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Jews honor memory of rebbe in Cambria Heights

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Traveling from Briarwood to Bangkok, about 50,000 Jews flocked last week to the Cambria Heights grave of Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Judaism, on the 15th anniversary of his death.

Lines snaked for hours between Schneerson’s grave and the entrance to the Chabad House on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Cambria Heights during a 24-hour period of mourning from June 24 to 8 p.m. last Thursday.

“It feels like a Grateful Dead concert because people come here from all over the world to gather in the spirit of humany [sic],” said Riverdale, L.I., resident Mark Weitzman of Schneerson’s grave site. “I feel it’s a very holy place.”

Weitzman said his visit marked the sixth time he has visited Schneerson’s grave.

It has been tradition for mourners to write prayers on pieces of paper and rip them up before putting them in a pit beside Schneerson’s burial site. Some visitors chose to write the prayers while waiting on line while others wrote them while praying at the site.

“In the past when I put prayers on the rebbe’s grave, they’ve actually been answered and that’s convinced me that this is like a portal to heaven,” said Weitzman, who declined to say what his prayers were because they were personal.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidic Judiasm and Schneerson, known as “The Rebbe,” became the leader of the sect in 1950 following the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson.

Schneerson has no connection to Cambria Heights since his synagogue was based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but he is buried there because it is his father-in-law’s resting place.

Schneerson was responsible for building between 3,500 and 4,000 Chabad houses, or Jewish community centers, in 70 countries.

He died in 1994 at age 82.

Rabbi Kantor Yosef of Bangkok said he was a former student at Schneerson’s Yeshiva in Crown Heights.

“He was totally present in every situation that he was involved in,” Yosef said. “If you had a few seconds, he was totally there with you. He believed in us more than we believed in ourselves.”

Rabbi Moshe Feller of St. Paul, Minn., said Schneerson was “kind, compassionate and selfless.”

“His concern was that every human being realize their source, their creator,” Feller said. “His concern was not just for the Jewish people.”

Menachem Fogel of Jerusalem said this was his second visit to Schneerson’s grave.

“We feel very high energy, new energy to do our jobs,” Fogel said.

A Briarwood resident who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Zion, said visiting the grave was an inspirational experience.

“You feel your spirit get so high,” said Zion, an Israeli native. “You feel like doing good things for people, doing good things for the community. Every time you come here, you feel so high and so strong.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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