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On the Rebbe’s yahrzeit, the oath

Even when all seemed lost, we knew we had a mission: to improve the world, and usher in a time of peace and sanctity
Men pray at the gravesite of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the 20th anniversary of his death in Queens, New York, July 1, 2014. (Adam Ben Cohen/
Men pray at the gravesite of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the 20th anniversary of his death in Queens, New York, July 1, 2014. (Adam Ben Cohen/

It was after midnight on Saturday night; a sea of Hasidic rabbis with black suits, fedoras and beards engulfed the TWA counter at Los Angeles International Airport, each scrabbling to find a seat on a plane that would get them to New York well before sundown the next day. Tradition mandated that their beloved leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who returned his soul to his Maker on Saturday night, must be buried on Sunday. The solemn intensity of the rabbis overwhelmed the attendant behind the counter. Clearly, some of us would miss the flight — and the most important funeral in the history of the Chabad-Lubavitch two-century old movement.

The rush to Brooklyn started an hour earlier, when just before 11 p.m. California time, the rabbis got the dreaded news that their spiritual leader, master teacher of Torah, their Rebbe, the man who had defined their movement and much of modern Jewish life for the past 42 years had passed away. That night was nothing short of an 8.0 earthquake for the Chabad followers and Jews around the world. In was June 12, 1994, the third of the Jewish month of Tammuz.

For me, the sense of doom had started a few hours earlier when a fellow Chabad rabbi had told me that his father, who was in the Rebbe’s inner circle, reported from the hospital that things had turned bleak. The Rebbe had suffered a stroke 27 months earlier. Since then, there had been ups and downs. For a while, the Rebbe appeared to be gaining some strength after the first stroke. In recent days, however, despite prayers from around the world, he had taken a turn for the worse. Minutes later the tragic news came from New York, a message was sent out on beepers, Baruch Dayan HaEmet (Blessed is Righteous Judgment), part of the Jewish blessing one says upon hearing of the passing of a relative. And I, along with thousands of other rabbis in the Rebbe’s Army across the globe rushed to the closest airport in the scrabble to get to the headquarters of Chabad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Finally, I boarded the plane. I looked down the aisle and saw nothing but rabbis sitting somberly in their seats. Through the night, the air phone brought rumors from New York that rippled through the cabin. The funeral would be at 11 a.m. in Brooklyn. No, we then heard, it was going to be in Israel. Finally, it was confirmed. The funeral would be at 4 p.m. in Queens. The late hour, I was to discover later, was to allow for the arrival of a hastily chartered 747 on route from Israel. On the flight was the Rebbe’s only living immediate relative, his niece, as well as hundreds of Hasidim, and Israel’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, dispatched by Prime Minister Rabin to the funeral.

On our flight, there wasn’t much conversation. In the past, when Hasidim traveled to the Rebbe, there was great joy on the flights. But this trip was much different. We all sat quietly attempting to make sense of the loss, not really believing the real purpose of the flight.

The Rebbe would be interred in the Montefiore cemetery next to his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe. Around his grave, a stone structure opened to the heavens, with room for one more grave.

As we departed from the plane, we walked side by side, most of us looking disheveled and depressed. Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian and television star, happened to be in first class on our same flight. As we walked through the terminal at JFK, I decided to share with him the tragedy we rabbis were feeling. I was going to suggest to him to do a mitzvah (an act of kindness) in honor of the Rebbe’s passing. Seinfeld looked perplexed by the entourage of grieving rabbis that surrounded him. It wasn’t the paparazzi that he was used to. When I made a beeline in his direction, he scurried off to the side. Clearly, he was not interested in any message of spiritual encouragement. At first, I was troubled by his hasty escape, but in retrospect, I realized that the sight of dozens of distraught rabbis would have been a foreboding for anyone, much a less a Jewish comedian.

In Brooklyn, I was drafted to deal with the press. Outside 770, on Eastern Parkway, the media had encamped and occupied a significant part of the parkway. The three-story red brick building  with a large basement-synagogue has been the epicenter of the Chabad movement for the last half a century. My task was to help the press understand a world they had little comprehension of — all in 30-second sound bites. Throughout the afternoon, I attempted to sound glib while having patience for the gaggle of reporters from around the globe.

The street had been cordoned off. Thousands mingled, waiting for the funeral to begin. There was a block-long line of Hasidim wanting to pay tribute and walk past the Rebbe for a final time. Each entered the Rebbe’s office, and walked quickly by in disbelief. I had been given a special identification that allowed me to bypass the lines. First I went, barely grasping the moment myself. Inside the office, the Rebbe’s body was enveloped in burial shrouds, surrounded by Hasidim saying Psalms. Then I brought a few selected reporters to the head of the line so they, too, could walk by in somber silence.

At four o’clock, the casket emerged from the front door of 770. An anguished collective cry emanated from the crowd — the wail of tens of thousands reaching up to heaven. Overhead, ominous clouds covered the heavens. The coffin was decked by the Rebbe’s kapote, the long Hasidic-style rabbinical coat. As the coffin moved through the crowd, the kapote remained perched on top, a black symbol on a black day. People reached out with their hands to touch the coffin as it meandered through the crowd. It was placed in a vehicle stationed down the street, and the procession began to the cemetery.

I turned to my two sons, Yoni, who was then 19, had flown from his yeshiva in Miami, and Yehoshua, just 15, who had taken a flight later then I from Los Angeles. As the hearse pulled away from 770, we ran up Eastern Parkway. I spotted a taxi on a side street and jumped in. I told the driver to follow the procession. Our taxi became the last car in the formal funeral procession. Police cars surrounded the entourage, their sirens blaring. The crowds back in Crown Heights were still getting on buses and looking for other modes of transportation as we drove down Eastern Parkway headed for Montefiore Cemetery, just beyond Kennedy Airport. As we turned to enter the Belt Parkway, I caught sight of a roadblock. All traffic had been stopped on this main artery to allow for the funeral procession. The New York traffic stretched back as far as the eye could see.

Montefiore Cemetery was established in the early 20th century. It is filled with various fellowship groups from Jewish communities in Europe and various Jewish organizations. Over 100 acres of tombstones, encircled by an old wrought-iron fence, reside within a middle-class African-American neighborhood in Queens.

Instead of driving around the side to the closest access to the Chabad section, which is off 224th Avenue, I ordered the driver to stop on the main entrance on Springfield Avenue. At the main entrance, a group of policeman stood guard. “You can’t enter,” they told us. I was not the only one who had rushed from Crown Heights; a group of 15 or 20 had gathered there, too, including Rabbi Mendel Simpson of the Rebbe’s secretariat. I showed the officer the special white passes that had been issued to shluchim to allow them access into the cemetery during the funeral. “No you cannot enter,” the policeman said again. Finally, in exasperation, I informed the cops we were going in. “You can pull your guns, but nothing will stop us,” I told him. We pushed the gate, and they attempted to hold us back, but we persevered. With my sons in tow, I started to run the distance to the back end of the cemetery, at least a half a mile away. Suddenly a car appeared on the narrow road that slivered between the graves. Some of the elder Hasidim where being driven to the gravesite. I stood in the middle, forcing them to stop, and jumped on the hood. Slowly, we made our way to the Ohel.

Ohel means tent. The Ohel is a stone building. Its granite walls tower up without a roof, allowing the heavens to peer down from above. At its center is the grave of the Previous Rebbe. For decades, since his passing in 1950, Hasidim would flock to pray at his grave. The Rebbe would make the trek on a regular basis, standing for hours in summer heat or winter snow reading the thousands of prayer requests from all over the world. The Rebbe would be laid to rest beside his father-in-law, predecessor and mentor.

When I arrived at the Ohel, I found myself the first person at the door to the stone structure. I leaned against the wooden door in exhaustion from the marathon that had started just after midnight in California. The funeral had not yet started. Many of the senior rabbinical leaders of the movement had already gathered inside the Ohel. Others trickled in. Suddenly, the entourage with the coffin appeared, guiding it into the structure. The door closed behind and I strained to hear what was going on behind the stone walls.

Chabad funerals are simple, there are no eulogies. A few chapters of Psalms are said, the funeral is conducted, and Kaddish (the memorial prayer) is recited.

Suddenly, the collective stress I had experienced since the night before had its effect; the emotional, spiritual, and physical strain had reached a peak. There was a strong pain in my chest and I thought that I was having a heart attack. Just inside the doors, two EMTs were stationed in the small entrance hall to the Ohel, with oxygen in case of emergency. Pushing the door open, I told them, “I think I may be having a heart attack.” Immediately, they pulled me inside and did a swift check. “You’re OK,” they told me, “it’s just the stress.” Now, finding myself on the inside of the door through Divine Providence, I was torn between the feeling of being where I did not belong, and knowing my soul was bonded with the Rebbe’s. The funeral was coming to an end. I glanced around and saw the Rebbe’s secretaries, distinguished rabbis and the senior shluchim. Seventy, 80 people in total, the preeminent leaders of the movement. They were covering the grave with earth so I, too. grabbed a shovel in order to share in the mitzvah.

A few moments later, the task was complete. One of the members of the Chevra Kadisha (the burial society) as Jewish tradition mandates, asked for mechila (forgiveness) in case they had inadvertently done anything disrespectful during the funeral. The Rebbe’s secretaries recited the mourners Kaddish. When they finished the prayer, there was absolute silence. No one moved. The towering stone walls framed the heavens above as we stood surrounding the fresh grave. No one wanted to move. What next? How can we continue? were the unspoken questions. It was clear that, suddenly, we were orphans. How could we face the future?

The silence that lasted a few minutes was shattered by the booming voice of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of Los Angeles, a large, boisterous man, known for his intense devotion to the Rebbe. In Yiddish, he made a pledge, an oath for all: “Rebbe, we promise, we give you an oath, to continue your mission that you have entrusted to us. We will preserve the institutions of the Rebbe, we will expand and develop them.”

Slowly, we filed out of the Ohel. Thousands were waiting in lines that stretched outside the cemetery and down the block. Throughout the night, thousands passed by the fresh grave in mourning and disbelief.

The Jewish pundits filled newspaper columns with prophecies of doom and gloom. University professors, whose secular bent was never appreciative of the Rebbe’s dramatic vision of Jewish renaissance, forecasted that Lubavitch would fall into oblivion. “Without a Rebbe they will not survive,” was the relentless refrain. Even sympathizers to Chabad like Ari Goldman, religious writer at The New York Times, told Charlie Rose on late night TV a few days later that he was skeptical about Chabad’s future.

In the coming days, we returned to our cities and communities in the United States and around the world. The Rebbe’s shluchim, or rabbi-and-wife emissary teams, had set up life-long posts in some of the world’s most unlikely places : Kathmandu, Bahia Blanca, Playa Del Carmen, and even the suburbs of American cities, in order to reach Jews and transform modern Jewish life. But the Rebbe believed in doing the hard work of Judaism, finding Jews who have become estranged from their Jewish heritage and help them rediscover Judaism, one small step at a time. It wasn’t glamorous work. It wasn’t well-paying work. It wasn’t work, frankly, that other parts of the Jewish community wanted to do. But the Rebbe made it clear that this was the most important work we could assume in our lives. If a boat has one hole it in, everyone on board is affected. We Chabad rabbis were commissioned to plug the holes to keep Judaism from going under.

But with the Rebbe’s passing, we were unsure of our future as Hasidim, as a community, and as an organization. We all wondered, deep in our souls, whether we had been trained well enough or were worthy enough to carry on the Rebbe’s mission. In our deepest fears, we thought that perhaps our critics would be proven right — that our movement was dependent on the Rebbe, a singular leader who infused vitality, spirit and even a sense of hoeliness into Chabad. Without his physical presence, maybe we would flounder, like orphans who couldn’t fend for themselves. The future seemed quite uncertain.

Then Cunin made sense of it. The responsibility was ours to continue the Rebbe’s mission, to change the world for better, to create a spiritual momentum that would be a catalyst for the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah), and usher in a period of peace and sanctity.

In the over two decades  that have passed, the shluchim have continued to fulfill the oath. On that day by the Rebbe’s fresh grave, there were 1,100 shluchim in the world; today that number has more than quadrupled. Chabad has grown to a presence in 49 states and over 80 countries. Today, Chabad is the largest Jewish organization in the world.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli scholar and translator of the Talmud into English, put it into perspective in 1995 at the Living Legacy Conference in Washington.  Jewish leaders had convened from across the globe to celebrate the posthumous award of the Congressional Gold Medal  to the Rebbe. Rabbi Steinsaltz questioned the title of the event, Living Legacy. At a lecture in the Library of Congress, he told the audience that the mission the Rebbe entrusted to his Hasidim still had to be carried out. Succinctly, he explained: “The Rebbe did not leave a legacy; he left us marching orders.”

Excerpt  from “The Secret of Chabad — Inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement,” by Rabbi David Eliezrie, published by Maggid-Koren.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California
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