Courtesy the author
The Viznitz Cemetery, MonseyCourtesy the author
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The Pilgrimage to Monsey

A cemetery in New York state draws Orthodox Jews by the thousands to the graves of famous rebbes—and in the process, redefines how the community thinks about diasporic life on American soil

Chaya Sara Oppenheim
June 27, 2022
Courtesy the author
The Viznitz Cemetery, MonseyCourtesy the author

It’s not often that a town’s main attraction is its cemetery. However, on the eve of every Jewish month, thousands of Jews from the tri-state area (and beyond) flock to the Viznitz Cemetery in Monsey, New York, to visit the graves of the holy leaders buried there, including the Ribnitzer, Skulener, and Viznitzer rebbes. Local police direct traffic on the suburban streets surrounding the cemetery to accommodate the busloads of arriving Jews, many of whom are not even direct followers of these late Hasidic leaders. Nevertheless, the devout come to pray at the graves of these rebbes buried on American land.

Beyond the gates of the walled cemetery, there is a hubbub of activity. At the entrance stands a small building with restrooms and light refreshments: coffee, cookies, candy. A paved parking lot stretches out behind the welcome center, and the main attraction lies up ahead and to the right. The cemetery is situated on an incline; a woman collects charity at the foot of the hill next to a large sign with the customary cemeterial prayer, and the path leading up to the main gravesites—divided by a fence separating women and men, with a special designation for those of kohenitic descent (who refrain from close contact to the dead)—is flanked by tombstones on both sides.

At the graves of the rebbes, there are plastic folding chairs and prayer books, matchboxes and memorial tealights, paper and pens to write kvitlech, or notes. Large white tents are pitched in the grassy spaces, where donations are collected. The masses of men, women, and children engaged in the location’s prescribed activities give the impression that this organized spiritual operation has been running smoothly for years. But it wasn’t always this way.

The popularization of this cemetery in American Orthodox Jewish life is a relatively recent phenomenon. I grew up directly across the street from these burial grounds, and I have seen it evolve over the past few years from a relatively quiet resting place to an action-packed tourist attraction. The influx of visitors to this Monsey cemetery—where famous dynastic leaders, the ashes of Jews gassed and burned in Chełmno, and, more recently, Joseph Neumann, the victim of the Monsey Hanukkah stabbing attack, are interred—is demonstrative of Orthodox Jewry’s deepening connection to American soil. The Jews buried here serve as a bridge between the old country and the new Jewish American world, transforming the otherwise mundane landscape into a spiritual magnet where callers find comfort in a connection that is, quite literally, closer to home.

Frequenting graves has always been part of the religious Jew’s repertoire. The Talmud teaches that visiting the dead—both Jewish and gentile—serves to remind us of our mortality, and that while we can never pray directly to the deceased, we can visit Jewish graves to have the departed intercede for divine mercy on our behalf (Taanit 16a). For this reason, pilgrimages to the Jewish resting places of Europe, a continent replete with the burial grounds of famous Jewish sages and massacred millions, are commonly known. Israel, too, has its hotspots.

This all-American cemetery, however, contributes to a newer legacy that Orthodox Jews are creating: a legacy where divine immanence can be found on an otherwise ordinary plot of land in New York state, an hour from Manhattan. The Viznitz Cemetery is part of a conglomerate of graveyards that branch off the historic Brick Church Road; it includes the Frederick Loescher Veterans Memorial, dating back to the Revolutionary War, and the Brick Church Cemetery, where Daniel Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, is buried. The land for the Jewish cemetery was purchased in the late 1970s, when the Viznitzer Rebbe asked one of his Hasidim, a real estate developer, to acquire a resting place in Monsey for Jewish souls. Forty acres of unkempt apple orchards were transformed into a cemetery of eight acres and a neighborhood of colonial-style houses.

From the outset, this Monsey cemetery attracted rabbinic luminaries. The Skulener Rebbe, Eliezer Zusia Portugal, was buried there in 1982. He escaped both Russians and Germans in WWII and endured torture by Romanian communists before he finally reached the United States in 1960. Rabbi Portugal remains renowned for the personal care he devoted to hundreds of orphans, and the original niggunim, or melodies, that he composed. His son, Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, the second Skulener Rebbe, similarly imprisoned by the Romanians—who tore his peyos and beard until he thought the pain would kill him—was buried next to him in 2019, following a funeral procession of more than 100,000 people.

The Ribnitzer Rebbe, Chaim Zanvil Abramowitz, was buried in the Monsey cemetery in 1995. After surviving the Holocaust, the Ribnitzer served as a rabbi in the Soviet Union, providing the Moldovan Jewish community with circumcisions and kosher meat. The Ribnitzer was known as a miracle worker, and even members of the KGB would bring their wives and children to receive his blessings. He died in Monsey the day after Sukkot, at 93 years old.

The fifth Viznitz Grand Rebbe, Mordechai Hager, who originally requested the cemetery for his community, was also buried there in 2018, at 95.

Despite the presence of these eminent Jewish leaders, the cemetery’s growth in popularity was a gradual process. The current caretaker, a young Viznitzer Hasid who cooperates with the police and Jewish organizations like Chaverim whenever large crowds are expected, estimated that people began visiting about 10 years after the Ribnitzer Rebbe died. The number of patrons increased exponentially, prompting renovations in 2015, which continue until today.

People come for answers to their prayers. “There are a lot of stories of yeshuos [salvations] and mofsim [wonders] from the Ribnitzer,” the caretaker said. These accounts passed by word of mouth, and eventually, the reputation of the Monsey cemetery grew. Many miracle stories attributed to the Ribnitzer were printed in Orthodox magazines, and multiple regulars told me that reading the 2019 biography The Ribnitzer Rebbe contributed to the allure of praying at his grave.

Now, the caretaker estimates that 8,000-9,000 visitors come on the eve of each new Jewish month alone, and that 30,000 people can be expected on the anniversary of each rebbe’s death.

“Every Erev Rosh Chodesh, it’s increasing,” another Viznitzer Hasid in his 50s—he was closely affiliated with the development of the property on the directive of the Rebbe—said about the crowds. “It’s the biggest turnout to go to tzadikim [righteous figures] in the United States. There is nothing bigger going on.”

People visit on the eve of the new Jewish month because the day is considered Yom Kippur katan, literally a “small Yom Kippur.” This concept, based on kabbalistic origins, deems the day preceding the new month to be a prime time for prayer as the fate for the four upcoming weeks hangs in the balance. Just as it was common practice for Jews to visit the graves of their ancestors before Yom Kippur—the official day Jews consider their destiny for the year to be sealed—American Orthodox Jews are now flocking to Monsey to call on the leaders buried there before each new month begins.

This Monsey cemetery has acquired a status similar, if not equal, to the ancient holy gravesites in Europe and Israel. The older Viznitzer Hasid said that a popular gematria (the assignment of numerical values to Hebrew letters) compares the Viznitz Cemetery to the famed Meron mountaintop in Israel where thousands gather to pray. “The gematria of Meron (מֵירוֹן) is 306,” he said, “and the Viznitz Cemetery stands on Route 306.” Additionally, a particular spelling of Rabbi Mordechai Hager, the Viznitzer Rebbe who requested the cemetery, and Shimon ben Yochai, the sage buried on Meron, share the same numerical value. He finished by simply saying, “If you can’t get there, you go here.”

That’s not to say that people don’t travel from far distances to pray at the graves of these Hasidic leaders. A woman from Passaic, New Jersey, travels 45 minutes to the cemetery several times a week. A young man from Lakewood, New Jersey, told me that he makes the two-hour drive weekly, regardless of whether his friends join for the ride. There are even pilgrims who hail from Israel and others who send messengers to pray on their behalf.

The configuration of the Monsey cemetery creates an inclusive environment. Yehuda Dukhan, a kohen from Brooklyn, ordinarily avoided burial grounds until his uncle became ill. “I decided to do some homework and find out where I’m allowed to go,” he said. “I went to the Ribnitzer because it was kohen-accessible.” The fences, clear signs, and width of the path meant that Dukhan could comfortably visit without fear of compromising his status as a kohen, and he subsequently traveled from Brooklyn to Monsey over the course of several months to pray at the Ribnitzer’s grave.

Many Monsey locals visit frequently and are appreciative of their proximity to the location. Shira Safrin, a resident, said, “I go at least two or three times a week, sometimes every day. I’ve been going since 12th grade. I realize a lot of my tefillos get answered when I daven there.” Another young woman commented, “I live close by, but people are definitely traveling from very far. There are people there at all hours. I’ve been there at 1 a.m. and in the pouring rain on Purim (when it was completely packed). You never feel like it’s empty.”

Even after departing, many visitors leave their mark. While it is customary to place a small stone as a token, there are also handwritten notes, wedding invitations, and lists of names at the tombstones of the rebbes. Notably, there are smashed laptops and phones with shattered screens, too—signifying a visitor’s resolution to disconnect from the distractions accessible via cyberspace. These objects left behind represent the diverse range of a community’s tangible solicitations to the otherworld, a knock at the gates of heaven on earth.

The culture of the Monsey cemetery embraces a wholehearted connection between the living and the dead. The multitude of gray headstones somberly marking ended lives seem starkly juxtaposed to the throngs of visitors, teeming with life, emotions, and thoughts. But in acts of mediation, these opposing forces interact through conversations that extend beyond to the metaphysical.

No one could have predicted that those buried on a small plot of land in America might attract Jews from across the globe seeking to pray. On the contrary, doomsayers prophesied travelers to America would be the pallbearers of an altogether different kind of Jewish demise. But against all odds, American soil has served to strengthen Jewish identity. This Monsey cemetery redefines how the diasporic Jewish community is plotting its course, having created something new: a wholly American religious attraction of unprecedented popularity. Even the Ostreicher’s cookies provided for praying wayfarers contribute to the Jewish practice that persistently makes the mundane holy. Life is transient, but according to Jewish eschatological beliefs, death will be, too.

Chaya Sara Oppenheim is editor of The Shekel, a numismatic journal. She holds a B.A. in English and history from Barnard College.