Story and photos by Todd Maisel
A young woman from Paris France sat at a long wooden table at Old Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights with her 1-year-old son Chaim. She studiously wrote a note. She stayed transfixed on that note as other women kept an eye on her mischievous son, flashing a sly smile at admirers.
“I’m writing a note to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and hope he will help answer my prayers,” she explained.
The note, will be brought to his grave site in a mausoleum, visited daily by members of the Hasidic community throughout the year. She tore up the note so only Mendel could read, she said.
She was also wrote a note to Mendel’s wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, who died 31 years ago Monday. Her memory prompted more than 3,000 devout followers of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement from around the world to visit the gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery on Francis Lewis Boulevard.
The women were also in town for a five-day event to discuss the future of their religion. Attendees traveled from as far away as India, Nigeria and the Congo.
Rebbetzin was considered a leader in the women’s Hasidic movement, bringing “strength and leadership” to the women from around the world, one pilgrim said. Others said she “empowered” women and made their roles in the family more important.
Women first lined up to enter the mausoleum, a walled off gravesite that contains the remains of Rabbi Schneerson and his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson. The graves of other revered leaders, including Rebbetzin Schneerson and the rabbi’s mother, Chana, sit rest just outside the walls.
The women crowded into the mausoleum to pray for the Rebbe, whom many consider the Mashiach, the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days. Several pilgrims spoke about how his words taught them valuable lessons that have promoted harmony and kept the community together.
Briendy Allouche, originally from Crown Heights, but now a resident of Paris, said the site bring comfort to the community.
“When we come here, this is a place, like our base, like going back to our grandparents when you go see them — you take strength for yourself,” Allouche said. “So for us from all over the world, this is the first place we go, and before we go home we come here to say goodbye and ask the rabbi for blessings to keep our families safe and help us with our communities.”
Allouche and her group from France said they traveled to pay special respect to the rabbi’s wife.
“As Jewish women, we understand her sacrifices and giving over her life to the Rebbe. And so we try to honor her name by giving back everything that we were given,” she said
Chaya Baron, traveled with a group from Boston, MA. She said visiting the Rebbetzin grave “empowers women, and is an opportunity to share her inspiration and gain inspiration for what we do each day for our families.”
“Unfortunately, the movement and abuse is a world-wide problem,” she said. “I think orthodox women are more insular, they don’t necessarily have the same stories as the secular crowd, but the problem really is everywhere.”
Baron said she took pride in that she was named after the Rebbetzin.
“I was named after her, I carry her name so I try to emulate what she taught us,” Baron said. “She taught us to care for every Jew and spread kindness and goodness in the world we live in. It’s very special to be here on the day of her passing.”
Rifka Plotkin of Crown Heights said her visit was very important to her.
“We are here to pray and ask for help, and get extra strength from the Rebbetzin here,” she said.