About 1,000 Jews from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect last Thursday night flocked to the Cambria Heights grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of their branch of Judaism who is believed to be the Messiah among its followers.
Although Monday marked the 13th yahrzeit, or commemoration of death, of Schneerson, some Lubavitchers prayed at his gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery June 14 because it is customary to visit a spiritual leader's grave around the time of his passing. About 40,000 to 50,000 followers from around the world were expected to honor his death on the actual anniversary.
Schneerson was responsible for building between 3,500 and 4,000 Chabad houses, or Jewish community centers, in 70 countries.
He died in 1994 at age 82.
Schneerson is known as "one of the foremost Jewish leaders of the last century," according to Silverstein. "He's had an awesome effect on Judaism over the last 50 years."
Michael Mittenberg, 32, said Schneerson "looked at the commonalities [between Jews] rather than the differences. To him, no matter where you are from, a Jew was a Jew."
Other branches of Orthodox Judaism only consider members of their sect as Jews.
Wearing traditional Orthodox clothing (black suits, white dress shirts and black-brimmed hats ) Lubavitchers entered Schneerson's tomb and lit candles in his memory before rocking back and forth in prayer.
They also carried handwritten prayers to the grave and placed them in a pit in front of Schneerson's grave.
Rabbi Yossi Blesofsky of the Bayside Chabad described praying at the grave as "just awesome because you're connecting your soul with a great spiritual giant."
The grave receives nearly 1 million visitors a year from those inspired by the rebbe Ð not all of them Jews. Martha Stewart went to the tomb before she was sentenced on insider trading charges.
Aside from the praying, the crowd was greeted by Rabbi Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of Israel.
Metzger said Schneerson "built one of the greatest [Jewish] communities in America."
"It's a form of paying tribute," said Moshe Silverstein, one of the event's organizers. Schneerson "revolutionized Judaism in the world today."
Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidic Judiasm and Schneerson, known as "The Rebbe," became leader of the sect in 1950 following the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson.
Schneerson has no connection to Cambria Heights as his synagogue was based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but is buried there because it is his father-in-law's resting place.