The discussions were challenging, the meals were delicious, and the concert was jamming, but for many of the college students who participated in the sixth annual Chabad-Lubavitch International Student Shabbaton & Conference last week, the most memorable moments came during a visit to the Rebbe's "Ohel."

Tens of thousands visit the Queens, N.Y., resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory – known as the Ohel – every year to pray to G‑d at the holy site and request personal or communal blessings. In keeping with a traditional Jewish practice of asking the soul of a deceased tzadik, or righteous person, for intercession On High, many write their concerns and requests to the Rebbe and read them at his resting place before tearing them up.

The students were no different.

"Leaving a note allows me to recall some of my most intimate religious feelings," said Jaclyn Blumenfeld, a sophomore Middle Eastern studies and psychology major at Emory University. Although she grew up in New Jersey not far from the Ohel, the Oct. 28 visit was her first.

Not so for Eric Salitsky, a sophomore philosophy and religious studies major from the University of Wisconsin. He went to the Shabbaton last year, and returned with a strong desire to visit the Rebbe's gravesite again.

"To visit the Rebbe is an intense and powerful experience," he said. "We can feel the emotional connection even though we don't understand it."

Salitsky described his connection at the site as an internal one.

"The fact that you rip up the letter, that it's just for you and the Rebbe, [makes it] very personal," he said.

After an exhausting schedule of activities, students came to the Ohel ready to distill all of what had transpired in just the previous two days. By 9:30 that Sunday morning, the students had already embarked on a Chasidic walking tour of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., or a guided visit of the Jewish Children's Museum. They then quickly boarded the buses for the 45 minute ride to the neighboring borough.

A Holy Act for a Holy Visit

Vadim Kuraev helps a fellow student put on tefillin during a bus ride to the Rebbe's Ohel in Queens, N.Y.
Vadim Kuraev helps a fellow student put on tefillin during a bus ride to the Rebbe's Ohel in Queens, N.Y.
The excitement of many students was palpable. On one of the buses, Vadim Kuraev, a senior nursing student from S. Diego State University and Russian émigré to Israel, helped seven of his fellow passengers put on tefillin. He reasoned that they should be engaged in the performance of something holy before visiting a holy site like the Rebbe's resting place.

Other students, like Kaylee Volpert, a sophomore journalism and public relations major, saw the visit as a chance to get closer to the Rebbe, whom she never had the opportunity to meet before his passing in 1994.

"I didn't know who the Rebbe was, but I've learned about him," said Volpert, who serves as student president of the Chabad House serving the California State University, Chico. "It is pretty amazing to visit his resting place. It's unbelievable all the things he's done."

The spiritual lives of Jewish college students was one of the Rebbe's top priorities upon assuming the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch (in 1950). He dispatched emissaries to bolster Judaism on campus, and spent many a late night discussing faith with students who came to see him. Today, the United States is home to more than 100 campus-based Chabad Houses. Several more flourish in Europe, Australia and Israel.

Noted speaker and Chasidic scholar Rabbi Yossi Jacobson addressed the students before they visited the site. He explained to them the importance of their notes and the depth they lend to a relationship with the deceased Jewish leader, who could be considered a "best friend" to every Jew.

"I was really excited, because I had heard about the miracles" his blessings had accomplished, said Nilly Shechter, a junior biology major at the University of Southern California. "It is really inspiring to be there. I felt the holiness and a connection."

Still other students saw the Ohel through a more academic lens. For example, Halle Goldblatt, a senior religious studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, took the opportunity to interview other students for her senior thesis on modern Chasidic pilgrimages.

Jacobson recognized the variety of reasons for the students' going, and explained that whatever the motivation, it was improbable that they would leave without being in some way reawakened to their Jewish identities.