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Ten Years After ‘rebbe’s’ Death, Crowds Throng Grave for a Blessing

June 23, 2004
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It was 7 a.m. and Avraham Berkowitz already had been standing three hours in line for his allotted two minutes at the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Still suffering from jet lag several days after arriving from the former Soviet Union, plus the effects of a semi-fast, Berkowitz said the brief interlude at the rebbe’s grave had buoyed his spirits nevertheless.

“For me, this is coming to say to the rebbe, ‘I miss you, I want to see your smile,’ ” he said.

Berkowitz, 28, was among the thousands who thronged Tuesday to the “Ohel,” the covered grave site of Schneerson and his father-in-law — Yosef Schneersohn, his predecessor as Lubavitcher rebbe — in Queens to mark the 10th anniversary of Schneerson’s death.

Starting the night before, members of the fervently Orthodox Chasidic sect, and Jews of all stripes, began gathering at the burial place of a figure many consider a righteous person, or tzaddik -! – and some of whose followers believe is the Messiah.

Such pilgrimages are common among religious Jews around the world, who often will trek to the graves of rabbinic leaders in Europe, and in Israel visit biblical sites such as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem or the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai on Mt. Meron.

Schneerson’s grave has become the sole such pilgrimage site in North America. With an adjacent synagogue and library open 24 hours a day except on the Sabbath, the Ohel often draws followers, but this week police cruisers and ambulances mingled with the overflowing crowds.

People trekked to the site in buses, limousines and sport utility vehicles, filling the streets of the largely African-American, middle-class neighborhood of neat red-brick homes.

For Berkowitz, the day recalled Passover 1989 when, as a teenager and Chabad member from Michigan, he came to the rebbe’s Brooklyn headquarters. A Kohen, or member of the priestly caste, Berkowitz was asked to come up o! n stage to join in prayers.

Berkowitz had neglected to bring a tall it, or prayer shawl, and no one offered to help. Then a man standing alongside handed him his own — and “it was the rebbe,” he said.

Today Berkowitz serves in Moscow as executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Baltic States, a career he traces back to the rebbe’s “gesture of giving” to a young Jew in need.

“The rebbe focused on me, and he was seven decades older than me,” Berkowitz said.

On Tuesday, he said, “I walked out of” the Ohel “full of strength to go back to Russia and give more Jews back to Judaism.”

Many felt a similar pull. Nechama Goldman, 30, who runs a Chabad House in Oklahoma City with her husband, arrived with her five children. She had prepared the children for the trip with videos and lessons about the rebbe, teaching them one mitzvah, or commandment, each morning “so the day doesn’t just go by.”

“It’s like a father or grandfather to them,” she said.

She planned to pray for her children to “be good kids,! ” for help with the couple’s outreach to Jews and, ultimately, “that this should all end — that the Jewish people should all be together” upon the Messiah’s arrival.

Some Chabad members believe Schneerson remains the one chosen to usher in the messianic age, while others are embarrassed by such talk. But Yossi Deren, 31, a Chabad emissary in Greenwich, Conn., echoed other younger rabbis who said the decade-old debate remains “a non-issue.”

“What the rebbe did had a messianic quality: He saved Jews,” Deren said. “But is it necessary to put a crown on his head?”

As the line wound toward the Ohel, people read psalms and songs and a special book of passages from the kabbalistic work the Zohar. Others watched Schneerson’s sermons on video monitors along the path.

At the simple grave they cried, prayed and placed crumpled notes filled with their pleas, making the ground look as if it were covered in snow, despite the summer heat.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, 57, of the! Chabad Shul in Surfside, Florida, had waited 90 minutes to get in, bu t stepped out of line to speak to a Chabad group from Texas.

“This is a bittersweet experience,” he said. “We miss the rebbe very much, but the rebbe’s loving presence is like a comforting guide that supports every aspect of your life.”

Some came hoping for tangible results. Mani Pakizehgee, 39, a Los Angeles stockbroker and member of the city’s Iranian Jewish community, said he’d earned “millions” of dollars since a meeting 14 years ago in which the rebbe convinced him to leave his sewing business and begin importing embroidery machines.

Now, he will pray for a wife and “even more money,” Pakizehgee said half-jokingly before stepping into a white stretch limo.

Glenn Shapiro, 51, of Hartsdale, N.Y., arrived for very different reasons in a Saab convertible. A lawyer who stages conferences for accountants and lawyers, Shapiro said he experienced a “spiritual awakening” at age 45 after meeting a Chabad rabbi near his office in New London, Conn.

Shapiro grew up in! a Conservative home, and his business consumed much of his adult life. At first he “intended to stay away from these black jackets as much as possible,” he said, referring to the way Chabad members often dress, but gradually he grew interested in Schneerson’s teachings.

This was Shapiro’s third visit to the grave site. Since growing interested in the rebbe, he said, he has grown more focused on his wife and two daughters, and last year won a state bar association award for devoting 500 hours of pro-bono legal work.

Asked to explain his life shift, he said simply, “the rebbe caused that.”

Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad spokesman based in Yorba Linda, Calif., said the group’s estimates of 800,000 followers worldwide reflected the rebbe’s reach even today.

“The average Jew today identifies the rebbe as one of the great Jewish leaders of his time,” Eliezrie said.

Yosef Mesica, 38, of Los Angeles, is one such Jew. Mesica, who runs an air-conditioning business, s! at in a van outside the grave, immersed in prayers.

Mesica said thi s was his second trip to the rebbe’s grave.

“The closest contact we have today with God,” he said, “is through holy people.”

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