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Sunday, September 15, 2013

NYT: Jews Make a Pilgrimage to a Grand Rebbe’s Grave

At midnight on Wednesday, Gaby Danieli stepped into the warm night on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens, the locks of hair flowing from each temple still sopping wet. 

He had just dunked in a Jewish ritual bath built beneath a modest house, and was ready for a visit to the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh grand rebbe of the Lubavitcher group of Hasidic Jews.

Mr. Danieli, an instructor at Yeshiva University, was not alone: all night long, men in black skullcaps and swishing fringes, women with designer pocketbooks, and young men in denim and T-shirts headed into Old Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights to squeeze in one last prayer in the fleeting days before Yom Kippur, which began on Friday evening and ends on Saturday evening.

In the nearly 20 years since the death of the rebbe, as Rabbi Schneerson was known, what began as a spontaneous pilgrimage has evolved into a spiritual touchstone of the religious movement he spawned, complete with its own rituals, controversies and supplicants from all corners of the globe.

And, perhaps in a nod to the famously sleepless city where the rebbe lived, preached and died, his grave site is open night and day.

The site is known as the ohel, and refers to the structure built around the resting place; the house abutting the cemetery is the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center. 

Pilgrimages to the site began almost immediately after the rebbe died in 1994, said Rabbi Abba Refson, director of the center.

The faithful cite the rebbe’s magnetism and utopian ideals — he pioneered drug treatment centers for Jews and non-Jews alike, urged Jews to more deeply embrace their faith and sought to reinvigorate the Hasidic community, which had been decimated during the Holocaust — when they explain why, nearly two decades later, they still come, seeking a sense of nearness.

Today there is a brightly lighted, air-conditioned complex in the cemetery, with touch-screen terminals that have credit card readers for donations. A dozen houses nearby are owned by the Chabad Lubavitch organization, and there are two ritual baths, called mikvahs.

Read more at: NY Times

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