My accidental trip to the Rebbe’s kever

Family archiving is in my blood, and it is also in a bunch of cardboard boxes that I have in storage that I inherited from my like-minded ancestors.

Since I have a paying job, I don’t have endless hours to work on my files and so forth, but today I was on a mission for a friend. I was to grab photos of a grave-site of her grandparents. Since she lives in California and she has no one else out here on the east coast, I’m her only resource. Well, truly I am her only free resource. People do charge for these things I have been told. But I really had an ulterior motive, of course, why spend two hours in the car from Elizabeth, New Jersey to West Babylon, New York without getting paid? 

My friends’ grandparents were fortuitously buried near my husband’s bubbie and zayde, who unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting. I had also not gone to the site to the more recent funeral for an uncle, and so I really wanted to go to get photos of the headstones for the family tree data.

Cemeteries are interesting places, and now that my father has been laid to rest, I have a greater appreciation for the inscriptions on the monuments. I grew up near Rosehill cemetery in Chicago. My father was a biology teacher for the perennially underfunded school system there. Unfettered by the lack of proper equipment, he used makeshift supplies for his labs. We kids were put to work collecting pond water samples for his students to study. The closest pond just happened to be in the cemetery. I fell in love with the hidden sculpture garden behind the brick wall on Peterson Avenue. The influenza pandemic had preceded the Great Depression by over a decade and so the monuments for the wives and children taken down by that virus were magnificent. They must have been quite expensive to purchase even then. Where many people get the hibbie-jibbies from cemeteries I just get interested.

Jewish cemeteries, especially orthodox cemeteries, are especially interesting because each head stone has so much information on it. For a researcher the data is a goldmine of information that cannot be found on death certificates available through vital records. The Hebrew names are there, plus often forgotten middle names and the Hebrew name of the father if not more information. I know how much time I spent choosing the headstone and inscription for my father, and each symbol put on the monument tells a tale of the way the person lived. Reform cemeteries, where many of my ancestors are buried often just have the English names, and so the information like Hebrew names can be lost to descendants eventually unless records are well kept.

Today was a cold day, but happily it was not raining. Cemeteries can be hard to navigate and wet ground makes everything harder. I dropped my husband off at his office in Flatbush at 10 with the plan of retrieving him by 4. I enjoyed the lack of congestion on the Belt Parkway on the sunny Sunday morning as I listened to my newest audio-book.

An hour later I pulled up near where the friend’s family members were buried and I snapped the pictures of every headstone that I could find with the last name she had indicated and then sent them to her through Messenger. She was thrilled and had forgotten to mention the great uncles and was glad that I had noticed.

I circled around the Beth Moses Cemetery a few times to find my husband’s family members section. Of course they were actually pretty close to my friend’s family, although their cemetery was listed as Wellwood Cemetery. I kicked myself for the lost time, but that’s to be expected from me since I have have less directional sense than a blind dog.

At last I found every burial site that I had been planning on finding. My husband’s grandparents, uncle, and extended family members. I recited tehillim and called my husband to double check that I had forgotten no one. He assured me that I hadn’t and I drove back to the office building to wash my hands according to custom.

Between getting out of my car and finding the washing area a few dozen or so men had taken over the parking lot to do mincha. A few were a tad too close for comfort behind my minivan. So two men with black felt hats directed me around them, so I that I caused no fatalities in the cemetery. But then I paused. I called my mother in law, known universally as Bubbie, like Queen Elizabeth is known as the Queen,. “I just want to know if I got everybody”, I explained as I carefully went through the names in the section that I had seen. No, I had forgotten her zayde. “Have fun,”she said breezily as we concluded the conversation. “No,” I retorted, “That is the wrong thing to say.”

But I guess she knows me by now, so really that was the best thing that she could have said. I sped back to the section where her family was interned and grabbed a picture of her zayde’s towering Hebrew inscribed headstone. Rabbi Kelevitz had been a Borough Park Hassidic rav in his day. I headed back to the car, then doubled back, and recited tehillim. I reflected on the man who had been invited into America before 1920 before the  immigration doors had been bolted shut against the perceived onslaught of the European Jews. My, what’s old is new again, I thought sadly. Zayde Kelevitz had left his wife and five children in Poland to take the rabbinical position in Brooklyn, in 1925 after his wife passed away he had retrieved two of his daughters. He arranged to send them back in the late 30’s in order to marry and provide two lucky men with entry visas into the United States. That they did, though neither of them were of his Ger Hasidic sect. Aunt Rochel had immigrated into the United States married and she was buried elsewhere, a project for another day I figured. My husband’s Bubby Jenny’s kever was there along with his Zayde Kiva, but Aunt Freida and her husband had been interred in the old Montefiore Cemetery. Zayde Kelevitz had tried to coax his sons out of Europe, but both Uncle Shmuly and Uncle Zelig had been murdered in Auschwitz. America was no place to learn Torah in 1938 they had explained when he argued for them to leave Warsaw. The headstone was so much more than a stone to me, it was a family legacy.

I made it back to the cemetery office building, this time carefully avoiding the parking lot, and washed my hands and headed out.

I had arranged to see part of my nephews little league game in Great Neck at that had started at 1 PM, but I texted my brother explaining that I was out of time, cemeteries are big and I really had not planned on spending four hours here. He texted back later and shared that the team had won the championship. For them that was the World Series. I texted back “Mazal Tov” and eyed the time at 3 pm.

The Belt Parkway was back to it’s  normal slow snaking crawl when I found it again and I grimaced as my odometer held at about  20 miles per hour, but I realized that I was fairly close to Montefiore Cemetery. Maybe I could find the graves for Aunt Freida and Uncle Yitzchok who were buried in the Lubavitch section and then take an alternate route back to Flatbush I reasoned. I pushed a few things on my cell phone and backtracked a few miles until I found the cemetery. I pulled over to figure out when the place closed as I didn’t want to get locked in for the night, I had to be at the Kristallnacht program at 7 in Jersey for my Holocaust studies class requirements. No, I had time, it was 3:45 and the gates would be locked at 4:30. I found the cemetery and quickly read the online site map and sped towards the section. We won’t say what speed. I wondered if the Rebbe had been buried near Bubbie’s aunt and uncle. I did not know much about them outside of their photos that had been gathering dust somewhere since Bubbie’s last redecorating job. They had had not been blessed with descendants.

Yes, the site was in the middle of the party. I had heard about the Rebbe’s kever over the years, but I had not had the inclination to go before. Raising four high spirited children had left me with little time to think of extras over the years. I had seen him back in my college days, of course from the women’s balcony at 770, and to be perfectly honest, I was never really sure whose black hat I was looking down at. He was an elderly man by 1989, and the crowds about him made me feel claustrophobic, so I was happy with the distance. Back in nursing school I recalled  the round the clock vigils of the slew of bochrim who had davened in the Beth Israel Medical Center lobby with evident kavanah when he had taken ill. So I figured I was good enough for a non-Lubavitcher. But now I was here, and I was the only person not visiting that kever. The section where the aunt and uncle were was not marked well due to the more famous residents. I had to ask where to go. “Reb Ushpol”, the lady asked, a bit taken aback when I showed the computer search-engine print out. Why yes that’s my mother-in-law’s uncle I explained. “Why then she must have real…”

She trailed off as she glanced at my denim skirt and brightly colored jacket before she said yiches, which she only implied.

“You know that he was famous?”

“No,” I admitted. “He was just referred to as ‘Uncle’ to me”. I briefly explained that only this side of the family had been Lubavitch as far as I knew.

I managed to find Rabbi Ushpol’s kever behind the Rebbe’s white memorial building, and Aunt Frieda’s kever just in front of the path to the famous kever. I pulled up tehillim on my cell phone for what I guessed was the last time that day and turned to go at 4:20, plenty of time to get out before the gates were locked.

“But, why not see the other kever?”I reasoned to myself. I double backed and headed up to see inside the white stone structure. I saw that people had left their shoes on the side of the wall and I found out that the custom is to go in without leather shoes. I unzipped my boots happily noting that it was not that cold at the moment and left them with the rest at the entrance. I once again found some tehillim to say. I was up to 4:25 and I hurried back to the building to wash my hands and to ge to the car. The sun was setting over Brooklyn, and there on the top of the hill I got to see the array of color that was washing over the November sky. I paused by two little girls and I directed them to climb up a low deck so they could enjoy the unobstructed splendor as well. They smiled and obliged. I hurried back to my car, but alas, a driver had blocked my escape route and she clearly was uncomfortable backing up in the narrow cemetery road. I assisted her out and we both made it to the gate at 4:45. It was locked. The office gate was bolted as well. “Would you believe this?” my fellow prisoner wondered aloud. I assured her that I would find someone and I sped back to the Lubavitch section. I found the caretaker as he was there sorting through soda cans that the faithful had thrown out, I guessed so he could get redemption money. “You know that I don’t live here”, he said flatly as if I had assumed that. “Now I have to let you out and then resume my rounds,” he continued. I thanked him and tried to blame the guilty party, but he cut me off, much like I do with my students when they try to sneak into my office minus a teacher’s pass. We got back to the gate, but the other lady was gone, I hope that whoever let her out had not been so gruff. But really I was just happy to get out.

I turned my attention to my GPS thingamajig and realized that I was being routed back to the backed-up Belt. I sighed and called my husband even though he has me on Life360. “It will be what it will be,” he assured me as I quickly calculated how late we would be to the event. I made it to his office by a quarter to six. Luckily the traffic was much lighter after the Ocean Parkway area accident, so getting back home to change out of my muddy boots and casual attire would be possible before we were to be too late for the Kristallnacht memorial event in Livingston. Happily we made it in time for the program in time for the kosher sushi. What else could be better?

Archiving, of course was better than sushi, even the best sushi in New Jersey like we were graced with at the elegant affair. Tomorrow I could update the family tree since I had off Monday for Veteran’s Day. I was indeed having fun.

About the Author
Rina Lieberman lives in Elizabeth, NJ with her husband and family. She is a nurse and a genealogy enthusiast. Sh.e is working towards her graduate degree in Holocaust Education at Kean University.
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