Joseph Lhota began his first day on the campaign trail as the Republican nominee Thursday morning by paying his respects at the grave of the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The site at Old Montefoire Cemtery in Springfield Gardens, Queens, is a major pilgrimage point for Orthodox Jews, particularly during the High Holidays season.
Lhota, who did not campaign on the anniversary of 9/11 Wednesday, stayed about an hour at the site, which is known as the Ohel (literally, the tent), and includes a synagogue and visitors center.
The visit early in the general campaign shows the importance that the ultra-Orthodox community, which votes in blocs and has a long history of crossing party lines, will play in a contentious general election in a heavily Democratic town. Brooklyn — where most chasidim in the city live — is particularly important because it’s the home base of likely Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio.
But Chabad Lubavitch said the candidate was keeping a commitment he made to Rabbi Shea Hecht, a politically connected Crown Heights rabbi, to visit the grave at some point during the campaign, said the rabbi’s son, Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht. Since the elder rabbi is in israel this week, his son came downstate from his home in Kingston, Ulster County, for the occasion.
“He has been talking about going for a long time,” Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht told the Jewish Week of Lhota. “It was not a question of if, but when. Right before Roash HaShanah as the campaign heated up [was discussed] but it didn’t make sense.”
Lhota’s mother was Jewish, but he is a practicing Catholic.
Rabbi Hecht said he presented passages from a Chabad text, Maaneh Lashon, for Lhota to read in English at the rebbe’s grave, and the candidate came prepared with a written note. It is customary for visitors to deposit a prayer at the gravesite.
Rabbi Hecht said he stressed that Lubavitch Jews do not pray to the rebbe himself but to God, believing the site is holy ground. The rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushke, and her father, the previous rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak, are also buried there. The erstwhile rebbe died in 1994 but left no successor.
Rabbi Hecht said he was also surprised how many of the other visitors recognized Lhota, given that many come from outside New York City this time of year.
Lhota, who was in regular contact with the Crown Heights-based Lubavitch community’s leaders when he was deputy mayor for operations under Republican Rudolph Giuliani, will likely face de Blasio in the November election, provided de Blasio remains at the 40 percent mark in his primary victory after absentee ballots are counted and the results certified next week.
De Blasio held a rally in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall Wednesday, where he accepted the backing of former rival Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker with whom he exchanged heated barbs over the past several weeks about term limits, stop and frisk and other issues. He was also endorsed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and many Democrats and unions who supported other candidates in the primary.
William Thompson, Jr., the 2009 Democratic nominee and second place finisher in the primary, has yet to concede, though he is under pressure to do so to avoid a potentially fractious runoff that could help Lhota.