Thousands of Orthodox Jews gathered at the grave of Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson – whose leadership transformed the sect into a major force in Judaism – in observance of the 10th anniversary of his death.
Men and women from around the world lined up for hours Monday to pass by the rebbe’s walled-in grave in a Queens cemetery.
“The rebbe breathed a spirit into my life,” said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, who traveled from Moscow. “Every rabbi is a reflection of the rebbe, and that is why there has been no one selected as a leader to replace him. We are all our father’s sons.”
Schneerson, the seventh grand rebbe in an unbroken dynastic line that began in 18th-century Russia, died on June 12, 1994, at age 92.
The observance was to run from sundown Monday to sundown Tuesday, or the third of Tamuz – the anniversary of his death according to the Jewish lunar calendar.
Luiz Kignel, 39, a lawyer from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who traveled to Queens with about 80 other people, said he feels a special connection with the rebbe.
“Even though Brazil is a long distance away, the connection to the rabbi is short distance,” he said. “Every one of us has a connection to the rabbi, and it manifests itself in different ways, whether in your work life, family life, or religious life.”
The Lubavitchers were one of many hassidic groups that were uprooted from Eastern Europe by the Holocaust and came to the United States.
But when Schneerson took over as grand rebbe in 1950, the Lubavitchers became the most outward-looking of the haredi groups, constructing giant menorot in public places, proselytizing among less observant Jews and building Chabad centers from Sao Paulo to Bangkok.
“They chose to engage with the modern world,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York. “Unlike every other hassidic group – which are very localized – it’s like joining the Navy: You can go and see the world.”
The once-tiny sect has swelled in number and influence. Estimates of followers vary widely, ranging from the tens of thousands to a million or more, and Lubavitchers have become a powerful religious and economic institution throughout the world Jewish community.
Schneerson’s teachings were the movement’s driving force, and some of his followers believed that he was the messiah, although he never claimed to be so, and that he would rise again to deliver the Jewish people as prophesied in the Old Testament. His charismatic leadership made him widely considered one of the foremost Jewish figures of the past half-century.
His death left a leadership vacuum that has yet to be filled, although the sect went for about a decade during the 1880s without a spiritual leader. The death also created somewhat of a schism in the group, with those who still believe Schneerson is the messiah and those who don’t believe that.
Schneerson, born April 18, 1902, in the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev, was the son of a rabbi and a great-grandson of the third Lubavitcher rebbe.
At age 21, he met the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, a distant relative. In 1929, he married the rebbe’s daughter Chaya Moussia. But Schneerson also took an almost unprecedented step into the secular world, studying engineering at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris.
With the Nazis engulfing Europe, Schneerson moved to the United States in 1941. His father-in-law had moved the year before.