My first visit to the Ohel (literally, “tent,”
but in this context, “gravesite”) was in 1989, and unlike now, there was only
one tombstone in the walled enclosure inside the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens,
It was five years before the Lubavitcher
Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory—passed away, and
the sole headstone was that of his father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher
Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. The sixth rabbi of the
Chabad Lubavitch movement, Yosef Yitzchak had been imprisoned and tortured by
the Soviet government for defying its ban against religious practice.
When World War II broke out, the Previous
Rebbe refused to leave Warsaw until its capitulation to Nazi Germany. After
helping as many Jews as possible flee the country, he was able to leave with
the help of the U.S. State Department, and arrived in New York in 1940.
With just over a dozen remaining
Lubavitch leaders and family members, he settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn,
and began an unprecedented worldwide Jewish outreach movement.
I didn’t know any of this on that sunny
day in 1989 when I flew from my hometown of New Orleans with Chabad Rabbi Zelig
Rivkin. When we arrived at the cemetery, we lit memorial candles in an
antechamber just outside the walled-off gravesite.
As a kohen,
a descendant of priests, Rabbi Rivkin was not allowed to enter the gravesite.
Instead, he opened a small book of Tehillim (King David’s Psalms), handed me the open book and said,
I walked through a small door and stood
in front of a low wall that surrounded a gravesite. I was transfixed by a mound
of thousands of letters that had been left by previous visitors around the
headstone. Rain had molded and rounded the white pieces of paper into the
uncanny shape of a mummy.
While standing next to what would have
been the interred Previous Rebbe’s right shoulder, I began reading Psalms for
perhaps the first time in my life, and immediately felt a rush of positive energy,
like the blast of a strong updraft of wind, roaring up from the grave.
It was the most powerful force of
goodness I had ever felt.
I felt as if the Previous Rebbe were
alive, lying on his back under that mound of heartfelt notes and requests,
smiling up at me. I was so shocked at the sensation that I stopped reading
Psalms, and as soon as I did, the rush of positive energy stopped as well.
To this day, I am not sure what lesson
that message from the grave truly meant to convey. Unlike Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson, who spent many hours a day at this same gravesite, talking to his
late father-in-law, I did not have that ability.
In 2013, 24 years after my first visit
and 22 years after moving from New Orleans to Atlanta, I returned to the Ohel.
My tour guide this time was Atlanta native Gavi Shapiro, who was then studying
in a Crown Heights yeshivah.
As we rushed through the cemetery shortly
before Shabbat, I felt sorry for the dozens of interred souls we were passing
en route to the Lubavitch VIPs.
“Thousands of people walk past these
graves every week, ignoring these people,” I said to Gavi as we approached the
Ohel. “These people deserve attention too, like this one.” I pointed to a grave
we were passing. “Or that one, or that
I felt drawn to one gravesite just
outside the Ohel wall. As I began to walk toward that grave, Gavi looked at his
watch, grabbed my arm and pulled me into the antechamber.
There were now two graves in the Ohel,
those of the Rebbe and his father-in-law. I felt the solemnity of the resting
place of these two spiritual giants, yet unlike the experience of my first
visit, I did not receive any veil-breaking communication from beyond.
As we left the Ohel, however, I again
felt drawn toward that same grave as before. The energy was irresistible, and
as I walked closer to it, I felt an undeniably positive, feminine, happy and
supportive energy emanating from it.
“Who is that?” I asked Gavi as we stood
in front of a headstone decorated with dozens of stones left by previous
“That’s the Rebbetzin,” he said. It was
the wife of the Rebbe and the daughter of the Previous Rebbe, whose positive,
uplifting energy I had felt 24 years earlier.
I had never met Chaya Mushka Schneerson,
but people who knew her have told me that what I felt accurately described her
personality. That supportive energy was her defining characteristic, even to
the point of waiting up until dawn with a warm cup of tea when the Rebbe
returned from his office.
Many of us have had the good fortune to
meet those rare people who emanate positivity, who never say a negative word
and who rarely think a negative thought. Being in their presence is uplifting
and refreshing, like fresh air blowing into an open window, like bathing in
The whole energy of the room shifts when
that person walks in. That’s what the Previous Rebbe and his daughter’s energy
felt like. Pure, powerful, uplifting goodness.
One Tuesday in 2016, over 30 members of Chabad of Cobb woke up
hours before dawn to fly from Atlanta to Crown Heights for a one-day, pre-High
Holiday trip. Jewish tradition teaches the benefits of visiting the grave of a tzaddik, a righteous person, before the High Holidays, so our
first stop on our whirlwind trip was the Ohel.
After praying the morning services in a
small Chabad synagogue just outside the cemetery, replacing our leather shoes
with Crocks, and writing notes to read at the gravesite, we walked, one by one,
down the narrow paths to the Lubavitch section of the cemetery.
The morning was overcast, yet I was
transfixed by a gray dove sitting peacefully atop one of the white tombstones.
I entered the antechamber, lit a candle, took a book of Tehillim off a shelf
and entered the Ohel.
Even though the small courtyard
surrounding the graves was packed with men and women who had traveled from
around the world to pay their respects, I was immediately struck by how massive
the two headstones appeared, as if the two rebbes were larger than life or
I walked over to the Previous Rebbe’s
headstone and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what these two spiritual
giants had achieved, and sacrificed, in their lives.
The Previous Rebbe sacrificed his body
and put his life in constant jeopardy while serving as a beacon of hope for
millions of Russian Jews unable to legally practice their religion. His
son-in-law, though childless, gave blessings to hundreds of couples who were
unable to have children, who then inconceivably conceived. He devoted his four
decades of service as head of Chabad Lubavitch to appoint thousands of
emissaries to open up new Chabad centers worldwide, positively impacting the
lives of countless Jews and non-Jews.
The tens of thousands of world leaders
and followers of all religions who visit the Ohel annually don’t pray to the
rebbes; they pray to G‑d while enlisting the support of the masters.
On the tour bus that day, we watched a
video of a doctor with an inoperable eye injury who was able to practice
medicine again after receiving a blessing from the Rebbe. In the video, this
doctor says, “For those who do everything G‑d asks them to do, G‑d is much more
likely to do what those people ask Him to do.”
Standing at the Ohel, my hand on the
Previous Rebbe’s headstone, I was overwhelmed by what these spiritual masters
had achieved, and then I was overcome by emotion, by my connection to these men
and by my reconnection to my own soul.
Through my tears, I read the note I had
written, shredded it and added it to the mound, then opened the book of
Tehillim to a random page to read a non-random lesson that life had for me that
day: “Lift up your soul!”
When we present ourselves to the world,
to society, is it usually not our soul that we present. It is usually some view
of ourselves that we want others to see, our mask, our shining coat of armor.
Apparently, G‑d doesn’t want that. He
wants us to shine forth with our souls, to lift ourselves above our egos, for
that is who we truly are. That is who the tzadikim
are reminding us to be.