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Lubavitchers visit Rebbe’s grave site

Women and children visit the Ohel, where they deposit notes scrawled with their prayers. Photo by Rich Bockmann
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The word on the streets of Cambria Heights over the weekend was “Shalom!” as thousands of Hasidic Jews from all over the world made the trek to the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch to mark the 18th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

Schneerson, also known as the Rebbe, is credited with leading the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Judaism and championing the causes of education and peace. Followers travel from all over the world each year to spend a few minutes at his grave, the Ohel at the Montefiore Cemetery on Francis Lewis Boulevard, where they deposit notes scrawled with their prayers.

Rochel Goldman came from her home in South Africa, where she moved with her husband to heed Schneerson’s call to help educate people, to connect with the Rebbe.

“He helped so many people in his lifetime. He helped all of humanity,” she said, finding it difficult to put into words how she felt after her visit.

“It’s like trying to describe how a chocolate cake tastes,” she said. “You don’t understand until you taste it.”

In years past, the Cambria Heights community had clashed with the Lubavitchers, whom residents said could be rude and disrespectful. This year, though, things seemed to go a bit more smoothly.

Willard Scott sat on his front porch as visitors parked their cars and walked toward the Ohel. The 76-year-old said he had lived in his home since the Lubavitchers started visiting in the 1990s, and at times they could be a handful.

“They’d throw paper everywhere and make a scene. They’d park anywhere they wanted,” he said.

Community Board 13 District Manager Lawrence McClean said the board averages about 25 complaints a year during the event, but by Monday it had received only a few minor complaints.

Because this year’s anniversary fell on the Sabbath, when Jews are prohibited from travelling, visitors stayed over the three days from Friday through Sunday. Rabbi Abba Refson, director of the Ohel synagogue, took measures this year to ease the tension, such as placing signs up and down the streets telling visitors not to park in front of driveways, sending out garbage patrols and setting up a tent nearby to serve refreshments to visitors over the three days.

Scott said things have been better in the past few years, and this year was orderly.

“It’s nice. Some guys are coming through the block and keeping it clean. They’re pretty nice people,” he said.

The good behavior, though, did not warm the homeowner up to the Ohel’s application with the city Board of Standards and Appeals to expand its synagogue, which he said was out of character with the community.

“It’s not a commercial neighborhood. They shouldn’t be putting up a building like that.”

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

Posted 12:00 am, June 30, 2012
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