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To the Ohel and Back

To the Ohel and Back

Messages From the Graves of Spiritual Giants

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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, N.Y.

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, “Read this.”

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 one.”

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 visitors.

“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 sunshine.

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 death.

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.

Award-winning short-story writer and newspaper editor Yaacov Noah Gothard is president of Career Pro Resumes in Atlanta, Georgia. A version of this article originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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R. Willner New Orleans January 24, 2017

Yaacov, like all writers, is quite efficient and precise with his vocabulary. But, what makes him great is how expressive he is with his emotions and his spiritual life. I enjoyed reading his short story and I will search to see what else he has written. Reply

Alan W. Atlanta December 4, 2016

A spiritually uplifting article and the closing is powerful. I just read a short bio on Rebbe Schneersohn; an amazing man as are they all. In the modern world, most of us spend all or most of the time on our animal beings and may neglect our spiritual life. Our true selves matter; shine forth your soul. Reply

jennieclarke Marietta November 22, 2016

I feel the story, if we could open up our souls this way all the time! But could we still function in our everyday lives? Can one be physical, but overwhelmed by spiritual things and still lead a "normal" life? Reply

Wayne Markman Atlanta, GA November 21, 2016

I enjoyed reading this story. I could literally feel the spirit of the Rebbe in the words. What a magical place this must be. Reply

Chaim Lindenblatt Atlanta GA November 16, 2016

Great story; I appreciated his experience of three great leaders of our time. It truly tells us how we can be inspired by those who dedicated their lives to Hasten. Reply

Anonymous November 16, 2016

Amazing! This makes me remember those magical moments when my eyes were first opened to Chabad and the miracles that happen every day around us. Excellent! Where can I find more articles from this Author?

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Rayna Perl Boston, MA November 16, 2016

Had similar experience Great article, thanks for sharing!

I had very similar experience visiting the Ohel for the first time. As a Russian baal Tesuva, I feel special connection with the Rebbe, and when I get a chance to be in New York, I always try to visit the Ohel, paying my respect to the Tzadikim who dedicated their life serving Jewish People.

They excepted and valued every Jewish person, realizing that only our unity will bring the Mochiach.

There is such special feeling at the Ohel, I spend hours there, meditating, praying, thinking, learning. I always leave feeling lightness and calm, inspiration and power to serve Jewish people with Love, as our leaders had shown for us . Reply

David Weingast Marietta, GA November 15, 2016

I am so glad Yaacov took the opportunity to share his spiritual Ohel journey here- he captures the visit brilliantly. Our family had occasion to visit the Ohel while living on Long Island, and, having moved to the Atlanta area recently, am delighted to have met and befriended Yaacov at Chabad Cobb. Reply

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