Eliane Benzecry has carried a picture of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, in her wallet her whole life. First benefitting from Chabad-Lubavitch as a child growing up in Brazil, she says that now living close to his resting place in Cambria Heights, N.Y., is very meaningful.

She was one of thousands of people who could be found last week at the Ohel, the complex at the Old Montefiore Cemetery housing the resting places of the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Making the trek from all over the world on occasion of the 109th anniversary of the Rebbe’s birth, the contingent included Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, Jewish lay leaders, Israeli expatriates, and men, women and children of all stripes.

Benzecry was part of three carloads of people that set out from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. On the way, Rabbi Chayim Baruch Alevsky of Chabad of the West Side explained the tradition of visiting the resting place of righteous person as a way to derive inspiration and add vitality to one’s supplications to G‑d.

Pointing to the unique time of year – occurring on the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Rebbe’s birthday always took place four days before Passover – Alevsky told his companions that “the Rebbe utilized this time to inspire people about new beginnings.”

Last week represented one of times during the year that visits to the Rebbe’s Ohel spike, explained Rabbi Abba Refson, director of Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch, the visitors center that abuts the resting places. Crowds to the tune of 10,000 at a time are not unheard of, and several hundred typically stay for the Sabbath around such times.

The center, which is open 24 hours a day, provides guests with prayer books, head coverings, non-leather shoes and snacks, as many have fasted all day in preparation for their visit. There’s even a crowd control system for when it gets busy, which helps organize the crowd into groups so 80 or 90 can go through at a time.

For Benzecry, it’s a trip that provides a fulcrum for her life’s plans and dreams.

“It’s like starting something fresh,” she explained. “I leave here and I feel more pure, more in touch with my essence. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel light.”

Sitting at a long table in an adjoining tent, pen in hand, she writes a note, in her head composing new goals for personal Jewish growth and other aspects of her life. The process is powerful, she said, from being surrounded by so many pious people to the candle she lights as she gets ready to say her prayer, to the actual experience of standing in the Rebbe’s presence. It generates an energy that she takes home with her, she added. She’ll leave the note, in accordance with tradition, torn into pieces at the resting place itself.

She said she would like to go more often, and was grateful to Alevsky for helping her and her friends plan the trip.

“Sometimes in life you need a push,” she said. “They gave me the push I needed by being available, by allowing this to happen in my life.”

Yigal Dakar lights a candle before entering the Rebbe’s resting place.
Yigal Dakar lights a candle before entering the Rebbe’s resting place.

Hundreds a Day

Crowds are increasing by the year, said Refson, who oversees operations at the Ohel and provides for its visitors’ needs. So do letters and emails. The center receives hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of messages daily from people asking to have their requests read or placed at the resting place.

During the Rebbe’s lifetime, people would travel long distances and tune in to hear his messages on the radio and television. Today, people study his teachings from books, audio recordings and video footage, participate in Chasidic gatherings, and seek inspiration at his resting place. Many still rely on his blessings, explained Alevsky.

“When you go to the Rebbe’s resting place, blessings follow,” he said. “It’s a holy place in which people connect to G‑d in a very powerful way.”

Joel Sosa and his wife Oranit jumped at the chance to visit the Ohel the minute they received word about it.

“There wasn’t a second thought about it,” said Oranit Sosa.

She pointed to the tradition of visiting graves of righteous people before major holidays, and the benefits of being in a space, especially before Passover, that for her rings of family and community.

It was her second visit, which she said in some ways gave her a better chance to speak her mind.

“This second time I feel more comfortable and more free,” she explained.

Judy Federbush composes her thoughts as she writes a note to be read at the Rebbe’s resting place.
Judy Federbush composes her thoughts as she writes a note to be read at the Rebbe’s resting place.

She added that she left with a positive point-of-view in mind, and the hope that things will get better.

“We are in some of the major intersections in life,” stated Sosa. “It’s a relief to ask for whatever you need, especially before Passover.”

Joel Sosa hopes to bring his sons, ages seven, five and two, on his next visit.

He described the experience as “coming back home.”

People change out of leather shoes before entering the Ohel, which has separate entrances for men and women, some of whom knock on the door before entering out of respect. Inside, people pray quietly, many recite Psalms or read the letters they’ve written from their hearts.

“Being here reinvigorates me and gives me a sense of direction,” said Joel Sosa. In a world where it’s easy to lose direction, going to the Ohel not only helps him refocus but also makes him feel like he has more to live up to personally. “I feel like I’ve just had a meeting with my boss, and he guided me on how to improve my life.”