I don’t believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah. I am skeptical of his ability to perform wonders, and have never made the trek to his ohel (grave) from my Princeton perch two hours away. But while doing summer research in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I did make the pilgrimage to the ohel of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. And like everyone there, I was hoping for a miracle.
Before I left the U.S., several Chabadniks had mentioned that my summer travels would bring me near the burial site in Almaty on the occasion of the senior Rebbe’s yahrzeit, marking the anniversary of his death. Still, I had no intention of going. After innocently liking the Chabad Kazakhstan Facebook page, however, I was semi-regularly reminded of the event as Chaf Menachem Av (the 8th of Av)—the Hebrew date of the yahrzeit—approached. A Facebook post claimed that if you donated in honor of the occasion, “[t]he Rebbe blesses: [sic] up to five hundred times more!” With no idea of when I’d return to Kazakhstan, I decided to visit and try my luck, even if I didn’t have cash to contribute. I was far from home, worried about my research, and still single. As much as I was loathe to admit it, I shared the same hope as all of the Hasidim who had flown over for the occasion: that the Rebbe’s father would spare me some blessings.
According to Chabad, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was born in modern-day Belarus in 1878, and married Chana Yanovsky in 1900. In 1931, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak moved his family, including his son, the future Rebbe, to Yekaterinoslav, now Dnipopetrovsk, a large city on on the Dnieper river in Eastern Ukraine where Levi Yitzchak became the communal rabbi. In 1939, the Soviet NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, arrested him for his religious activities. After a year of imprisonment and torture in European Russia, he was exiled to Kazakhstan. Chana followed and the couple continued to serve as spiritual guides for local Jews despite their difficult living conditions. By 1944, however, Levi Yitzchak’s health had deteriorated. He was relocated to the nearby capital, Alma-Ata, now Almaty, where he died and was buried later that year. The only synagogue still standing in the city is part of Chabad, although its attendees are an increasingly aged bunch—composed primarily of those too old to emigrate.
While he was Rabbi of Almaty, Levi Yitzchak’s spiritual flock would have been the Jews who fled to Kazakhstan during World War Two. For a period after the Rebbe’s passing, new Jews arrived in Amaty to work on Soviet projects, like the Virgin Lands campaign and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Most, however, left for Israel, Germany, and the US after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. The current Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan (also a Chabadnik) puts the number of remaining (halakhic) Jews at around 35,000. A 2010 census puts the number at slightly above 3,000, with the discrepancy between the two figures probably due to many halakhic Jews not identifying as such on their documents. Of the remaining Kazakhstani Jews, however many there are, only a handful were at the ohel.
Every year, Chabadniks from all over the world (read: Israel and New York) come to pray at the ohel and show respect to their spiritual leader’s father. I had only to follow the din of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew—not Russian—to reach the cemetery. An audience listened to a rabbi telling, in Hebrew and English, the stories of visitors whose lives were forever changed by a trip to the ohel. A long table full of sefarim (textbooks) published for the occasion, Israeli dairy products, and Kazakhstani bottles of water stretched across the tent. An American Chabadnik camp counselor herded a group of elementary schoolers to the gravesite in surprisingly fluent Russian. A few locals struggled to find their way among the predominantly Hebrew and English signs and conversation. Others sat around the table and wrote letters to Levi Yitzchak, which they would leave in the ohel once they went to pray.
I dug out a piece of paper, where I asked God—and the Rebbe’s father, I guess—if I could find some new friends, be eventually accepted into a PhD program, and meet a nice Jewish boy. At the ohel, as is custom, I lit a candle and said a blessing, but realized I couldn’t enter the room where everyone was praying because “everyone” was men. I asked a young man to drop it off for me, and left.
Strangely enough, a week before I left Kazakhstan, my roommate introduced me to Nikita, a local Jewish boy. Like most other Kazakhstani Jews, he planned on leaving, and we promised to meet in Israel or Russia one day. We spent almost my entire last week together. Nikita drove me to the airport, and I cried the whole flight home — in part because his emigration would leave only 2,999 Jews in Kazakhstan, but mostly because I felt blessed to have met him. Blessed by whom, exactly, I couldn’t say for sure, but I still didn’t want to say goodbye.