds, they managed to arouse interest in Jewish tradition, rituals, and in some cases even the mysteries of hasidism.
At one of the early farbrengens, the mass gatherings of his hasidim that the Rebbe organized several times a year in Brooklyn, he launched this outreach program, kicking it off with a kind of Chabad anthem, the song “U’foratzto,” whose words encouraged listeners to “expand Westward and Eastward, to the North and to the South.” Seven-seventy Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, the local address of Lubavitch, became formally known as the Chabad “world headquarters.” Using the language and imagery of the military, he had his emissaries set out with missionary zeal to remake Jews with the “wisdom, understanding and knowledge” of Chabad philosophy. This struggle against the powerful forces of contemporary secular culture, which the Rebbe believed eroded Jewish loyalties and traditions, required an “army of God,” tzivos Hashem, as the Lubavitchers called themselves, and worldwide representatives to spread the good word and make possible a Jewish life in the farthest reaches of the globe.
Some of the emissaries traveled in mitzvah tanks, caravans that carried the tools of their mission — prayer books, candles and articles of worship — to the Jews who had been separated from their faith and whom the tank commanders were expected to pull back into the fold and solidarity with a cadre of followers, hasidim. Others were attracted to ports where they could escape the secular storm of godlessness, where they could regroup and fortify themselves against the corrosive power of contemporary culture. Lubavitchers called these spiritual havens, Chabad Houses. The Chabad House was meant to be where renewal of faith could occur. Each Chabad House had its own little rebbe, the Chabad hasid who acted as the Rabbi Schneerson’s emissary. For those who were to be sent out to do this work, the Rebbe had words of encouragement: Genuine Jewish “life is possible especially if one lives and works in Exile.”
And what of the danger that the faithful would be victims of the same cultural assimilation that the Jews they sought to save had suffered? Speaking in parables, as he often did, the Rebbe framed the Chabad mission with a tale. It was the story of a king who sent his son far away “in order that he should have more delight when the son returned,” but who then discovered that the son did not return and instead forgot his royal origins. “The king sent a message to him — but he refused to come back. Then a wise minister discovered the secret of how to make the prince return.” That minister therefore “changed his garments and his language, to be like the son. He came close to him, on his level, and brought him back to his father.” Chabad emissaries were those wise ministers.
Yet the goal was not just to make believers and bring back prodigal children. It was at its heart to fulfill a messianic vision Chabad hasidim shared with the Ba’al Shem Tov, the legendary eighteenth century European founder of hasidism who reported a mystical encounter (a story reprinted in Wellsprings, a Chabad quarterly journal) with the Messiah himself:
I asked the Messiah: “When will you come?” He answered me: “Through this you will know — when your teachings are publicized and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will be spread to the outside….”
The Rebbe’s outreach activity was, it seemed, nothing short of an effort to hasten the coming of the Messiah by spreading Chabad hasidic teachings outside the circle of believers, first to Jews and then, in a more limited way, to all others.
To achieve this ultimate goal the Rebbe and the people he selected attempted to come close to world Jewry and one-by-one, each at the person’s own level, enhance certain rituals, and thereby raise Jewish consciousness and with it the degree of anticipation about messianic redemption. It was a daring plan for it took hasidim, who during the last two hundred years had become largely parochial and insular and anxious about contact with others unlike themselves, and instead placed them in what would be hostile cultural environments. But it seemed to work — or it least it did not completely fail.
For many Jews who have had little or no contact with established Judaism, the Chabad hasid who champions this religious and messianic awakening was often the first or the only traditional looking Jew who took an interest in their spiritual life. This person was the one who may have stopped them on the street or campus with the question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” only to follow up an affirmative reply with a request to try putting on t’fillin, the black leather boxes filled with Scripture that are part of the Jewish male’s daily religious obligation, or invite them to enter a “Mitzvah Tank,” to talk about Jewish tradition, to give women candles and counsel them to light them on Friday nights as part of a campaign of enhancing Sabbath observance. These emissaries opened their homes and hearts and invited Jews of all persuasions to join them and spend time in a Chabad environment. Few other hasidim took up this sort of risky encounter with contemporary unbelievers and culture. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, however, did, and the world often beat a path to his door. And while individual Jews were touched, Rabbi Schneerson and his followers believed they were hastening the Messiah.
Yet what made the charismatic Schneerson stand out most, especially in the last years of his life and since his death, was not simply this outreach work, however revolutionary it was, nor even his interest in hastening the Messiah — hasidism had been doing that since the beginning. What made the Rebbe of interest far beyond the precincts of Lubavitcher hasidim was the radical assertion by many of his followers (and, according to some, it was an assertion he did not discourage) that the Messiah they were hastening was none other than Rabbi Menachem Mendel himself. This belief grew more powerful as the childless Rebbe aged and no obvious successor to his leadership emerged.
Indeed, as he lay in a stroke-induced coma in the weeks before his death, supporters and believers signed petitions to God, demanding that he allow their Rebbe to reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah and rise from his sick-bed to lead all humanity to their redemption. These increasingly frenzied calls by some of his followers for him to acknowledge himself as the Redeemer, especially in the years following a stroke which left him unable to speak, when they greeted him with songs that proclaimed “may our master, our teacher, our rabbi, the king the Messiah live forever,” repelled some but also confirmed a growing conviction among many outside the boundaries of Chabad hasidism that this was at the very least a special man.
But now he was dead and his grave became the closest people could get to him. Among some of the faithful, he was still the Messiah, soon to return in all his glory. Indeed, some even imagined that in death, the Rebbe’s messianic ascendancy and miracle powers had actually grown and that made his sepulcher the best address for pleas of redemption. Many of them were among the pilgrims who came to see him now.
Schneerson had himself visited this cemetery regularly during his lifetime. Here he had buried his mother and much later his wife. Here his mother-in-law lay and here was the “ohel,” the “tabernacle,” a large rectangular tomb with its adjoining chapel, open to the sky, in which the Lubavitchers buried Rabbi Joseph Yitzhak Schneersohn, his father-in-law, their leader who moved the center of Chabad to America. Rabbi Menachem Mendel had taken on the mantle of his father-in-law’s leadership in 1951, a year after the latter’s death, but he had always portrayed himself as simply a conduit to the man the Lubavitchers called “the Frierdiker Rebbe,” a Yiddishism that meant simply, “the previous Grand Rabbi.” He had, moreover, maintained an ongoing relationship with this predecessor by visiting his grave and going inside the ohel alone to pray and receive guidance. The Rebbe had evolved a liturgy for these visits, which pilgrims now used when visiting the site. Before arriving, he would immerse himself in waters of the ritual bath, then come to cemetery, remove his shoes, and prepare himself for prayer and communion with the Frierdiker Rebbe. Then at last he would knock softly on the door to the ohel, open it, and go inside where he sat in solitude, sometimes for hours. In the last years of his life, when he had outlived all his contemporaries, these visits had grown more frequent and longer. In fact, it was during one of them that the Rebbe had been seized with his first disabling stroke. Help was late in coming because it was only after he had been inside for what seemed to his followers an inordinately long time that they opened the door and found him stricken, having been helpless for no one knew how long.
For the Rebbe, these visits to the grave of a zaddik, the outstanding Jew he claimed his father-in-law to be, were crucial. While he had accepted the mantle of leadership, throughout the years, Menachem Mendel always insisted that his authority came only from his ability to fathom the will of his predecessor. Four months after his father-in-law’s death, during one of his sichos, the hours-long talks that he offered at the farbrengens, he explained this to his followers: “the Rebbe [Joseph Yitzhak] evokes mercy for us and indeed leads our fold — and the entire world — just as he did until now, with even greater strength. And just as we all believed until now that he would lead us to complete Redemption, so too must we believe in the future.” What Menachem Mendel said about his predecessor, his followers now said about him.
Had Lubavitch been like nearly all other hasidic groups, the death of their leader would have led to the ascension of a new rebbe, commonly the son or son-in-law of the late leader. If no such heir was found, some other relative — a brother, nephew, or even a brother-in-law — might do. That was what had happened in such famous dynasties as the Ger hasidim, the largest of the sects in Israel, and the Satmar hasidim who were New York’s biggest hasidic group, concentrated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and in Kiryas Joel in Orange County. To be sure, transitions were not always smooth and among the Satmars there were ongoing struggles over who was the true leader. Nevertheless, had there been a Lubavitch successor, he would probably have come to the ohel and from there brought back the blessings and guidance of the Rebbe to his surviving hasidim.
But Rabbi Menachem Mendel had no heirs. Most of his immediate relatives, like so many of his contemporaries, were not hasidic Jews, let alone Orthodox. His nephew, son of the late rabbi who had headed the Lubavitch yeshiva and who once had been Menachem Mendel’s only rival and, in the minds of some, the heir apparent when the Previous Rebbe had died, was not a candidate. Living in New Jersey the nephew had both abandoned hasidism and been party to a nasty and public court suit in which he had challenged the ownership of the rare books in the Lubavitch library. Rabbi Menachem Mendel had not indicated any other clear successors. That left the Lubavitchers with lots of emissaries but no single leader. They remained attached to their Rebbe, even though he was gone from this earth.
With his own death, Menachem Mendel now led his followers, and thousands of others, to the same ohel where he had gone to consult with the spirit of the man next to whom he now lay buried. His followers believed that he could still evoke mercy for them and guide them and the entire world, just as he did in life but with greater strength. From the grave, he still could lead them to “complete Redemption.”
But instead of one man coming to the ohel and bringing back blessings and guidance for them, as the Rebbe had once done for them, now they all could come themselves and receive the counsel and help they used to receive from their Rebbe when he was alive. This was America, after all, the do-it-yourself capital of the world. And Chabad had come to America.
The idea for an expanded presence at the ohel had been Hayim Boruch Halberstam’s. Halberstam, whose nephew Ari was the young Lubavitcher killed by an Arab drive-by shooter on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, was a hasid who had grown up in Israel in a family loyal to the Klausenberger hasidic dynasty. But during his youth, when he had failed to toe the line in the Klausenberg yeshiva, Hayim was sent to a Chabad institution. Now married and the father of eight, after living in America for thirty-five years, he had long ago shifted his allegiances and become devoted to the Chabad brand of hasidism. Like many other Lubavitchers, he had found his calling through a task he performed at the Rebbe’s request: to see to the recording and broadcasting of the Chabad message — “bringing the Rebbe to the world,” as he put it. This led to his starting a successful business in audio and video duplication.
Yet when the Rebbe was buried in June of 1994, Hayim felt lost. Like so many others of the “flock,” he felt a continuing need to serve the Rebbe, even though the Rebbe was no longer living.
“A day after the funeral I was walking around and wondering where am I heading now? I don’t believe the Rebbe died. The Rebbe passed away to another stage. So he’s going to continue doing his thing.” Of course, Hayim admitted, he had no doubt that the Rebbe’s body was out there in the ground. He was not one of those — and there were some — who refused to believe that the Rebbe had truly been buried and claimed he was simply in occlusion, as some Moslems believe the Twelfth Imam is hidden and waiting to reappear. Nor did he think the Rebbe was, like Elvis, out there somewhere. To be sure, the Rebbe’s body had been swiftly buried, before the thousands who came to his funeral even managed to reach the cemetery from Brooklyn, and that probably fueled some of those far-out beliefs. Yet, as Halberstam explained, he did not believe in the finality of what had happened.
“I tell you the truth, I really don’t understand anything what is living and dying.”
As he mourned on that day after the funeral and walked about perplexed, Halberstam asked himself: “What do I do now? I want to do the right thing, the Rebbe’s thing, because if not this, what else am I doing?”
And then it came to him: “I just decide to switch, my same position only a switch.” And what was that switch? In the past he had electronically brought the Rebbe to the people, now he would somehow “bring the people to the Rebbe.”
But while he knew what he wanted to do, he did not yet know how he would do it. “So I went in the next day to the Rebbe.”
The idea of visiting a grave to communicate with the Rebbe was not so strange, he explained. “Don’t you go to visit the grave of your father? What does he know if you came? Why are you doing this? You know he’s bones, but you keep talking to him. So that’s why I keep talking to the Rebbe. I didn’t change; I didn’t stop talking to him. So I told him my plan.
“The way things are,” he continued in his conversation at the ohel, “it’s a cemetery, and people cannot come so easily. I would like to buy a house in the neighborhood and open a Chabad house so that we should be able to continue the work you told us to do: putting t’fillin on people, and giving some lectures. The basic things. Have a shul [little synagogue] here and continue the traditions. And I’m going to go out and look for the closest house to here.”
As he walked away from the ohel, he exited via a narrow side gate onto Francis Lewis Boulevard, just beyond the last house bordering the cemetery. “And as I’m walking, the owner of this house drives in with his jeep. So I start talking to him: ‘How’s your neighbors? Your neighbors are quiet?’
“He says, ‘You know the neighbors are too quiet. Maybe you know someone, maybe you guys want to buy this place.’
“I’m not superstitious. But I’m coming from the Rebbe and telling him what I want to do and I ask him, ‘please give me a brocha [blessing] it should work; I should find the right thing. And as I’m saying this to him Monday, Friday we settled it right here. I sat at the man’s table, gave him a $5000 binder check and settled the whole thing. Later Rabbi Gutnick from Australia who was very willing and able helped us buy the building.
“At first the locals were quite afraid; they thought we were coming here to take over the neighborhood, a rivalry — they didn’t understand that we were only interested in what was on the other side of the fence, in the cemetery.
“But then we made an ‘open-house’ and we invited them all inside. From all around they came — much more than we expected. The Reverend came. So somebody gave a speech to them and explained what this whole place is about.
“They all said they would like to see where everybody is going. Buses are pulling up, the streets are filled with cars parked sometimes, but it looks like there’s nobody here in the house. Usually when there’s a lot of activity you see people walking around the house. But they didn’t see anything. So they wondered: where is everybody going in such a little house. And when they came to the house and see how nice we fixed it up, again they want to know where is everybody going? They want to ‘go to the Rebbe.’ Since then something very interesting happened,” Halberstam concluded with a smile. “I don’t know if they’re superstitious in nature but they all come and tell us, this happened to me. I went to the Rebbe and had big problems and they went away. And now they are helping us. They became convinced that ‘there is something here.'”
It was not that he suggested that they had become “believers” in the Rebbe. But, as he explained, “when people prepare themselves spiritually to experience something, they see things that they would not otherwise see.”
“And what do you get out of it when you come here?” I asked one of the hasidim who explained that he came about every ten days, taking the ride of over three hours from where he lived in New Jersey near the Chabad yeshiva.
“I get a lot of inspiration. I feel I get siata d’shmaya [the help of heaven], and it’s guiding me in the right direction. But I tell you it’s not something you can describe in words.”
“If I’m looking for some personal connection,” said another an emissary on Long Island, meaning a chance to lay bare his feelings before the Rebbe, “I come at night, when its quiet.” In the silence of the night, when he might have a moment alone in the ohel, he could hear the Rebbe more clearly and know he was personally being addressed.
For the emissaries, out there in the world without the assurances they used to get from the Rebbe that they would not become lost in a secular sea of unbelievers and that on the contrary they were saving Jews, a trip here was a chance to learn, as one put it, “if I’m going in the right direction.”
They wanted signs that the Rebbe favored the choices that they were making, major decisions that they had never before made alone. Should they add people to their staff, dismiss them? Should they expand their mission? They came for “chizuk,” encouragement. Such pilgrimages required highly focused spiritual attention, especially if one was among the crowds who commonly filled the ohel.
“The moment I go into that place, I don’t look around. I don’t hear what others are saying. I don’t move my eyes — as much as I possibly can — either from the note that I’m reading or from the prayers that I’m saying.”
Many of the pilgrims who come in the endless flow — usually more than five hundred a day and more on special occasions like holiday time, according to the three Lubavitchers who man the house at all hours — were these sorts of hasidim, either those living in the New York area or those from the far-flung network of emissaries. They came frequently and also appeared on those days set aside in the Chabad calendar for such visits — occasions that Lubavitchers have raised to something like holy days. These include the tenth of Shevat (commonly falling in mid-winter) the anniversary of Rabbi Joseph Yitzhak’s death, and the third of Tammuz (in early summer) for Rabbi Menachem Mendel. But they come also on birthdays or special family occasions like the eve of a wedding or the day a young boy receives his first haircut around the age of three.
On any given day, however, the site is filled not with these long-time Chabad admirers but with people who come from elsewhere. Followers of other hasidic rabbis come, although as the Lubavitcher caretaker assured me, “mostly at night when fewer people are likely to see them.” Israelis, particularly those who trace their origins to North Africa and the Islamic countries, those who have a long tradition of making pilgrimages to the graves of the saintly rabbis, are among the most common visitors. Having attended the graves of the saints in Israel, now that they find themselves in America, they come to the holy man here in New York. Immigrant Russian Jews come, many of them hoping for some help beyond what they have found so far in the new land of so many broken promises. Pilgrims come from France, Latin America, and Australia — some stopping here on their ways to and from nearby JFK International airport. They come in taxis and limousines, by the busload or crammed into vans and private cars. Always they prepare their notes — handwritten, folded and then torn in half, in line with Chabad tradition, before being deposited on the grave — to be delivered by the Rebbe to God. Once a month and sometimes more frequently if the need arises, these notes are taken away and burned by the hasidic staff at the ohel.
Sometimes pilgrims come for very short visits — a bit abashed that they’re doing this — like someone asking for an autograph “for my friend.” These are the people who are not quite sure why they have come or even if they should be here at all. A young American Jew in his thirties, wearing a leather jacket, one of those stylish ones that cost a small fortune and appear on the Upper East Side rather than on a biker’s back, comes in with his wife. On his head he has quickly thrown one of the black linen skull caps he has pulled from the receptacle on the wall, near the directions that tell the uninitiated how to visit the site. Hesitantly but still trying to move swiftly, he maneuvers himself through the small house, peeking into the open rooms, while his dark-haired, Israeli wife half sits on a chair beneath the video of the Rebbe and with trembling hands writes a note.
“We are thinking of starting a family,” he explains when asked what has brought him here. “And these guys always come to my office and tell me the Rebbe can help. So, now I’m here.” Soon he and his wife are quietly pattering off to the ohel, where she lights a candle along the inside wall and covered in a kerchief prays, as her husband grapples with his own thoughts and a psalm book while he squeezes himself in among the other pilgrims in the tiny space of the tomb.
By the dawn’s early light, a woman in tears, with a child in the hospital, has come to ask the Rebbe for help. Her child is not responding to the medication, and she can use all the blessings the Rebbe has to give her.
A call comes from a woman in Arizona with a sick husband. She is not religious, but she has heard about the Rebbe and his power. Can she speak to him? He is in the grave, she is told. The news overwhelms her and she breaks into tears; this was her last hope.
“But we can say a prayer for him here,” the Lubavitcher assures her. “Give us the man’s name.”
Late afternoon on a Sunday, a young Frenchman and his wife wait in front for a cab that will take them to the airport and home. They have been in New York on holiday. They heard the opera, saw a couple of Broadway shows, did some shopping, and now they have stopped here for a visit to the Rebbe before they check in for their flight and their return home, blessed and refreshed.
“There is a great rabbi, the head of a yeshiva here in New York,” the young Lubavitcher who mans the fax room tells me. This rabbi is not a follower of Chabad hasidism; he isn’t a hasid at all. “And there was a man from Michigan, I think, one of those states out here. He had a very big problem, and he was in New York and he came to discuss it with that yeshiva head. He told him he was thinking of going to Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] to seek some guidance at the grave of a gadol [great immortal] there.
“So this rabbi says to him, ‘You have to go to Eretz Yisrael? Go here to Queens!’ The man came, and afterwards he called to thank the rabbi. He said he felt a certain inspiration, whatever. The problem is solved. It worked for him.
“But I’ll tell you, it depends also on how you come. Your receive the answers and inspirations, feelings, in accordance with how you prepared. People are searching,” he concluded. If one walked in as a believer, one walked out as a believer.
Yet although there were lots of different sorts of people who came here spiritually searching, for the Lubavitchers, it was their own hasidim whose quest that seemed most compelling. The relationship between the hasid and his rebbe was, after all, the most intimate, almost familial. “We are all his children,” as one of them put it.
All this became clear on a Thursday night last February, the tenth of Shevat which began at nightfall, the anniversary of Rabbi Joseph Yitzhak’s death. Yet even on this night that was supposed to belong to the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel overshadowed his predecessor.
Accounting for this shift in emphasis, one hasid explained that Joseph Yitzhak “was our rebbe’s rebbe, but the Rebbe is our rebbe. And anyway this day is also the anniversary of our Rebbe becoming a rebbe,” an ascension that was confirmed a year to the day after his predecessor’s passing.
On this night, the place was filled with black-hatted Lubavitcher hasidim, most of them boys in their teens. They came from Chabad yeshivas in New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, even California. While they all planed primarily to “go into the Rebbe,” they were also here for the fellowship, the camaraderie that was so much a part of hasidic ingathering, farbrengen. This was an opportunity to join en masse with their fellow hasidim as in years past they might have gathered with the Rebbe and one another at the massive farbrengens held in Crown Heights. Some of the boys saved their pocket money or the funds they received for excelling in their studies to pay for the trip. Most had been preparing for weeks for this occasion. Before coming, each one was expected to review and learn many folios of Talmud, as well as to steep himself in the Rebbe’s writings. They would spend much of the night here, staying up as late as they could, evaluating themselves and their day, preparing for the moment when they would “go into the Rebbe,” which for most of them would come in the morning, after they had reviewed and assimilated a ma’amar, a saying, of the Rebbe. Each boy had to know a ma’amar by heart and be able to explain another one “inside,” meaning from the text open before him. Then at last, with the words of the Rebbe’s ma’amar filling his mind and permeating his intellect while its repetition still rang in his ears, he went into the Rebbe.
Shneur Zalman, a nineteen-year-old young son of one of the shluchim from Detroit, described his preparations to me and shared some of what he had learned. And when I asked him what he expected to come away with after his visit, he said: “The truth is — and it doesn’t only apply only now; it applied as well when the Rebbe was still around — whatever you put in, that’s what you get out. Sometimes I come back a completely different person, completely uplifted, and sometimes,” he paused, “Sometimes, it could have been better.”
It was not easy, especially for the young who came here, or those who did not really remember or even know the Rebbe when he was alive. Yet that these youngsters and newcomers still came was an inspiration for the old timers who worried about the future.
“Look,” one of the older hasidim explained to me, gesturing toward the rows of young men bent over books or huddling together in the hut, “how much is demanded and expected of these young people. I saw the Rebbe. I got answers from him. I got guidance from him. I got smiles from him. I got mi sheberachs [blessings] from him. I still see him when I come, and I’m still inspired by those visions, and so I come out inspired. And when they come here,” those youngsters who have none of these memories, ” the same is expected of them that is expected of me.
“And yet it must be said that the Lord, may He be Blessed, would not give us such a test of faith if we did not have the strength to pass it. So what I see is that these young people who come here without those memories and experiences have tremendous vision — more than big hasidim, spiritual giants of previous generations, because they didn’t have to be put through these sorts of spiritual difficulties. It could be confusing to come here without that sort of strength.”
“It’s not like seeing the Rebbe?” I asked Shneur Zalman, who was old enough to remember seeing the Rebbe alive when he was a youngster.
“No,” he said softly.
“We can’t have a dead Rebbe, and we will have to have a living rebbe,” one of the elders of Chabad explained to me that night. As important as the pilgrimage here was, it was not enough for him.
“So who will it be?” I asked, hoping at last to learn who would lead all these people back from the grave.
He looked at me with a kind of indulgent smile while he remained silent for a moment. Then, as if trying to clarify matters for a child, he continued. “I’m not talking about somebody else.”
“So what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking that the aybershter,” he used the Yiddish word for ‘the Almighty Lord,’ “will help us. He’s going to take us out of this situation in one way or another. He knows best. And there’ll be a geula shelema [a complete redemption], and we’ll be together with the Rebbe.”
“And in the meantime?” I asked.
“In the meantime,” he answered, “I’m here, and he’s alive in my heart.”
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Professorship in Jewish Studies and Sociology at the City University of New York. He is the author of When A Jew Dies, Portrait of American Jews, The People of the Book, Synagogue Life, A Walker in Jerusalem, Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry, The Gate Behind the Wall, and Cosmopolitans and Parochials.