Rebbes gravesite draws 1,000 prayers each day — by fax

NEW YORK — It does not take long to realize that this is not just any cemetery.

A billboard greets approaching visitors who are coming to pray where the Lubavitcher rebbe is buried.

"Let's Welcome Moshiach With Acts of Goodness and Kindness!" it exhorts. The large lettering is beside an enormous photograph of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led the Lubavitch movement for 44 years and died last June at the age of 92.

Before entering the cemetery, where an unveiling was held in the month after Schneerson's death, visitors can now stop at one of the newest Chabad Houses, a small one-story edifice recently purchased by a prominent member of the movement and turned into a hospitality center on the edge of the graveyard.

Australian mining magnate and Lubavitch benefactor Rabbi Yosef Gutnick bought the house in December for $200,000 cash. Gutnick, who owns gold mines in western Australia, says he struck it rich because of the rebbe's blessings.

The house had been the home of a middle-class family in this remote section of Queens called St. Albans, a mostly black neighborhood of one-story, postwar tract homes faced with brick. Today it serves as a stopover for the hundreds of visitors who visit the late Lubavitcher rebbe's grave each week.

Inside the house, visitors sit in what was a child's bedroom — teddy-bear decorations still trimming the walls — and watch videos of the rebbe handing out dollars to those who came to see him every Sunday while he presided over his community in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

Visitors to the house pray in a room turned into a synagogue by the presence of a sefer Torah, which is kept in a 7-foot-high steel safe covered with an embroidered curtain.

They write down their requests for heavenly intercession (kivitlach) on the unlined paper provided, pick up a candle to light at the grave and walk through the kitchen, out the back door and through the postage stamp-sized back yard.

The Lubavitchers cut through the fence that used to separate the house from the cemetery, and now visitors walk perhaps 100 yards to get to the Lubavitch section of the Old Montefiore Cemetery.

They have access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, though the cemetery is officially closed after 5 p.m. and on the Shabbat.

On the Sabbath, when driving is prohibited and few other visitors are likely to come, a minyan of male Lubavitch yeshiva students sleeps overnight Fridays at the hospitality center and spends Shabbat at the grave.

Inside the house, two industrial-strength Ricoh fax machines churn out a constant stream of requests for blessings from people who are ill, down on their luck or considering marriage.

And every hour or so, Rabbi Abba Refson pulls a thick sheaf of them off the machines to take them to the rebbe's grave, where he reads them and places them on top of the pile of notes. The pile is a foot thick, evenly blanketing the 8-foot-square area of the grave site.

All told, about 1,000 faxes come in each day, each from someone hoping that the rebbe's spirit will intercede on his or her behalf in heaven, says Refson.

The fax machines are hidden behind a screen to protect the privacy of those sending the notes, so that visitors to the bare office do not accidentally read one of the requests.

Refson, a dark-bearded, affable young man of 23, is kept busy greeting visitors and answering the incoming calls on the constantly ringing phone.

He writes down the requests for blessings that callers from around the world dictate, and brings them to the grave. There, the requests sent from afar as well as those brought by visitors pile up.

So massive is the mound of paper that fills the area within the 3-foot-high containing walls that the grave would appear to be a mini-landfill were it not for the imposing tombstones of the rebbe and his predecessor, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, who died in 1950.

Three times a week, the notes are collected from the grave site and burned in a corner of the cemetery.

As of March, messages also were being accepted from the worldwide Internet computer network (E-mail address: [email protected]). Faxes are being sent to the gravesite by dialing (718) 423-4444.

Visitors come to the house around the clock, some of them in taxis during layovers between flights at the nearby Kennedy International Airport. The stream rises to nearly 500 people on Sundays.

Many, many more are expected at the gravesite Saturday, July 3, when a yahrzeit commemoration will be held. Simultaneously, Chabad headquarters in New York, centers in Washington, D.C., and around the world will mark the anniversary.

According to Zalman Shmotkin, an aide at Lubavitcher headquarters, Chabadniks believe their deceased rebbe's spirit hovers over the gravesite and that his spiritual interaction with his followers increases after his death.

Among the visitors to the Lubavitcher rebbe's grave are Jews and non-Jews, the pious and the secular, all of whom were touched in some way by Schneerson or his teachings.

"More people come here on a day-to-day basis than were able to come to the rebbe during his lifetime," says Refson. "The thing I've been most surprised by is the number of people who come."

Mourners take off their shoes outside the mausoleum and walk on the pebbled path inside the stone hut, where metal shelves hold dozens of dripping memorial candles.

Men walk to the graves through a doorway on the right, women on the left, where they read from a special book called Ma'aneh Lashon.

Compiled by the second Lubavitcher rebbe, Dov Baer, it contains Psalms; passages from the Zohar, the text of Jewish mystics; and some specially composed prayers.

Sitting in the bare room, beneath the eyes of the rebbe looking down from an enormous photograph, Refson explains his role as the host of the house.

"Many, many people who come here, especially irreligious people, start crying" when they visit the rebbe's grave, he says.

"They don't understand why themselves. They're looking for direction, for a way to channel their spiritual reawakening to service to God," Refson says.

But not all Lubavitchers are focused on just the rebbe's reported powers to give blessings. Many believe the rebbe is the Messiah who will return to redeem Israel.

"Like Moshe Rabainu [Moses] went up the mountain, the rebbe arose to heaven in a body while he was alive," says Rabbi Zimroni Tzik, a Lubavitcher activist in Bat Yam, Israel.