Yahrzeit yearnings

Tens of thousands make pilgrimage to Chabad rebbe’s grave, marking 30 years since his death

While many visitors to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's 'Ohel' are devoted followers of the movement, others say they simply feel connected to his teachings

A mother and her school-aged son traveled from Texas. Rabbis flew in from California and the Caribbean. Thousands made the short drive from Chabad’s home base of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the other New York boroughs, clutching handwritten notes bearing personal prayers from relatives and friends who live far away, while hundreds more crossed the Atlantic, journeying from Israel and Europe. Some waited in line to enter Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens for more than three hours on Tuesday afternoon, undeterred by the sweltering 90-degree heat. Others made the trip to what many consider sacred ground on Monday night or as early as Sunday. 

At the cemetery, which is visited by an estimated 400,000 people annually, women — some dressed in pants and others in long skirts with their hair covered, and several holding babies — gathered in an area labeled “Ladies section” and scribbled prayers on small pieces of paper. On the men’s side, attendees carried prayer books and hummed nigunim, wordless melodies. On the outskirts of the narrow tent, a man proposed to his girlfriend, seeing it as an auspicious day to do so. And throughout the cemetery, photographs of the hostages that remain in Hamas captivity were displayed with the words “Bring Them Home Now.” 

This was the scene this week as a projected 50,000 people descended on the gravesite, known as the Ohel, of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death, or yahrzeit, which fell on Monday night and Tuesday in the Jewish calendar. Thousands of the attendees who packed the tent, where television screens plastered on the walls played recordings of Schneerson speaking, are affiliated with the Chabad movement, one of the largest Hasidic groups of Judaism, which was founded in the 18th century in the Russian Empire. Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, led the movement for four decades after taking over from his father-in-law. Chabad has not had a leader since Schneerson died in 1994 at age 92. His teachings on Jewish mysticism, emphasis on every individual having world-changing purpose and embrace of Jews of all backgrounds have had a lasting legacy, especially on thousands of Chabad emissaries worldwide, known as shluchim

But an equally large number of those who made the pilgrimage to eastern Queens this week identify with Judaism’s Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. Some are even non-Jews, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who visited around 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Hundreds were born after the rebbe died. But all claim a special and personal connection to the rebbe’s expansive teachings. 

Teddy Raskin, the 32-year-old co-founder of Israel Friends, a nonprofit that delivers humanitarian aid to Israel, hadn’t heard of the rebbe as a child growing up in a Reform household outside of Chicago. But Raskin formed a close bond during his time as a student at Vanderbilt University with Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein, the Chabad rabbi on campus. After college, during a turbulent time in Raskin’s career, Rothstein encouraged him to write a letter to Schneerson. Raskin, who lives in Manhattan, was skeptical at the time, he told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday. But 10 days after writing the letter, Raskin said his company was saved. “It’s just another example of the power of community and being with other people,” he said. On Sunday, Raskin went with some 30 young professionals affiliated with Chabad of the Upper East Side to pay his respects to the rebbe, an experience he called “very emotional.” 

“This is a time to go there and pray for the hostages, [notably] the five Americans that remain hostage in Gaza,” said Raskin, who has visited the Ohel several times since his rabbi first encouraged him to do so five years ago. Since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, more than 100 grief-stricken family members of hostages have flocked to the gravesite to pray for the safe return of their loved ones. 

For Melissa Chapman, a mother of two young adults and social media influencer, the visit to commemorate Schneerson’s 30th yahrzeit was a way to fulfill a childhood regret. “I grew up [familiar with Chabad] and got invited to meet the rebbe, but one thing I always regretted was that I never went to the Ohel,” Chapman, a resident of Staten Island who went on Sunday, her first time doing so, told eJP. “It was such a moving experience to see the legacy the rebbe created.” 

“Over the years, I went off the derech,” Chapman said, using a Hebrew phrase that translates to “off the path” and refers to people who have stopped being Orthodox. “But still, Chabad was there for every part of my life and my childrens’… There’s a magical quality that brings all people together, no matter age or level of observance. You walk into the Ohel and you feel at home, welcomed with no judgment, and that’s what Chabad is to me.”

A Chabad official told eJP that while attendance numbers this year were consistent with past gatherings to commemorate Schneerson’s death — perhaps even slightly smaller as the Hebrew date falls later in the summer than usual this year, when many children are away at camp — the 30th anniversary carries added significance as at least four new books pertaining to the rebbe’s teachings are slated to be published this year: Torah philosophy of the Lubavitcher RebbeGuidance for Emotional Wellness from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, A Strategic Guide for Achieving Lasting Peace In Israel and The Rebbe’s Revolutionary Vision for Jewish Art.

To mark the anniversary, Chabad announced the launch of 100 new afterschool programs, called CKids, which will span more than 10 countries and 15 U.S. states including Barcelona, Spain, and Omaha, Neb. Additionally, Chabad this week provided seed funding for 100 new shluchim to establish centers in underserved areas.  

“There’s a holiness embedded in today; it’s a day of bonding and connecting and embodies everything that [Schneerson] stood for and now in his physical absence what we can do to continue that legacy, which is profoundly relevant to each of us,” Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, a division of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad, told eJP ahead of his visit to the Ohel on Tuesday.  

Mintz also addressed the eclectic groups of people who gathered at the rebbe’s resting place on Tuesday, noting that it “captures who the rebbe was.” 

“We’re seeing more of that today,” Mintz continued. “It used to be that on the yahrzeit, Chabad Hasidim and some others would go. Today, it’s fair to say there are more non-Chabad Hasidim coming than those [affiliated with] Chabad. With each passing year, more are discovering the rebbe’s perspective and vision and making it their own.”