In the 17 years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, died, celebrities have come and gone. But the chasidic movement he helped grow into an international phenomenon has kept up with the times. A Facebook page with thousands of fans and the 50,000 — chasidism, non-chasidism and non-Jews — who paid their respects at the Ohel at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights, Queens, this week are indicators that the rebbe’s influence is as strong, if not stronger, than during his life.
With the yahrtzeit coinciding with the holiday of American independence, the anniversary of the rebbe’s death also marked the 70th anniversary of his arrival in America. Attendees at the cemetery came from around the world, some flying into New York solely to commemorate the rebbe’s death.
Rabbi Levi Wolff from Sydney, Australia, came for just three days, as he does every year, while a chasidic woman who identified herself as Dina traveled with her family from Shanghai; her children were not even born when the rebbe was alive. A group of 150 Jewish tourists from Brazil came as well.
On a typical too-hot-and-humid New York kind of day, crowds waited hours to visit the rebbe’s grave. In the short two minutes allowed at the gravesite, cramped like an express train at rush hour with crying children, visitors described an intense feeling of holiness. It is why the lines were long even in the middle of the night.
Though the rebbe picked no successor, the 50,000 who showed up to commemorate his yahrtzeit are a reflection that the chasidim he trained, and the thousands he influenced, are sustaining his legacy, as alive as it was 17 years ago.