Tens of thousands of Hasidic devotees from around the world converged on New York City this week, to gather at the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the “Lubavitcher Rebbe.” They came to pray, celebrate, mourn and ask for blessings from the man many in the Chabad-Lubavitch sect believe to be the Messiah, and others recognize as one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
A sea of Hasidic men in their distinctive black coats and wide-brimmed hats packed a warren of huge rooms adjacent to Rabbi Schneerson’s gravesite. The Rebbe, as he is known, was buried there exactly 20 years ago.
While they waited for their two minute turn at the grave itself, they studied Torah together and sang “niggunim,” or holy songs.
They listened to sermons about the significance of the man many believe to have been the long-awaited Messiah, the man Jewish tradition prophecies will be savior-king of the Jewish people, and ultimately, the world.
Nearby, Berel Lazar, an American who is the current Chief Rabbi of Russia, praised Schneerson’s unflagging decades-long effort to reach out to Soviet Jews during the Cold War.
“I was lucky enough to visit the Soviet Union in 1987-88 and I was privileged to meet Hasidim that had survived through Communism and kept the flame alive, kept Yiddishkeit (Judaism) alive in every city in the former Soviet Union. Most of the Jews left, ran away, gave up, didn’t see any future. But these people stood steadfast in their belief that the flame has to keep on burning. And the real backing for this, no question, came from the Rebbe. The Rebbe cried for them. The Rebbe pleaded God for them. The Rebbe sent emissaries in underground clandestine ways to bring them support, food, religious articles, money and mainly support - to keep on moving, to keep on going. But the main thing is these people felt the Rebbe is caring for them,” said Lazar.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe is said to have been shrewd and skilled in the use of indirect power. He worked discreetly with American and Israeli authorities to secure freedom for Soviet Jews to learn about and practice their traditional faith, and ultimately to emigrate.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk said the Rebbe did not need loud outward demonstrations or demands.
“The Rebbe was not a person looking to take credit. The Rebbe was an individual who wanted to get the job done and it didn’t matter who got the credit,” said Bruk.
Tzvi Gerson Felderbaum is too young to have met the Rebbe personally, but he takes profound inspiration from his writings.
“The one thing that he taught me is that every little action we do for ourselves or we help other people to do good is connected to the essence of God. So everything you do, even very little things, it has a very big significance. And it’s something I live with every day, day in and day out,” said Felderbaum.
The faithful continued to file past the Rebbe’s gravesite all night long and into the following day, to pray and leave handwritten entreaties. Even non-religious Jews - and non-Jews - were impressed. As one security officer assigned to the site put it, “I don’t see it for myself, but I don’t make fun of people either. Let them believe. It’s all positive thoughts. Karma. Good luck. It’s heartwarming. That’s all that matters. Amen."