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The Rebbe Met Me On The Way To His Grave

The day was hot and, after I had taken two subways and a bus from Manhattan to Cambria Heights (a largely black, middle-class neighborhood), my feet were tired. The connection in Jamaica to the Q84 bus was amazing, and in just about an hour and a half I was walking south, the two long blocks from the bus stop, and through the main gate of Montefiore Cemetery. I first stopped at the office for a map and some directions, then at the men’s room and finally at the water fountain. (Tap water in Queens actually tastes better than water in Manhattan, but that probably is more a condition of the plumbing in my building than anything else.)

The (Old) Montefiore Cemetery was organized in 1917. So in 1919, when the Kunikoff family needed a grave for Max Kunikoff, my grandfather’s brother who died at the age of 42, plots were purchased by Max’s brother-in-law, Alexander Kanter. The plot was located right near the entrance of the cemetery, in Area B. The rest of the family, according to the cemetery records, were buried in Block 77, through gate 346S and about 1/4 mile down the main road.

This cemetery is now a very active place, in part because of its size and location — it had been on the outskirts of the city in the early part of the 20th century — and much of the Jewish population can be found buried there. Now it is just a few miles east of JFK Airport, in the middle of a very large community. It is also the final resting place of the seventh Grande Rebbe of the Lubavitcher group of Hasidic Jews, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, his father in law, his wife and his many followers, all not far from where I had hoped to find the graves of my grandfather’s family.

Block B was easy to find, and once there, I took photos of each headstone and said one of the prayers one says upon standing in front of a grave. I found some stones from recently dug nearby graves and put one on each of the headstones in the Kunikoff/Kanter plot. Then I walked down the road to Block 77 where I was hoping to find other Kunikoff relations. Though I walked all around and within Block 77, I couldn’t find any Kunikoffs in subterranean residence. So in sadness I finally gave up and went to visit the graves of my neighbors, Rebecca and her husband Charles Cantor, in Block 85. Here, too, I was unable to find their graves. I searched everywhere to no avail. I was hot and frustrated. I pride myself on having a good sense of direction, but, try as I might (even after spending close to two hours searching), I could not find the graves. I felt badly not to have found them for I hadn’t been to my neighbor Ray Cantor’s grave since her funeral in 1974. Although I had gone to the Riverside Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue and 74th Street in Manhattan so many years ago, I had missed her burial at the cemetery, in spite of having gone with the best of intentions.

My ima, Aunt Hilda (Eisner) Silber, who raised me (and who at the time lived on Shore Road in Brooklyn), knew how close I was to Mrs. Cantor. Ima felt that I needed her support during the funeral service, and so she drove into Manhattan to attend it. I was surprised to see her and also glad she had come. After the service, she told me that she had parked her car a few blocks away from the funeral home and I realized immediately that that would be a complication. I knew that by the time we walked to the car and drove it back to the funeral home, the funeral procession would have already left for the cemetery, and that is exactly how it was. In those years before GPS, finding Montefiore Cemetery was not easy; and, sadly, by the time we did find it, the burial had already taken place and everyone was gone. There was just a pile of dirt on top of the freshly filled grave.

That was my last visit, 44 years ago. So even though I really wanted to visit one more time, before I too will be lain to rest somewhere, I was just too hot and thirsty to search anymore. And so I started to make my way back to the entrance of the cemetery, where I knew I’d find the bathroom and the water fountain before making my journey back to “the city.”

But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a steady stream of people making their way to Rebbe Schneerson’s grave site, not more than two city blocks from where I was standing. I hesitated as to whether to return to the entrance or to walk over to his grave, which, though close, was in the opposite direction of where I needed to eventually go.

I knew that the Rebbe had been born in the Black Sea port of Nikolaev in the Russian Empire (now Mykolaiv in Ukraine), and at the age of six had moved to Yekaterinoslav where he grew up and attended Yeshiva. That city of 400,000 people, now called Dnipro, was where my grandfather and his family had also lived, and where he had in fact been born. Another connection with the Rebbe was that I had met him once when I went out to his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway for the dollar and the blessing that he was known to give out each week to encourage tzedakah (charity). In 1986, Schneerson began a custom where each Sunday he would stand outside his office, greet people briefly, give them a dollar bill and encourage them to donate to the charity of their choice. Explaining his reason for encouraging charitable giving among all people, Schneerson quoted his father-in-law who said that “when two people meet, it should bring benefit to a third.” People on line would often take this opportunity to ask Schneerson for advice or request a blessing. Thousands of people attended this event each week, which lasted up to six hours, and is often referred to as “Sunday Dollars.”

I still have the memory of my meeting with him, as well as the dollar he gave me almost 50 years ago. And so today, when I realized how close I was to his grave, I thought, how could I not pay my respects? For, after all, I had come out to Queens to visit graves of family that had all passed away before I had been born, and here I was just steps from a man who was considered the Messiah by many of his followers, a man that I had indeed very briefly met in person. And so I made my way over to his grave. I had to cut through some overgrown graves as I made my way, but then, once I found the main road leading to his family plot, I saw the gravesite of Ray and Charles Cantor.

Was it a coincidence? Or did he, the Rebbe, guide me in that direction?

And so, before visiting the Rebbe, I stayed awhile with my neighbor and her husband, and then made my way to the Rebbe. It was there that I finally felt a sense of loss — for him, for all that was good (and not so good) in his life and mine, and for all the family that I never knew who I had come to visit.

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