Twenty years ago, the heart of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson began to fail, revive and finally expired in the cool of the night between 1 and 2 a.m. By that Sunday’s dawn (the Hebrew date was Gimmel Tammuz, this year corresponding to the night of June 30 and July 1) chasidim started arriving in Crown Heights by car, subway and chartered planes from every continent. To look at their faces was to think their best friend died, as he had. Many experts were writing the chasidim off, as well. Chabad-Lubavitch was doomed to decline, said the experts, who predicted chaos in the absence of a rebbe and no way to pick a new one. It was a movement supposedly crippled and discredited by its messianists, rivalries and fantasists.
“So what?” said others. The experts were always saying Chabadniks were slightly unhinged: crazy to open Chabad Houses in the Congo, Montana and China; crazy to bring tefillin and lulavs to distant malls and remote colleges; crazy for the rebbe to personally give away, every Sunday morning, $6,000 in single bills, for charity, to anyone who came to him for a blessing; crazy to light large public menorahs in Peru, Hanoi and Appalachia; crazy to publish “Tanya,” Chabad’s philosophy book, in Arabic; crazy to search for every Jew in the world, the rebbe teaching that souls could wait in Heaven for thousands of years, just for chance on earth to do someone else a favor.
Today there are more than 4,000 shluchim families, or emissaries, — triple the number at the time of the rebbe’s 1994 death — doing favors in more than 1,000 locations, in some 80 countries and 48 states. The number of Jews for whom they’ve done favors is beyond calculation.
The numbers keep astounding. For several days next week, for the rebbe’s 20th yahrtzeit, 50,000 Chabadniks and friends are expected to wait on line for as long as several hours for a chance to spend a minute or two with the rebbe in his “Ohel” (literally a tent, but referring to an enclosure around a prominent grave) at the Old Montifiore Cemetery on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens.
Even for those who are sure the rebbe is dead, no holy soul really is, says the Zohar. According to that pivotal text of Jewish mysticism, a most sublime soul, “even after he departs from this world … is to be found in all [spiritual] worlds [even] more than in his lifetime [when] he is to be found only in this material world.” That soul’s ember remains at the grave, while in the higher realms that soul continues “to watch, to know, to protect the generation.” This was once conventional wisdom. It was a long-standing custom to go to cemetaries to invite a deceased parent or loved ones to a wedding. The biblical Jacob buried Rachel on the road to what is now Gush Etzion because Jacob had a vision of Jewish captives one day passing her grave; Rachel, from her grave, “crying for her children,” will intercede and comfort them. After Chabad’s sixth rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak, was taken to the Other World in 1950, the new rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, told chasidim to keep writing to the deceased rebbe for blessings: “He will find a way to communicate his answer.”
His chasidim wrote so many letters, first to his predecessor and then to him, that by the end of the rebbe’s 92 years the U.S. Postal Service acknowledged that this rebbe received more mail than anyone else in New York. For years, usually twice a week, the rebbe would take his sacks of letters to the Ohel where he would stand for hours in the four seasons of New York, reading the letters, noting his answers. His chasidim built a small enclosure at the Ohel to protect their rebbe from the elements. After the rebbe’s paralyzing stroke at the Ohel in 1992, from which he never recovered, a mysterious fire burnt the rebbe’s enclosure to the ground. “I’m not saying it was a fire from Heaven,” said a chasid, but how do you know that it wasn’t?
On the day the rebbe was buried, the cemetery closed, as usual, at 4 p.m., but chasidim kept scaling its cyclone fence at all hours. Several young chasidim stayed through the night, in a white, unfurnished mobile home, equipped with sforim (holy books), snacks and soda, parked outside the cemetery, close enough to see the Ohel. The mobile home belonged to a chasid, but no one was quite sure who, as was the norm in their mystical world where things kind of, sort of, managed to always work out.
One of those young chasidim in the mobile home, Abba Refson, recalls that it was “usually around five or six guys.” The vigil wasn’t actually organized, “but someone was always there. The boys,” he said, “were very connected to the rebbe and wanted to stay close to the rebbe. It was the natural reaction of our emotions at the time.”
In the winter of 1995, the Australian philanthropist Joseph Gutnick purchased a one-story home adjacent to the cemetery, about 30 yards from the Ohel. The boys took care of it. “Comfort wasn’t our issue,” said Refson. “The biggest benefit was that people didn’t have to scale the fence anymore, because we got permission to open a back entrance from the house into the cemetery, so people could go to the Ohel day and night.” Like the Kotel, the Ohel hasn’t been without visitors since.
Refson never left. Twenty years later, he is now Rabbi Abba Refson, 42, director of Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch. Even after getting married, he lives walking distance to the Ohel, and is still there seven days a week. “I don’t really have to be here on Shabbos, but I like to be.” The complex, he told us this week, includes a visitor’s center, with free and bottomless offerings of coffee, tea, cookies and cold seltzer; a dozen tables with pen and paper to write letters to the rebbe; a Shabbos residence with pay-what-you-will catered meals; a beautiful but no-frills mikvah ($3 suggested fee for adults, $2 for students); a shul that gets as many as 80 people on Shabbat; a library; and TV and computer screens displaying videos from JEM (jemedia.org), Chabad’s sophisticated production company that offers hundreds of hours of the rebbe at fabrengens (chasidic gatherings blending singing, dancing and teaching); and the rebbe’s Sunday audiences on the “dollars” line.
Hundreds of faxes and e-mails keep coming for the rebbe, requests for blessings, healing or inspiration. “Every hour or so,” said Rabbi Refson, “I take the stack to the Ohel, without reading it, and tear them up as I deposit them by the rebbe.” It was the rebbe’s custom to tear letters in half at the Ohel, surrounded by an enclosure to keep the letters from blowing away. Once a week, Rabbi Refson collects the old mail and and burns it in a small portable stove.
On one of the screens in the center, a video played of the rebbe teaching at a long-ago fabrengen, “When one meets a Jew who is ‘empty’ …. the Torah tells us, ‘do not judge appearances.’ Even that Jew,” said the rebbe, “is full of mitzvos the way a pomegranate is full of seeds. It is only his appearance that the Torah calls empty.”
On the screen, at the fabrengen, young men were dancing to a rollicking “Ufaratzta,” an essential Chabad song, “You shall spread to the sea (west), to the east, to the north and to the Negev (south),” a song that can go on forever, like the coda to “Hey Jude,” or the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones.” Chasidim in black suits danced through the packed room, their hands on the shoulders of the one in front, future shluchim dancing to the desert, the sea and beyond. Somewhere, a Jew needed a favor.
Aside from visiting the Ohel (www.ohelchabad.org), the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 20th yahrtzeit will be marked with a daylong conference and dinner June 29 at the Queens College Kupferberg Center (soulencounters.org). The event features Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, author of the new book, “My Rebbe,” Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a member of the rebbe’s secretariat and now the leading administrator of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the global emissary network and chair of Chabad on Campus and more than a dozen other Chabad and academic leaders. There will be guided tours of the Ohel from the conference, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.