Family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas pray at the Ohel, the resting place of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in Queens, New York, Nov. 13, 2023

Chaiim Tuito/Chabad

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We Are Not Alone

Visitors to the Rebbe’s tomb ask Hashem for help, while those davening to the golden calf of D.C. politics get spurned

Armin Rosen
November 17, 2023
Family members of Israeli hostages held by Hamas pray at the Ohel, the resting place of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in Queens, New York, Nov. 13, 2023

Chaiim Tuito/Chabad

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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It took four full buses to bring the Israelis from the airport, and when their jet-lagged procession of anguish arrived at the cemetery on Monday evening a Jew living on the opposite end of the world could at last see the front line of our people’s six weeks of misery, right here in New York City. They had traveled to a cemetery in the Cambria Heights section of eastern Queens because everything else had been tried already: a monthlong military operation, fevered international diplomacy, marches, media appearances, a global postering campaign. Still their loved ones remained in Hamas captivity. It was time to come to the Ohel, the resting place of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Ohel is an open-roofed frame of stark granite wall, located directly beneath an approach path to nearby Kennedy Airport, anteroom to the lesser, physically reachable sector of the heavens. A visitor is already in a mindset of bodies and souls in an unreal transit through the upper reaches of space, but this was not a night where great feats of spiritual imagination would be needed. Inside the stone rectangle a rabbi read out a prayer for the hostages, which boomed from a loudspeaker across a snaking line of faces streaked in silent tears. And then he read the names—so many Dorons, Yuvals, and Daniels, the names of 85-year-old Yaffa Adar and 10-month-old Kfir Bibas, an unreal enormity of names. When the name of a loved one rang out across the darkness an “amen” would issue from somewhere in line. “The interesting thing is to see the people coming here from the communities, to show we’re not alone,” Ohad Weiss, whose father was murdered defending his home in Kibbutz Be’eri on Oct. 7, and whose 65-year-old mother’s body was found near Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip three days after the visit to the Ohel, told me later when I asked what had been most powerful about his time at the Rebbe’s grave. “So they can see it’s real,” his brother Daniel added, the “it” containing the entire tragedy. “It’s not a movie. It’s not more words.”

Of course there are tzaddikim closer to home at whose tomb the families could have prayed if they were so inclined—there is an irony in leaving Eretz Yisrael to plead assistance from God. And a lot of the hostage families, which first assembled inside a tent on the edge of the complex of shedlike corrugated metal halls and prayer spaces adjoining the Ohel, did not seem like pleading-to-God types. On Oct. 7, Hamas struck secular kibbutzim and a music festival taking place on Shabbat; consequently, the families of the hostages were a group largely composed of bald heads and short beards, puffer jackets and pink knockoff Yankees caps, the people who fill a tourist’s peripheral vision in an Israeli shopping mall or bus station. When most didn’t sing along to “Kol Ha-Olam Kulo”—a musical setting for a notable quotation of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the one about how the whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to fear—they began to look especially puzzled and dazed, as if finding themselves the guests of some far-flung community of Hasids further confirmed a dreadful rupture in reality. But the Hasids had offered to help repair that rupture, both through giving the families a chance to pray at their Rebbe’s tomb and by opening up whatever opportunities for advocacy or awareness-raising came from being in the United States.

Their loved ones remained in Hamas captivity. It was time to come to the Ohel, the resting place of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Several times a week over a period of 40 years, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky told the families and the assorted Chabadniks and media rubberneckers packing the tent to the fringes, the Rebbe would come to this cemetery with stacks of letters from people in need of help. “He would read them one by one, and pray to Hashem to heal their broken hearts,” said the 89-year-old Krinksy, the Rebbe’s former secretary, driver, and all-around assistant. “Millions of tears have been shed right here on this spot, and prayers to the heavens have floated up from this place.”

Some of the hostage families, who are truly hostages themselves, took a while to face the paper, pen, and clipboard placed at every chair, but they all eventually wrote something. Platters of rugelach, speared kabab-style, went almost untouched, as did the tanks of coffee. As the families filed out of the tent with their notes, a rabbi reminded them, in Hebrew: This is not Yom Kippur, but, as it happens, Rosh Chodesh. As hard as it may seem, one must come to the Rebbe today in a spirit of simcha.

And indeed a flickering and unlikely joy awaited on the sidewalk outside the tent, where well-wishers, nearly all of them in long skirts or tzitzit, filled every inch of the 100-odd yards to the cemetery entrance and the Ohel itself. Calls rang out: “Be strong. Hashem is with you!” “Chazakim chaverim!” “Anachnu etchem!” “Etcha b’lev!” Strangers wept and embraced.

A hip-looking young man, a barista from Herzliya, emerged from a long hug, a deep and profound smile still carved into his face. Amir Shem Tov’s younger brother, 21-year-old Omer Shem Tov, attended the Nova music festival and was last seen alive in a video recorded on Oct. 7, tied up in the back of a truck. “At these times anything helps—anything, anything,” Amir told me, the repetition sounding out a fresh and still-welling pain. “I’m not much of a believer myself but anything helps … if you pray, it could help. You don’t know.”

The interior of the Ohel is a frame of narrow corridor surrounding a trench beneath a knee-level wall. The trench contains the memorial stones for the Rebbe and his father-in-law, along with an endlessly undulating wave of notes vast enough to block any view of the Rebbe’s actual gravesite. A visitor to the Rebbe is supposed to tear up their note and cast it into the waiting void. The family members would take one last look at their messages, destroy them, and then release the fragments into the paper swells at the Rebbe’s feet. It turned out each name being read over the loudspeaker corresponded to an individual sheet of paper bearing that name, which was then ripped apart a second later, as if the name itself were a prayer. There was trembling and crying and almost total silence, aside from ripping paper and the roll call of the kidnapped.

I had the feeling of being physically squeezed and mentally scrambled—a true holy site is always something unexpected, existing squarely within the unpredictability of real life and inducing the confusion of anything else that hasn’t been planned with any excessive, deadening meticulousness. An urge to stay and an urge to leave are equally legitimate. The real outcome of a visit, as with a host of other meaningful human actions, may never fully be understood. “All right,” I heard one of the more secular-looking family members say after about a minute of surveying this tight human concentration of tearing and reading and shuckling back and forth. “How do I get out of here?”

Outside of the Ohel, next to metal shelves packed with hundreds of memorial candles, I ran into Amir Shem Tov. I wondered about the living people who were bearing the absolute worst of the war against us, somewhere under Gaza City. Is there anything you’d want the world to know about your brother? I asked Amir. He paused for a moment. “We call him the sunshine now,” he finally said. “He makes everybody laugh. He wants to be a music producer, and I hope it comes true. He makes music for everybody. The whole world will hear it.”

“She is a wonderful person—kind,” Daniel said of his mother, Yehudit. “She is a very powerful woman.”

For Chabad Hasids and a great many others, the Ohel is a unique locus of connection between Hashem and His people. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America oversee a less tangible communal access point to a more corporate higher power: They have the working relationships, financial resources, and operational know-how to summon tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of Jews to Washington, D.C., capital of the waning earthly sovereign, on less than three week’s notice. The Nov. 14 March for Israel, which began about 13 hours after that visit to the Ohel, required jumbotrons and police barriers and acres of interlocking plastic floors—permits had to be obtained, and thousands of buses had to be hired and paid for. And then the lineup had to be assembled, an inoffensive mix of acceptably left and right politicians, communal leaders, pundits and entertainers speaking within an agreed-to set of talking points aimed at creating an appearance—and, b’ezrat Hashem, the reality—of communal influence.

“I didn’t look at the schedule. I came for Am Yisrael,” Ellie Shain, a young Lakewooder who recognized me from a long-ago Rosh Hashanah in Uman, said at Lafayette Park in front of the White House, moments after a mass Shacharit wrapped up. This was a wise attitude. Seeing the march as an empowering and inspiring assertion of American Jewish communal existence means paying relatively little attention to what was actually said onstage.

Jews voted in great numbers for Joe Biden and remain some of the most loyal and financially generous members of the Democratic coalition. It is therefore astonishing, something just short of an open insult, and maybe an admission of deep internal ambivalence that the only Biden administration official to address the largest political gathering of Jews in American history was Deborah Lipdstadt, the State Department’s antisemitism envoy, a career academic far below the senior decision-making echelon of the Biden White House and someone whose portfolio doesn’t really involve Israel or American domestic affairs. “This government stands shoulder-to-shoulder against Jew hatred,” Lipstadt announced. Alas, in contrast, “There are countries fostering hatred of Jews,” she said later in the speech. “No doubt about it!” She was careful not to name any countries in particular. On the exact day of the rally, the Biden administration renewed a sanctions waiver that had the effect of releasing $10 billion held in escrow in Iraq to the Iranian regime.

The only government official to mention Iran was Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, in a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to “Iran-backed Hamas.” Milken Institute Associate Director Arielle Mokhtarzadeh’s statement that Oct. 7 internationalized the war the Islamic Republic launched against Iran’s Jews in 1979, like pastor John Hagee’s mentions of Hezbollah—the only ones of the day, incidentally—felt downright off-message.

“Israel, we will not rest until you get the assistance you need!” exclaimed Chuck Schumer in a topically updated rehash of a speech he has given once every month or two for the past 30 years. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries listed a roll call of countries that had expelled their Jews, meaning that Swiss antisemitism came in for more criticism than Qatar’s sheltering of the Hamas high command, or its global promotion of anti-Jewish poison. In fact, Qatar wasn’t mentioned at all, by anyone. “It is unacceptable for Hamas apologists to accost and assault Jewish students on campus,” said greenhorn Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson without making a single policy suggestion—such as, perhaps, withholding federal funding from universities that tolerate or promote the harassment of their Jewish students.

A wander through the crowd on the Mall argued for the practical necessity of whatever political truce had governed the march’s content. The mutually reinforcing Jewish communal wings of the Democratic Party establishment had a visible presence: “Stop terror, protect civilians, pursue peace” read J Street’s branded sign, spotted only intermittently; “Thank you Biden!” announced the much more numerous placards of the Democratic Majority for Israel. Statements in sympathy with the suffering of Palestinian civilians were met with general applause.

But the most affecting outward announcements of a person’s orientation had no political content, similar to how the emotional apex of the nearly three-hour rally, a mass singalong to the Maccabeats’ recitation of the over 1,100-year-old Acheinu prayer for the return of Jewish captives, wasn’t really pitched toward any specific human decision-maker. I spotted a middle-aged man in a Temple Emanu-El softball team jersey, Cincinnatians in matching neon T-shirts, packs of Wolverines for Israel, an entire dormitory’s worth of Columbia students, backpacks with words like “Kohelet Yeshiva High School-Torah for the real world” on them, a Yeshiva University junior collecting donations for something called Operation Torah Shield 3 in an orange bucket (it turned out to be an upcoming student mission to Israel to assist internal refugees), gaggles of teenage girls in matching seminary sweaters, jackets from the Monsey fire department, the very occasional family of black-hat Hasids.

There was even a peyosed young man wearing a Friends of the IDF hat. It was important to be here, Ellie, a Sanzer Hasid told me, “because together we’re something, together we’re strong … If I want my grandkids to be safe in America we need to fight now.” His brother moved to Israel, currently serves as a tank driver in the IDF, and had once been the rare American Hasidic lone soldier, a scarce phenomenon in light of Haredi Judaism’s religious opposition to Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land prior to the coming of Moshiach. “They’re double lonely soldiers—from their country and their community,” Ellie told me. But maybe not so lonely for long. After the White House Shacharit, a beaming Hasid clutched a small Israeli flag to his chest within a joyful swirl of dancing day schoolers, YU students, and yeshiva floor-hockey alumni. Since Oct. 7, it was not uncommon to see a chassun, a new husband, go to the first dance after his chassuna with an Israeli flag in hand, Yaakov from New Square told me.

Was the God of Israel successfully enjoined at the Rebbe’s grave in Queens, and were our even more immediate powers moved at the sight of 290,000 supporters of Israel on a gorgeous autumn day in D.C.? Hashem has the lead so far: On Nov. 15, the day after the rally, the Biden administration declined to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses in the Gaza Strip, a move that legitimizes the U.N.’s pitched campaign to end the war on terms more favorable to Hamas and its Iranian sponsors than to Israel and the United States.

However, it would take an almost misanthropic excess of cynicism to declare the rally a failure, even if it was barely covered by The New York Times. The people who have the final say on what the day really meant are the Jewish people, which is to say all of us. In the midst of a living nightmare, we merged into a crowd of historic proportions to prove to ourselves that we actually aren’t insane or adrift, and if our own help, along with the often mysterious aid of Hashem, is all we are likely to receive, it’s also all that we will actually need.

The morning of the rally, not long after Shacharit, I met American University student Tomer Ben Ezer at a Dunkin’ Donuts packed with flag-toting college kids. On Friday, Ben Ezer had found a flyer for his senior piano recital in a practice studio, a picture of which he shared with me, with the words “Death to the Zionists Hitler was right” scrawled around a picture of his face, which—unlike the faces of the other performers—had been stabbed off. “I’m smiling now but I didn’t sleep the whole weekend,” said Ben Ezer, who explained that the university had shown little concern about the incident, and that he’d had to contact law enforcement on his own, with no help from his school. Since the war began, he had been spat on five times on campus and called a fascist and racist. American University had failed him, but perhaps over the next few hours he could feel as if his people hadn’t failed him.

Aryeh Schwartz wore a T-shirt with the flying snake icon of the IDF paratrooper division, in which his brother serves. Like Ellie the Sanzer Hasid, Schwartz, a Washington-based photographer, had come to the march with future generations in mind. “I have a young child,” he told me after the rally, as the evening shadows swallowed the museum exteriors on Madison Drive. “I’m not gonna raise him in a world where he’s afraid to be himself.”

“This has been very refreshing,” Jonathan, a flag-draped Toronto college student, told me moments after the rally ended. “It’s the first time I’ve felt safe in a month.”

Perry, a woman who had driven a car full of friends up from the Brooklyn Frumkheit stronghold of Borough Park, waved over her friend Sarah, another religious woman in her late 20s in an almost floor-length skirt. “How many duffel bags have you sent to Israel already?” Perry asked. “Over 200,” she replied. “I’d show you but my phone died.” Perry brought up the picture: Rows of loaf-shaped payloads stretched in front of a Kennedy Airport baggage desk, each one with a Magen David outlined in neon electrical tape. The duffels were stuffed with supplies for evacuees from northern and southern Israel. People send Amazon packages to Sarah, who then assembles the bags and attends to their delivery to the airport. No one had told her to do this. She had needed nobody’s help.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.