Rabbi Menachem Schneerson sometimes appeared to be larger than life: always charismatic, sometimes controversial and a prolific writer and speaker on the Jewish faith, education and far broader subjects.
He had legions of devoted followers in the Chabad Lubavitch faith, and also had his critics. Others believe he could be God’s anointed Messiah.
And thousands — many who were not born while he was alive — came to Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights this week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the rebbe’s death in 1994.
Police barricades stretched for blocks outside the cemetery on Francis Lewis Boulevard, and Jewish leaders flooded the area’s streets with signs reminding visitors not to block driveways and to be mindful of neighborhood residents.
Cars with license plates from New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida and even Ontario, Canada were parked along the street. Officials said people also came from Israel and France.
“I met a man who is here from Australia,” said Levi Haskulevich, who himself came from Philadelphia.
Haskulevich and others spoke with reverence of the times they either met Schneerson or heard him speak in person. He visits the grave every July when he is able.
“If I were not here today, I would make sure to spend the day praying and doing something to further his vision,” Haskulevich said.
That, he said, included teachings of universal love and peace, and that everyone, both Jew and non-Jew, was equally close to God.
“He did not teach that being the chosen people meant we were the only ones who were saved,” Haskulevich said.
He also was bringing pieces of paper from friends with prayers or the names of people in need of prayers for when he was at the grave site.
A rabbi from Florida said Schneerson was instrumental in the building of schools, synagogues and other institutions of learning, and was an early proponent of creating the U.S. Department of Education as an independent agency.
While he estimated there are between 500 and 600 books documenting Schneerson’s life and analyzing his teachings, he also wrote about 200 works himself.
“I consider him the most important Jewish leader since Moses,” he said.
Though Schneerson was thought to have discouraged talk that he was the Messiah, the rabbi also said Schneerson, as many believe, “would be the perfect candidate” to be the Messiah. And does he believe Schneerson is?
“I do,” he said.
Schneerson was born in what is now Ukraine in 1902, the son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi.
He was the son-in-law of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, who in the late 1940s was the Chabad Lubavitch rebbe, or leader of the Hasidic movement.
Upon the elder Schneersohn’s death in 1950, influential members of the Hasidic community first approached Menachem Schneerson to take his teacher’s place as leader of the movement, drawn by his personality, family ties and scholarship.
He did so reluctantly, waiting a year before formally accepting the position.
Today Schneerson’s grave in Cambria Heights is next to that of his teacher and mentor.
The grave site, enclosed by a structure of rough-hewn stone that is open to the sky, also features a large receptacle in which the devout often place pieces of paper either in prayer to God or asking Schneerson to intercede on their behalf.
While in the past the crowds have sometimes raised the hackles of area residents, officials from the Chabad community said every effort was made to minimize the inconvenience.
Ann Miller of the 227th Street & 120th Ave. Block Association in Cambria Heights said she believed things went smoothly this year.
“I think things have greatly improved over past years,” she said. “I don’t think I saw anybody blocking driveways, though the streets in the neighborhood were congested.”