By Yaacov Noah Gothard
My first visit to the Ohel (literally “tent” but in this context “gravesite”) was in 1989, and unlike now, there was only one tombstone in the walled enclosure inside the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, N.Y.
It was five years before the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died, and the sole headstone was that of his father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. The sixth rabbi of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, Yosef Yitzchak had been imprisoned and tortured by the Soviet government for defying its ban against religious practice.
When World War II broke out, he refused to leave Warsaw until its capitulation to Nazi Germany. After helping as many Jews as possible flee the country, with the help of the U.S. State Department, he left Russia and arrived in New York in 1940.
With just over a dozen remaining Lubavitch leaders and family members, he settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and began an unprecedented worldwide Jewish outreach movement.
I didn’t know any of this on that sunny day in 1989 when I flew from my hometown of New Orleans with Chabad Rabbi Zelig Rivkin. We arrived at the cemetery and lighted memorial candles in an antechamber just outside the walled gravesite.
As a Kohen, or descendent of priests, Rabbi Rivkin was not allowed to enter the gravesite. Instead, he opened a small Hebrew book of Tehillim (Psalms) written by King David. He handed me the open book and said, “Read this.”
I walked through a small door and stood in front of a walled gravesite and headstone. Inside the wall, in front of the headstone, I was transfixed by a mound of thousands of letters that had been left by previous visitors. Rain had molded and rounded the white pieces of paper into the uncanny shape of a mummy.
While standing next to what would have been the interred previous rebbe’s right shoulder, I began reading Psalms for perhaps the first time in my life and immediately felt a rush of positive energy, like the blast of a powerful updraft of wind, roaring up from the grave.
It was the most powerful force of goodness I had ever felt.
I felt as if the previous rebbe were alive, lying on his back under that mound of heartfelt notes and requests, smiling up at me. I was so shocked at the sensation that I stopped reading Psalms, and as soon as I did, the rush of positive energy stopped as well.
To this day, I am not sure what lesson that message from the grave truly meant to convey. Unlike Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who spent many hours per day at this same gravesite talking to his late father-in-law, I did not have that ability.
According to Native American-trained shaman Tom Brown Jr., only those who practice spiritual skills during their lifetimes are able to consistently communicate with their loved ones after death. The previous Lubavitch rebbe was one of those individuals, but he was not the only one in his family to develop those skills.
In 2013, 24 years after my first visit and 22 years after moving from New Orleans to Atlanta, I returned to the Ohel. My tour guide this time was Atlanta native Gavi Shapiro, who was then studying in a Crown Heights yeshiva.
As we rushed through the cemetery shortly before Shabbat, I felt sorry for the dozens of interred souls we were passing en route to the Lubavitch VIPs.
“Thousands of people walk past these graves every week, ignoring these people,” I said to Gavi as we approached the Ohel. “These people deserve attention too, like this one.” I pointed to a grave we were passing. “Or that one, or that one.”
I felt drawn to a gravesite just outside the Ohel wall. As I began to walk toward that grave, Gavi looked at his watch, grabbed my arm and pulled me into the antechamber.
There were now two graves in the Ohel, those of the rebbe and his father-in-law. I felt the solemnity of the resting place of these two spiritual giants, yet unlike my first visit, I did not receive any veil-breaking communication from beyond.
As we left the Ohel, however, I again felt drawn toward that same grave. The energy was irresistible, and as I walked closer to it, I felt an undeniably positive, feminine, happy and supportive energy emanating from it.
“Who is that?” I asked Gavi as we stood in front of a headstone decorated with dozens of stones left by previous visitors.
“That’s the rebbetzin,” he said. It was the wife of the rebbe and the daughter of the previous rebbe, whose positive, uplifting energy I had felt 24 years earlier.
I had never met Chaya Mushkah Schneerson, but people who knew her have told me that what I felt accurately described her personality. That supportive energy was her defining characteristic, even to the point of waiting up until dawn with a warm cup of tea when the rebbe returned from his office.
Many of us have had the good fortune of meeting those rare people who emanate positivity, who never say a negative word and who rarely think a negative thought. Being in their presence is uplifting and refreshing, like fresh air blowing into an open window, like bathing in sunshine.
The whole energy of the room shifts when that person walks in. That’s what the previous rebbe and his daughter’s energy felt like. Pure, powerful, uplifting goodness.
On Tuesday, Sept. 20, over 30 members of Chabad of Cobb woke up hours before dawn to fly from Atlanta for a one-day pre-High Holiday trip to Crown Heights. Jewish custom teaches the benefits of visiting the grave of a tzadik, or righteous person, before the High Holidays, so our first stop on our whirlwind trip was the Ohel.
After praying the morning services in the small Chabad synagogue just outside the cemetery, replacing our leather shoes with Crocks, and writing notes to read at the gravesite, one by one we walked the narrow paths to the Lubavitch section of the cemetery.
The morning was overcast, yet I was transfixed by a gray dove sitting peacefully atop one of the white tombstones. I entered the antechamber, lighted a candle, took a book of Tehillim off a shelf and entered the Ohel.
Even though the small, walled courtyard surrounding the graves was packed with men and women who had traveled from around the world to pay their respects, I was immediately struck by how massive the two headstones appeared, as if the two rebbes were larger than life or death.
I walked over to the previous rebbe’s headstone and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what these two spiritual giants achieved, and sacrificed, in their lives.
The previous rebbe sacrificed his body and put his life in constant jeopardy while serving as a beacon of hope for millions of Russian Jews unable to legally practice their religion. His son-in-law, though childless, gave blessings to hundreds of couples who were unable to have children, who then inconceivably conceived.
The tens of thousands of world leaders and followers of all religions who visit the Ohel annually don’t pray to the rebbes; they pray to G-d while enlisting the support of the masters.
On the tour bus that day, we watched a video of a doctor with an inoperable eye injury who was able to practice medicine again after receiving a blessing from the rebbe. In the video, this doctor says, “For those who do everything G-d asks them to do, G-d is much more likely to do what those people ask Him to do.”
Standing at the Ohel, my hand on the previous rebbe’s headstone, I was overwhelmed by what these spiritual masters had achieved, and then I was overcome by emotion, by my connection to these men and by my reconnection to my own soul.
I read my note through the tears, shredded and added it to the mound, then opened the book of Tehillim to a random page to discover what non-random lesson life had for me that day. “Lift up your soul!” is what I saw.
When we present ourselves to the world, to society, is it usually not our soul that we present. It is usually some view of ourselves that we want others to see, our mask, our shining coat of armor.
G-d apparently doesn’t want that. He wants us to shine forth our souls, to lift up ourselves above our egos, for that is who we truly are. That is what the tzadikim are telling us to be.