By MATT FLEGENHEIMER – NY Times
The pilgrims had traveled from Montana and Helsinki, eastern Michigan and western Ukraine, waiting for the sun, hanging stubbornly above the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, to disappear on Monday night.
Beside this holy Hasidic site, in a waiting area called the “ladies section,” women scribbled on notepaper and cradled babies against their chests. On the men’s side, attendees began to wend their way outdoors, carrying prayer books in their hands and cigarette smoke in their beards.
For one day each June or July, depending on the Hebrew calendar, the nexus of Hasidic Judaism shifts, for many, to a tree-lined residential neighborhood in eastern Queens.
It is here, in Cambria Heights, where Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was buried after his death on June 12, 1994. Rabbi Schneerson, the seventh grand rebbe of the Lubavitcher group of Hasidic Jews, is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement, expected more than 50,000 people to visit on Monday night and Tuesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the rebbe’s death, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar.
A manager for the event, adjusting his skullcap, assembled a team of employees in yellow uniforms for a final pep talk, assigning their posts before the crush was to begin at sundown. “Give me another 20 minutes!” the man barked into his walkie-talkie, as the workers, who did not appear to be Jewish, reported to their positions. “I’m just trying to place my goyim.”
It was an unprecedented crowd for an occasion that seems to defy local comparison, even in a city accustomed to hosting mega-events. There is no baseball stadium on the other side of sliding subway doors, no concert venue teeming with the under-aged and over-served.
Yet some revelry persists among the solemn prayers. Inside a long, narrow tent — where the wide brims of black fedoras, combined with the close quarters, imperiled the unprotected forehead — members of the movement shared in a series of warm embraces with peers. Many sipped vodka as they studied.
About 200 people, after all, had traveled from Brazil in the throes of another notable gathering. “This is our World Cup,” said Arale Waligora, 60, of São Paulo.
Accordingly, the scene inspired a security presence worthy of a sporting event, with barricades lining the boulevard, police officers overseeing the area outside the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center, which sits beside the site, and private security personnel patrolling the grounds.
Most visitors arrived by car, packing into vans or boarding private buses shuttling to and from the cemetery. City buses can also leave travelers near the site, with an assist from the subway or the Long Island Rail Road, though such trips are rare. On Monday night, at least one restless wayfarer began a bid to hitchhike back to Brooklyn.
Some vehicles occupy spaces on side streets and occasionally block driveways, residents complain, despite signs encouraging thoughtful parking.
“I live there, I pay that mortgage,” one resident shouted at a security officer who decreed, upon close inspection, that one Hasid’s vehicle was not obstructing the path. “But you’re going to make sure he’s comfortable.”
Open day and night, all year, the rebbe’s resting place has been known to attract secular Jews and even some non-Jews, in addition to the deeply observant. Politicians seem particularly enthralled. Last September, two days after winning the Republican nomination for New York City mayor, Joseph J. Lhota left a torn note at the rebbe’s grave, in accordance with Lubavitcher custom. Weeks later, Senator Cory A. Booker of New Jersey made a visit on the eve of his election.
To arrive by Monday evening, many Hasidim had crossed more expansive waters than the Hudson. There were visitors from France, Norway and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm of Ukraine said through a Yiddish translator that the rebbe’s teachings had sustained him through the last 20 years in the city of Zhytomyr. “This is the place,” he said beside the overstuffed tent, “where I derive the inspiration and energy.”
Among his followers, Rabbi Schneerson is remembered for encouraging Jews to engage more deeply with their faith and for bolstering a Hasidic community that had faced devastation during the Holocaust. Some Lubavitchers think the rebbe could become the messiah. Others say the question of who might be the messiah is best left to God.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk, 32, from Bozeman, Mont., reasoned that his travel burden would be eased in a desired utopian future, corresponding with the end of days.
“The schlep will be done,” he said, noting the two flights he must now board in each direction. “Bozeman will go to Jerusalem.” And if not all attendees agree, particularly those without skullcaps, the division appears amicable.
Distributing stacks of paper inside the tent, Devon Straughn, 30, one of the workers in yellow, suggested that the Hasidim did not seem appreciably different than members of his Christian faith.
They gathered for a special day. Many would be sad to see it end. Some would counter this impulse with a bit too much alcohol. All hoped to imbue their lives with deeper meaning.
“It’s pretty much the same,” Mr. Straughn said, as a pilgrim requested a candle. “Everybody has their own thing.”
Photos: Chaim Perl