During the 24 hours of yesterday’s 20th yahrzeit for Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, tens of thousands of people descended on a Queens cemetery to pay tribute to the beloved Hasidic leader, who died on June 12, 1994. They are there to visit the graves (Schneerson is buried at the Montefiore Cemetery next to the grave of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, and near their spouses as well as the wife of fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn) as well as tour the visitor center and yeshiva that is housed in the various buildings near the Ohel, as the site is known by members of Chabad.
While waiting in line under a tent in the blazing sun yesterday, with fans and water coolers set up for the crowds of visitors, and videos of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe playing on large screens, I heard a symphony of Jewish languages from around the world. Chabad emissaries and their families and friends traveled here from around the world for the chance to spend two minutes at the graves at the Ohel.
Though yesterday was one of the most popular—and crowded—days to visit the Ohel, which has itself become a sacred space for many Jews, the site attracts visitors year-round. Pilgrimages to a deceased leader’s grave are a common tradition in Judaism, particularly within Hasidic and Sephardic circles, but I can’t think of any other location outside Israel where, for the past two decades since the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe’s death, there has been a consistent stream of people praying every day. Day and night, seven days a week, the Ohel has become an inviting place for those who need a place to pray and reflect, a place to cry or to rejoice, or even, as is common amongst many of Chabad’s emissaries worldwide, a place to sit for a few hours before taking a 6 a.m. flight from Kennedy Airport back to their international posts.
The Chabad emissaries who arrived in New York for a whirlwind visit for the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 20th yahrzeit are by now heading back to their international outposts—and planning for their return visit next year. For those frequent visitors to the Ohel, too, life returns to its regular schedule in Queens.
Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.