NEW YORK, Nov. 10 (JTA) — They came by the busload, one black-and-white clad Lubavitch emissary after another, crowding around tables in a large tent near where their rebbe is buried, writing heartfelt notes they would later read to him by his grave site.
An old tea box was turned into an impromptu tzedakah box, stuffed with dollar bills to help pay for the upkeep of the Lubavitch enterprise that has grown up around the cemetery of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Queens, N.Y.
Known in their Yiddish-inflected parlance as shluchim, the emissaries had come to the cemetery this windy autumn Sunday morning from the Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn, where 1,800 emissaries had gathered last week from all over the world for their annual conference.
Sent out as young married couples to bring unobservant Jews closer to traditional practice and belief, some of the 3,800 shluchim and their families are based in far-flung outposts, where they are the only observant Jews. Others are sent to add to an already substantial Lubavitch presence in huge metropolises.
Among last year’s 312 newly minted shaliach couples, three were sent to locations as diverse as Wellington, New Zealand; Bucharest, Romania; and Chicago.
Back at home base in New York, the male emissaries — their wives have their own annual meeting in Crown Heights each February — were meeting and greeting old friends from their days as yeshiva boys, attending dinners, listening to speeches and bursting into wordless songs in between.
Mostly, they were absorbing the spiritual sustenance that came from just being together.
“You don’t have to be a big Chasid to feel something special here. You feel you aren’t lonely,” said Rabbi Noach Gansburg, who is stationed in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Visiting their rebbe’s grave site was an important part of their itinerary, and the first stop that many Lubavitchers make when they visit New York.
“The relationship we have with the rebbe is like with a father and son, and so when you come from out of town, you first go to see your father,” said Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, the shaliach in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Generations of followers of Chasidic rebbes have visited their graves in pilgrimage, seeking solace and blessings from beyond the physical world.
“The righteous are greater in death than during their lifetime, say our sages,” explained Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the conference, who was a close aide of the rebbe’s. “Commentaries explain that while freed from their physical limitations, they are able to be more selfless, more unlimited, in their blessings for us left behind.”
As hundreds of men packed into the narrow space around the tombs of Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his predecessor and father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, many quietly read the notes they had written, then tore them up and let the pieces flutter down to rest on top of the graves.
They prayed, many swaying back and forth in their fervor, occasionally breaking out in soft song, chanting the tunes they had learned at their rebbe’s feet.
Though the rebbe died on June 12, 1994 — no successor has taken his place — his physical absence poses little barrier to communication with his followers, Bentolila said in an interview just outside the small granite structure that partially encloses the graves of the rebbes.
“A regular person still feels in connection with his father” even after he dies, said Bentolila. “It is much more so with a tzadik,” or righteous person. “I see every day how the rebbe opens doors and helps us.”
Coming to the site — known to Lubavitchers as “the ohel,” the Hebrew word for cemetery — sustains their work, many of the shluchim said.
“When I come to the ohel, I remember the days when I had personal audiences with the rebbe. It’s a way for me to come to the rebbe, so he hears me and I hear him. For me the rebbe is still around, spiritually, of course,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Hazan, an emissary in Rome.
At the edge of the cemetery, in a quiet residential neighborhood of modest brick houses, the movement has been busy expanding its presence to accommodate the constant flow of visitors to the rebbe’s grave.
Soon after the rebbe’s death, Australian mining magnate Yosef Gutnick financed the purchase of the house closest to the rebbe’s grave and since then, bought two more.
There are three other Lubavitch-owned houses down the street, bought with money from other donors, and another house that has been turned into a mikvah so that the men visiting can enhance their spiritual purity by immersing before praying at the grave.
In all, the houses can accommodate 80 to 100 people who want to spend Shabbat close to the rebbe’s grave, though on an average Shabbat, 30 or 40 people come, said Abba Refson, the young, enthusiastic Lubavitch rabbi who has become the unofficial shaliach at the cemetery.
He lives there so that he can welcome the people who come to visit at all hours of the day and night.
Between 600 and 1,000 people come each Sunday, he said, and on the anniversary of the rebbe’s death, some 6,000 come.
Many visitors are not Orthodox Jews. Refson estimates that half are “not yet religious,” and some are not even Jewish.
Two weeks ago, he said, a Buddhist priest with an entourage of several people came to visit.
“He said he’d seen something about the Tanya” — the core philosophical text of Lubavitch Chasidism — “on the Internet and wanted to come pay his respects,” Refson said with a slightly bemused smile over his bushy black beard.
Refson is also in charge of the three fax machines that hum in a corner, day and night, churning out the requests of people all over the world for the rebbe’s blessing. Refson takes them each day, careful not to read the personal entreaties, and places them on the gravesite.
It has now become routine for young Lubavitch couples to go to the cemetery, seeking the rebbe’s blessing, before announcing their engagement to their parents, much as they sought his response when he was alive.
Some Lubavitchers conduct important life-cycle events at the cemetery. Bar Mitzvah boys put on tefillin for the first time at the cemetery, and some families take their 3-year- old sons there for their first haircut, to mark the end of babyhood and the beginning of Jewish learning.
Some families are even having their sons circumcised at the cemetery.
A Lubavitch spokesman, Zalman Shmotkin, held the brit milah for his third son, Aryeh Leib, there two months ago.
Being at the cemetery at such a moment provides “a special feeling of holiness and closeness to both my rebbe and a dearest family member,” Shmotkin said.