The blistering heat, with temperatures reaching near 90 degrees, did not deter members of Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch from visiting the grave of their beloved leader, the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, on Friday afternoon at Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights. Schneerson’s father-in-law, Yosef Schneersohn, the prior rebbe, is also buried there.
Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, located at 226-20 Francis Lewis Blvd., is a synagogue and community facility that abuts the graveyard, and was constructed after the rebbe’s death. It provides a place for pilgrims to reflect and pray before going to the burial site.
“When I come here it’s to visit someone who spiritually guides us and gives us direction,” said Connie Blotner of Crown Heights, who has made the pilgrimage annually for the last 18 years. “I can tell my concerns, make requests and I know he’s listening and I can turn to him, and it’s comforting.”
Friday was the second day of the pilgrimage, which began on June 21 and ended June 25. Despite the large crowds, the event seemed orderly with plenty of police and security guards stationed in the area. There were two lines to get into the gravesite — one for men and one for women — and they were separated by a white cloth.
Fans and watercoolers were placed throughout the area to keep the pilgrims comfortable in the oppressive heat. On flat-screen television monitors videos of the rebbe were played, but with captions, no sound. All those wearing leather shoes had to remove them prior to going in, and no photography was allowed inside the grave area, known as the ohel. The pilgrims were ushered in by security guards with the long line of men being let inside first in groups of 80. The women had to wait significantly longer for their turn.
The groups were given two minutes inside the ohel to read the prayers they had written, tear them up and then place them in a large concrete square surrounding the two tombstones. While on line, the pilgrims read prayers in Hebrew, some rocking back and forth as they did so, some pressing their faces into their prayer books as they recited the words.
“I actually grew up knowing him personally, and he was very close to me and my family,” Rifka Feldman said of Schneerson. “He always gave us advice and blessings, encouragement in all aspects of our life, whether it was in our spiritual life, in our religion, and also in our physical life.”
Feldman, of Crown Heights, was at the site with her two daughters, Mushka, 11, whom she named after Schneerson’s wife, and Rachel, 19. She said this year’s trip is especially meaningful because it comes just three weeks after her father’s death, when she really needed comfort and guidance.
“Every year on this day, his soul continues to rise and we are all connected to him,” Feldman said of Schneerson. “We love him, and this is the way we express it, by coming to his gravesite, which is the place on Earth where we could be the most close to him.”
On many occasions the pilgrimage coincides with the Sabbath — beginning Friday at sundown — as it did this year, so some individuals were not able to leave until the next day. Members of the sect are not allowed to travel by vehicle, carry things in their hands or push baby carriages on that day. Tents were set up at Springfield Boulevard and 121st Avenue to accommodate them.
In years past, residents have complained about blocked driveways, traffic jams, excessive trash and people urinating in the streets. But police and security at the scene said things were going smoothly Friday afternoon and there did not appear to be any problems.