A big tent at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s tent

50,000 Jews gathered Thursday in a quiet neighborhood in Queens to remember the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died 29 years ago this week

QUEENS, N.Y. — Veronica Motiram-Mizrahi and her family were in a hurry when they arrived at the Ohel on Thursday. 

The Boca Raton, Fla., resident, her husband and their adult children had to get to a daughter’s medical graduation. But first, they wanted to pay their respects at what Chabad adherents call “The Ohel,” or tent, the structure where the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his father-in-law are buried. 

The Mizrahis’ visit would prove to be anything but quick: Thursday was the anniversary of Schneerson’s death, and tens of thousands of people had come to the Ohel to pray. People visit year-round (24/6, as Chabad puts it: everyday except for Shabbat, when Jews typically do not visit cemeteries) to pay their respects to the two Jewish giants. 

But Schneerson’s yahrzeit — the anniversary of his death in 1994 — holds a special power, drawing religious pilgrims from around the world each year on the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. They lined up to wait for hours to read handwritten prayers in the presence of the souls of these two rabbis.

The Mizrahis, too, stayed.

Motiram-Mizrahi began to cry when asked what brought her to the Ohel on Thursday. Her daughter stepped in to share a story that was now family lore. 

On the morning of Motiram-Mizrahi’s wedding 32 years ago, she had gone to the Chabad-operated mikvah in Brooklyn, a customary practice for Jewish brides on their wedding day. But upon hearing it was her wedding, the woman working at the mikvah took Motiram-Mizrahi out a back door and into Schneerson’s office. She had never met him before. 

He gave Motiram-Mizrahi six dollar bills — Schneerson, who for decades was the leader of the global Chabad movement, would often give people one dollar each, to prompt them to give tzedakah, or charity — and said, “You’re going to have a really open home and have six children.” 

Motiram-Mizrahi and her husband now have six children, ranging in age from 23 to 30. 

People came from the five boroughs of New York City and nearby Long Island. They came from across America, and from around the world. Roughly 50,000 people would visit the Ohel over the 24-hour period of the Schneerson’s yahrzeit, one Chabad official estimated, including overnight Wednesday night, when the crowds swelled.

Shouts of “Yisroel” and “Chana” and “Rivka” echoed across the packed sidewalk, which served as the meeting ground for impromptu reunions. Curious inhabitants of the modest homes that surrounded the cemetery sat on lawn chairs on their front stoops, taking in the scene and watching as people fresh off their planes dropped suitcases in a designated luggage area before lining up to enter the Ohel. 

Outside the entrance to the cemetery, Yossi Mazig stood out in his casual jeans and a T-shirt next to the Hasidim who lined up at the entrance to the Ohel in black hats and long black coats. Mazig leaned nonchalantly against a fence. 

“I come all the time over here,” said Mazig, an Israeli who lives in New York. He had just emerged from the Ohel after waiting an hour and a half. It would be his last time visiting before he moves back to Israel next week. 

Over the course of his life, Schneerson transformed Chabad from an insular branch of Hasidic Judaism into a worldwide movement focused on outreach to Jews of all backgrounds and religious sensibilities. His yahrzeit drew adherents of the Hasidic sect, but it also attracted thousands of other Jews — Orthodox, unaffiliated and everyone in between, evident in the clothing that ranged from women in leggings to men in business suits to little boys in kippot that could barely stay on their heads. 

“I came here to pray,” Mazig said, “that it’s going to be better for Am Yisrael [the people of Israel]. The Rebbe cared about Am Yisrael.” Earlier in the day, Rabbi David Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, read from the Torah in a prayer service at the Ohel. 

This Jewish pilgrimage site feels almost out of place in America. But in Israel, gravesites of learned Jews are commonplace. The tomb of Maimonides, the famed 12th-century scholar, sits a short walk from the central bus station in Tiberias, in northern Israel. Mount Meron, in the Golan Heights, is home to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century sage. And for many Jews — especially Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors trace their roots to Spain — visiting the gravesites of learned Jewish teachers is an important religious practice.

“This is hatarbut shelanu,” our culture, said Mazig, himself a Sephardic Jew. 

One Chabad rabbi who flew in from Boulder, Colo., scrolled through dozens of texts on his phone from friends and congregants back home who had sent him the names of sick family members and friends. Before he went to the Ohel, he would print out a piece of paper with all of their names to remember to pray for each of them. 

In the long line to the Ohel, grandmothers pushed strollers, and parents tried to explain to young children what, exactly, this whole thing was about. Ohel staff members pushed carts containing the Book of Psalms, and some people read from them the entire time they stood in line. TV screens showed videos of Schneerson speaking or praying.

There were metal carts at the entrance of the Ohel, where people placed their leather shoes as a sign of humility. Then, shoeless visitors walked forward — directed by young Ohel staff members who spoke Yiddish to each other — to enter the stone structure. 

Inside, the two graves sit next to each other, surrounded by a fence that visitors walk around, pausing at its edge. One after another, each person took a piece of paper out of their pocket and paused to silently read it. Before leaving the Ohel, they ripped the paper apart and tossed it into the gravesite. It was like a Jewish wishing well, overflowing with thousands of shreds of paper that held supplications written in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish and more. On some of them, you could see drawings made by children. 

After each visitor left the Ohel, many stopped to pray against its stone wall, reminiscent of Jewish visitors to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Some also paused at the graves of Schneerson’s wife, Chaya, or his mother, Chana. Young women customarily brought their wedding invitations to leave at the graves of these women. 

Before departing, one child pulled on her mother’s hand. “I’m hungry,” she said. “When can we eat?”

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