One of the most fascinating communities in Orthodox Judaism has to be the Lubavitcher group, whose “mitzvah tanks” prowl mid-Manhattan in search of Jews they want to invite for a brief prayer. Around the world, from Montana to Mumbai, Lubavitch emissaries seek out other Jews, perhaps detached from formal observance, in an effort to win them back into the fold.
The late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was at the center of the Lubavitch revival of the past 60 years or so and remains at the heart of the Lubavitch movement, despite having passed to his rest in 1994 at the age of 92. His grave is in a cemetery in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, New York, and that’s where Sarah Maslin Nir, Queens reporter for The New York Times (and who is “is not related to any other journalists with a similar name,” her online bio insists) picks up the story. Nir reports on Lubavitchers (as members are often called) and others visiting the gravesite, or ohel in Hebrew, and leaving prayer requests at the tomb of Schneerson, affectionately called “the rebbe” by the faithful.
In the small hours of Thursday morning, visitors sat in the center beside a giant picture of the white-bearded rebbe, scribbling prayers on notepaper to be tossed onto the grave.
The rebbe, the belief goes, will deliver them to God.
That’s not entirely unexpected, since Jews (and other pilgrims, including then-Sen. Barack Obama and Pope John Paul II) have left notes with prayer requests at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for decades, if not centuries. But the near-veneration of Schneerson, while understood vis-a-vie his followers, could use some context in the broader picture of Judaism and its practices. Moses’ grave on Mt. Nebo, for example, is described in the Bible as unknown, suggesting Jews were not to make pilgrimages there. (A Catholic Church stands today on the spot believed to be where Moses eyed the Promised Land he did not enter, but that’s another story — and a different tradition.)
But what do other scholars and thinkers make of this, um, adoration of Schneerson? How, well, “Jewish” would or should it be considered? Is there anyone willing to tackle that question — even a Lubavitcher spokesman such as Rabbi Motti Seligson? We don’t know, because Nir doesn’t tell us in this piece.
She does offer plenty of color and detail and glimpses of some who make the, pardon the expression, “lobster shift” (i.e., middle-of-the-night) journey to the grave:
At 3 a.m., Ira Leibowitz, 44, who sells closeout merchandise, arrived to pray. Just hours before, he had arrived from Los Angeles, and at 5 a.m. he would head back to the airport.
Under jagged trees in the cemetery, sheaves of notes were piled several feet deep, rustling in the night wind. Candles flickered on shelves, their rising flames symbolizing the soul striving for its higher purpose.
Flame-reading notwithstanding, the Times article also only touches on the interfaith issues raised by the oheland its round-the-clock stream of visitors:
The pilgrimage to Cambria Heights, a largely black, middle-class neighborhood, has faced some challenges. Large celebratory crowds have frustrated neighbors, and efforts at expansion — most recently, a proposal for a more permanent structure than the tentlike ohel — have been met with opposition by the local community board. The center has made efforts to streamline parking, and in June, delivered bottles of wine to neighbors on surrounding streets, Rabbi Refson said. The number of visitors commemorating the rebbe’s death now tops 30,000.
How might a bottle of Kedem or Manischewitz wine ease things with neighbors? We’re not told, nor are any neighbors quoted on their reactions to all of this. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s story is a fascinating one, and his movement is of great import in a segment of the Jewish community. But context seems to be lacking, and that’s a shame, in my opinion.