There’s a painter’s ladder leaning against the outside wall of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s tomb in Queens. If you climb to the top rung, you can look down at the barefooted mourners throwing notes onto Schneerson’s grave as the men in security vests hustle them out to make room for the next group.
On the 20th anniversary of Schneerson’s death, marked this year on July 1, the line to visit the tomb was nearly three hours long. Tens of thousands of members of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic group, which Schneerson led, traveled to visit the site, some flying into JFK Airport in the morning and flying out in the afternoon.
Yet the scene at the Ohel, as the tomb is known, felt more like a well-run college reunion than a religious pilgrimage. Men greeted old friends and kissed their faces. Yellow-shirted staff people managed the lines, which were covered by a long white tent. There were tables of free food, and audio and video of Schneerson were piped over the speakers. The guards inside the tomb itself wore special vests with the words “Chabad Ohel Security” on the front.
Twenty years after Schneerson’s death at the age of 92, the anniversary of a tremendous crisis of faith for this ultra-Orthodox group feels almost routine.
Zalman Kaplan flies in every year to visit the Ohel on Schneerson’s yartzeit. A big man with a decent-sized beard, Kaplan lives in Safed, Isarel, where he runs a Lubavitch yeshiva. He remembers the moment he learned that Schneerson had died. He was 14. “We didn’t expect it to happen,” Kaplan said. A friend who was with him when he heard told him, “a river of tears came out of your eyes at that moment.”
In the years prior to Schneerson’s death, a wave of messianic hope swept through Chabad Lubavitchers around the world. Most of the people visiting the grave on July 1 were old enough to remember that fervor, and the shock when the dream failed to come true.
“We woke up in the morning and we heard a scream,” said Ruben Garbarchik, an accountant from London who was 18 years old and living in a different Lubavitch yeshiva in Safed when the rebbe died. The phone lines went out that day in Safed, Garbachik remembers, and everyone took it as a sign.
“We lived in a denial of the reality, because in the two, three years before that, the rebbe raised expectations that this is the time for redemption,” Garbachik said. “Nobody thought there was another way.”
Dovid Margolin, a freelance writer, was 7 when Schneerson died. “It was a shocking and confusing day,” he said. “It didn’t make sense for us that it should be able to happen.” “It was the last thing we ever expected to hear,” said Mashi Lipskar, who was 45 at the time and a Chabad emissary in Johannesburg.
Chaim Zaklos, now an emissary for Chabad in Vacaville, California, remembers getting in the car with his parents at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and driving straight from Detroit to Brooklyn in time to see Schneerson’s coffin.
“We were very broken,” said Chaim Azimov, now a Chabad emissary in North Cyprus. “It was like losing a father.”