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Hasidic pilgrimage irks Cambria Hts

Women pray and write letters at the burial site of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Rebbe.
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This year’s edition of the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson will be a three-day affair and come at a time when the Cambria Heights community is opposing a planned expansion by the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch.

Every year, thousands of Jews from all over the world flock to the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center, at 226-02 Francis Lewis Blvd., to mark the passing of the Rebbe, who was a revered leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch school of Hasidic Judaism, by visiting his burial site at Montefiore Cemetery..

“It’s customary to visit the grave of a righteous person on the anniversary of their passing,” said Rabbi Abba Refson.

Since this year’s commemoration of his 1994 death falls on Saturday, June 23 — the sabbath, when Jews are prohibited from traveling — the Ohel is expecting pilgrims to visit over the course of three days, from June 22-24.

“It’s customary to visit the grave either the day before or the day after the anniversary,” Refson said.

In order to accommodate the visitors, the Ohel will set up a refreshment station at the Delphin H. Greene Playground, on 235th Street, and Refson said he has also arranged for a private foot patrol to handle traffic.

“We’re doing our utmost to ameliorate the situation by providing extra staffing for cleaning up the entire neighborhood,” he said.

Years of dealing with the flock of pilgrims, however, has left the surrounding community with some hard feelings and a number of complaints.

“Listing them would be like counting grains of sand on the beach,” said Community Board 13 District Manager Lawrence McClean.

Every year, McClean said, Cambria Heights residents have to deal with cluttered streets, garbage left behind and other inconveniences.

“People come home and they’re blocking their driveways. Some just park their cars in driveways and have picnics on their front lawns,” he said.

The past experiences have soured the community on Ohel’s application with the city Board of Standards and Appeals to enlarge a space to be used as a synagogue and community facility.

“The feelings go back years. This attempt to expand the center’s synagogue rubs the community the wrong way,” McClean said. “It’s not just the merits of the application, but the cumulative effect of what went on before.”

In a letter written to the BSA, City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) acknowledged the Ohel had made some concessions, such as limiting the number of days the facility would be used.

“These are positive changes, but they simply do not go far enough nor do they address the problem of the ‘survival of a community’ in light of these activities,” he wrote. “I do not underestimate the reverence due to the Grand Rebbe — his greatness was obvious and will impact forever — but ... now there must be some consideration for the community.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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