By Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale
I pulled up to the parking lot designated as sleeping quarters for the anniversary. Two giant tents extended over the acres of asphalt. Adjacent to the sea of white vinyl were endless rows of RVs of all sizes, parked bumper to bumper to enable space for the masses. License plates from as far away as Michigan were noticeable. “Can I pull in and park for the weekend?” I inquired of the security guard. “No vans,” he said. “What’s the difference between an RV and a U-Haul?” I asked. “There are rules,” he replied, in a rather ominous tone. As a generally law-abiding citizen, I parallel parked on Springfield Blvd. and descended onto the sidewalk to peek. Curiosity escapes no one.
I instantly noticed an old high school mate on his cell phone. It was two hours to Shabbos and Rabbi Francis seemed to be making last minute arrangements for his family back home in Houston, where he serves as the principal of the Chabad Day School. “Where are you sleeping tonight Einan,” I inquired of my dear friend. Time didn’t permit for lengthy greetings and familiar anecdotes. “Right there Shmully” he replied with a friendly grin, pointing to a brand-new mattress at the opening of the tent. And there I stood in shock. Hundreds of miniature futon-like mattresses similar to the ones used in prison, the military, and summer camps were lined up in rows extending a hundred feet or more in one direction, and perhaps fifty in the other. A spreadsheet delineating groups of people, numbered and collated, was hanging at the entry. As the buses unloading arriving pilgrims with only their backpacks of essentials, everybody seemed to be seeking their place in the labyrinth of it all. You were either on a list or presumed to have made other accommodations. Bystanders would have assumed the US Marine-corps-advance had landed in Cambria Heights, Queens for the weekend, and set up a make-shift defense headquarters for thousands of troops about to descend on this lower-middle-class American town.
I had failed to reserve a bed, and due to July 4th weekend all the RVs in my hometown New Haven CT were booked. So, as a final option I hopped over to U-Haul, rented a cargo van, hit the Interstate 95 South, making one stop at Walmart to purchase two blow up mattresses. “Don’t forget the pump” said my wife Toby, as I left my rather comfortable home, whilst wishing me a meaningful Shabbos. “And pray for us all,” She said.
I had no concerns. Levi Drimmer and I were going to rough it. We had spent our teenage years immersed in the glory of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and we were heading to his graveside to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing. We were diehards. Of Chabad persuasion.
Levi caught an Uber from JFK where he landed on a last-minute flight from Miami. I was driving around the neighborhood attempting to find a place to park my weekend habitat on wheels. It turned out Levi was offered an indoor cot, contingent on him finding a mattress, and ultimately carrying it across the town while avoiding passing traffic and security vehicles assigned to detail the weekend convention. It turned out the RVs weren’t parking exclusively at the designated parking lot. Every block within a one-mile radius of the Rebbe’s holy grave was a satellite self-proclaimed parking lot for those attending the pilgrimage. Jews of all stripes and backgrounds were swarming the neighborhood. Some in knitted yarmulkes, others in shtreimels, a few bareheaded. We Chabadniks were sweating profusely under our felt borsalinos and kappatos, the 20th century Lubavitch adaptation of the Prince-Albert formal attire. Perspiring was ok. We were trained soldiers, if only in the proverbial sense. Soldiers in G-ds army under the command of the late Rebbe; each armed, well-oiled and fine-tuned. United in battling the winds and rising tides of assimilation. We could afford no jams in this spiritual encounter. We are living in a turbulent world, desperately seeking direction and meaning. The opioid crisis in not coincidental. It is not circumstantial. It is evidentiary of the Millennial and Gen-Z state of affairs. The world is lost. We were endowed with the task of making sense of the chaos and restoring order. That is what armies do. Kennedy had his Peace Corp. The Rebbe directed Tzivos Hashem.
Our traditional garb signified no hierarchy of rank. Among us were Elder Chasidim and Shluchim who knew the Rebbe personally, many responsible for Chabad detachments across entire countries, with no less representation of adolescent yeshiva bochurim born after the Rebbe’s passing. The black and white uniform was communal. Tradition marked with a flair of modernity. A Chasidic garb the naysayers often misconstrue as archaic was posh and classy. Elegant and understated. We dressed Chabad Style, no less. Aristocratic. We hit the town the way uniformed navy officers roam around foreign occupied cities. The locals seemed oblivious to the entourage. They barely seemed to notice.
My WhatsApp pinged. It was zero-minus seventy five minutes to Shabbos. Rabbi Aryeh Schottenstein, the new scholar in residence at the Shul of Bal Harbor, and Rabbi Alter Levitin a philanthropist from Seattle Washington had booked an Airbnb. They recommended I park outside their last-minute finding. Both being my brothers in law, I hopped by for a quick embrace and glimpse at what the more organized attendees arranged for accommodations. It was a tiny dreary basement and frankly a dump. Cambria Heights isn’t known for its luxury hotels. No air conditioning and a non-working mini fridge that could barely contain the drinks and finger food we brought. A small-claims suit would net a refund and triple damages. Yeh, go explain it to the Judge.
Every great Shabbos needs some post L’chaim nibbles. Straight vodka opens the mind and soul, a requirement for an honest dialogue among comrades; but the belly needs to prepped. Chasidim refer to it as farbeisin. Every culture has its nomenclature. Some would call it an absorbent, only for lack of a better word. Not cotton balls, rather gastronomical padding for pending inebriation. Observing this subterranean web scam, I was elated with my U-Haul and anticipated the evening breeze cooling off the anticipated eighty-degree weather the weekend had called for. If that wouldn’t suffice, perhaps the undercurrent of cool air from the overhead air pockets would. We were after all directly under the JFK inbound flight path. I would sleep just fine.
The permanent tent that serves as the Synagogue and study Hall adjacent to the Rebbe’s grave was filling up rapidly. In describing the weekend to a few Yale students I contrasted it with the famous music festival of Woodstock NY in the summer of 1969. Shabos at the Ohel was the spiritual alternative and compelling antidote to that weekend of “freedom” marked by sheer decadence of drugs, alcohol, rock n roll and moral turpitude. The upcoming twenty five hour holy period was to be spent in prayer, study, contemplation and resolution. Mankind has the capacity to congregate and carnival around our most base instincts, or gather in celebration of our most transcendent moral dispositions.
The prayer tent on Francis Lewis Blvd was jammed with bodies, as the summer sun set on the Eastern Seaboard. Gimel Tamuz 5779 had arrived. The emotion was a healthy mix of sadness for having lost our Rebbe yet simultaneously a celebration of the ideals and values with which we inspired us.
The singing commenced as Rabbi Hershel Hendel and a large group of his constituents led the prayers. The Jews of Argentina had arrived. Lecho Dodi was audible in high pitch across the tent. Deep sincerity of this Sephardic contingency was evident as we sang and danced to the traditional melody that allegorically welcomes the bride of the Sabbath Queen. The first quorum was followed by scores of others as the evening progressed, each with their own melody and tune. We prayed, we sang, thanking the Creator as we edged closer to the divine, our lives inspired by the Holiest of men buried a mere hundred yards from where we stood.
I pondered. Martin Luther king Jr had the Lincoln Memorial to his back when he delivered the famous words “I have a dream”. Not a coincidence. Hundreds of thousands of Americans witnessed that historic speech as it entered the air waves of history. Words that would forever change the course of civil rights for millions of Americans. Eternal ideas are transcendent to time and space, yet their specific place of delivery and origin often give them a sense of urgency. The Rebbe left us with hundreds of books to study and ponder, thousands of personal letters in which to delve for meaning, endless hours of audio and video clips filled with intricate insights of Torah study, and myriads of soundbites containing self-reflection and personal improvement-messages replayed millions of times universally by his emissaries and admirers.
We were the few thousand fortunate ones under the stars tonight at his final resting place, praising Eternal G-d for the gift of his leadership. The hour struck eleven and after an intense prayer and reading of some ancient texts we made our way over to the underground bunker to recite Kiddush, reminisce of our times spent physically with the Rebbe and briefly catch up on our lives. We then headed North on Francis Lewis Boulevard to the culinary extravaganza that the beloved and revered caretaker of the Ohel, Rabi Abba Refson had organized for the attendees.
To be continued…