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.”
That shock is two decades in the past. Today, Azimov is wearing an orange tie and a black coat, standing in the sun outside the mini-campus that Chabad has built on the edge of Montefiore Cemetery. Schneerson’s tomb, which he shares with his father-in-law, who preceded him as leader of Chabad, is in the middle of a dense section of graves. Chabad has bought up a few buildings along Francis Lewis Boulevard, the street closest to the tomb, and constructed a visitor’s center. There are a few semi-permanent tents behind the building where men and women prepare to visit the Ohel.
In one tent, men study at long tables as a video of Schneerson plays on a TV screen above them. In another, a man calls for a minyan for afternoon prayer: “Mincha! Mincha! Mincha!” The place smells of sweet wine. One man has a vodka bottle in his hand, though there’s no conspicuous drinking.
Lubavitch, like many Hasidic groups, is not entirely at peace. The Crown Heights-based movement has not been spared the internal rivalries that have split other U.S. Hasidic groups, like the Satmar and the Bobov. Among the Lubavitch, the main fault line is over what Schneerson’s death means. Some in the movement, the so-called meshichists, insist that Schneerson is the messiah. The movement’s mainstream, those who control its key institutions, generally accept his death. The fight between the groups has spilled into many of the movement’s spaces. Crown Heights is full of Lubavitchers wearing the yellow flag pins of the meshichists. Meshichists dominate the synagogue in the basement of 770 Eastern Parkway, the movement’s headquarters.
At the Ohel, though, that rift is entirely invisible. There are no yellow flag pins here at all. The meshicists, for what seem to be ideological reasons, stay away. No rebbe replaced Schneerson at the head of Chabad, but the men who run the worldwide community’s mainstream institutions were in attendance for the anniversary. Yehuda Krinsky, one of Schneerson’s handpicked administrators, was seen skipping the line to visit the tomb by entering through the exit. (This reporter used the same shortcut to get to his ladder.)
Abraham Shemtov, also appointed by Schneerson as a top administrator, was standing alone on the street outside. An older man with intense eyebrows and a long white beard, he was carrying a heavy book with the word “Wisdom” on the cover.
Shemtov wouldn’t recount his memories of Schneerson’s death. “It’s a moment I’m not ready to discuss,” he said. And he dismissed the notion that the anniversary of Schneerson’s death was a particularly sad day. “The sadness of the rebbe’s physical absence is every moment,” he said.
Shemtov also wouldn’t say how often he visit’s Schneerson’s grave, but many interviewed said that they come more than once a year, not just on the anniversary. Schneerson himself, when he was alive, would visit his father-in-law’s grave in the same tomb almost daily.
The Lubavitchers said they saw the visit as a way to connect with their rebbe, whose vision they say they still serve. “We look at is as a spiritual day, a day that gives us power,” Azimov said.
The line to enter the tomb itself starts on the sidewalk and winds through the cemetery. There are study materials at the start of the line, and the visitors are meant to use the wait time for reflection. On normal days the tomb is split into a men’s and women’s section, but on the anniversary of Schneerson’s death the men and women instead take turns inside. The women’s line moves much faster — a half-hour wait, instead of two or three hours. Once inside the tomb, visitors pray and leave letters for Schneerson. It’s a small space, and the guards seem aggressive.
Though the messianic revelation they expected in 1994 didn’t materialize, the Lubavitchers still hope for messiah. “We should not give up until the world becomes a place that is ready — we should do our part until moshiach comes,” said Hudi Rapoport, an emissary in Milwaukee.
Yet there’s still lingering puzzlement at the Ohel. Why did the prophecy fail in 1994, and why hasn’t messiah come? “We never thought we’re still [going to be in] the same situation, twenty years we don’t see the rebbe,” Garbarchik said. “Nobody thought it’s going to take that long.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.