In Queens, revered Jewish leader’s burial site draws crowds
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s quiet in the middle of the day on the streets of this residential neighborhood in New York City’s borough of Queens — except for the steady stream of visitors coming in and out of one particular small converted house next to a cemetery.
The men and women, young and old, have made their way from around the city, the country and the world to this unassuming site, the burial place of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to pay their respects to the leader of Judaism’s Chabad-Lubavitch movement who died 25 years ago.
While visitors come year-round, the crowds grow tremendously around the anniversary of his passing, which according to the Hebrew calendar falls this year on July 6, with people sometimes waiting a few hours to spend even a couple of moments at his mausoleum, where they pray and leave notes.
“If you’re coming here, you’re coming here for the real deal,” said Rivky Greenberg, 19, of Anchorage, Alaska, who timed her summer travel plans to coincide with visiting around the anniversary.
Greenberg, raised in Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, has come to the site several times in her life for the connection to the rabbi that it gives her.
“It’s not a tourist site,” she said. “It’s very rare that people will come and not feel something.”
Schneerson led Chabad-Lubavitch for more than four decades as the seventh rebbe, or spiritual leader, following the death of his father-in-law, whom he is buried next to at the Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights in eastern Queens. His wife’s and mother-in-law’s graves are a short distance away.
In those years, he was one of the most influential global leaders in Judaism, reinvigorating a small community that had been devastated by the Holocaust and pushing for all Jews to become more deeply connected to their faith and do more good in their everyday lives. He sent Chabad representatives to live all over the world.
The 25th anniversary of his passing has been widely noted, especially on Israeli social media, which is filled with tributes from politicians and commentators.
Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of Israel’s parliament who spent three years in Soviet prison in the 1980s before immigrating to Israel, said he “was a model of love for Israel and instilled in the Jewish nation a belief in its eternal values that protected us for thousands of years and will protect us forever.”
Following Schneerson’s death, a member of the community bought the home next to the cemetery, assuming it would become well visited, which it has been. Chabad-Lubavitch representatives estimate there are now about 400,000 visitors a year, with about 50,000 in the period surrounding the anniversary. The majority are Jewish, both Lubavitchers and not.
The facility is simple — the home’s backyard and driveway were enclosed with a white corrugated metal roof and turned into a climate-controlled space where visitors can sit on benches and write notes. From there, they can walk outside to the rabbi’s mausoleum, a small structure built out of gray stone walls surrounding two stone markers and a white stone pit where people can leave their notes for the rabbi. The notes are periodically collected and burned.
Around the time of the anniversary, white tents with fans and video screens are erected in the cemetery roadway next to the mausoleum, where men and women can wait their turn during busy times.
It’s a low-key setup, with no pomp or lavishness, but that fits in with who the rabbi was, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch.
He “served God with the holiness of simplicity, eschewing opulence and pomp, choosing instead to live a simple, almost meager existence,” Shmotkin said.
Mark Stein, 66, visiting from Johannesburg, South Africa, agreed. The real estate entrepreneur is not a Lubavitcher but admired the rabbi and his teachings and has visited the site several times.
“It’s authentic. … It’s not contrived,” said Stein, who included his stay in New York City on this trip specifically to visit the grave. “There’s no pretense here.”
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Deepti Hajela covers issues of race, ethnicity and immigration for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dhajela