New Jersey Jewish News 5/31/05

Chabad tour of Brooklyn offers
spirituality, nostalgia

Standing beside the monument memorializing Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Bill Levy of Monroe reread the letter of prayer he had just written. Then he folded the paper, tore it once, twice, and scattered the pieces atop the thousands of other pieces of prayer that formed a kind of solemn confetti on the rebbe’s grave.

“I can’t say I was overwhelmed. I don’t know if I’d even say it was moving,” Levy said a few moments later as he sat beneath a tent at the Ohel (Tent) Chabad Lubavitch near the gravesite at Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, NY. “But I think it was interesting and enlightening. I think it’s certainly worthwhile.

“I just wanted to open my mind and enlighten myself about what’s out there,” he said. “I’m close to 80 years old, and I’m still searching. This was a way of exploring part of my Judaism. I’m still trying to find what it’s all about.”

Levy’s blend of openness, skepticism, and thirst for knowledge and spirituality struck a chord that echoed again and again as close to 55 Jews — most of them seniors from the retirement communities of Monroe Township — participated in the May 19 pilgrimage into the heart of the New York world of Chabad Lubavitch.

The trip brought together the two worlds Chabad emissaries are hoping to bridge — the heavily hasidic Brooklyn neighborhoods that form their roots, and the suburban, non-Orthodox neighborhoods where they are branching out on a mission of outreach.

“We’re calling it ‘A Spiritual Day in Brooklyn,’” said Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, religious leader of the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe Township, a division of Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Mercer County, as the crowded bus made its lumbering way to New York. “The main thing is to have people have the experience of praying at the gravesite of a tzadik. They write a letter to the rebbe, give charity, meditate, read the note, tear it up, request a blessing.

“I’m hoping they appreciate the experience of being able to pray at the graveside of a spiritual giant,” the rabbi said. “I want people to have that experience, to bring them closer to God and the Jewish community, and to leave a little bit more inspired.

“It’s a spiritual type of experience, on the one hand,” he added. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of nostalgia in Crown Heights. They’ll see what it’s like in a Chabad community. There’s a lot of mystique involved. It’ll be a nice day of nostalgia and inspiration.”

The daylong trip — the first of many Zaklikovsky hopes to sponsor — included the hour of reflection at the Ohel; a visit to World Lubavitch Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, a tour of the exhibition hall in the Lubavitch library, a glimpse into the mysteries of making the prayer boxes known as tefillin, and a stop at a Judaica center.

The idea for the communal trip came from Stan Edelman of Monroe, who said he was inspired by a recent midnight pilgrimage to the Ohel with Zaklikovsky and several others.

“I got tears in my eyes,” Edelman recalled. “It’s a sight to see — thousands of little pieces of paper thrown in an area in front of a big stone like a wishing well. When I came back, I felt there must be a lot of people like me. So we put together the idea.”

Edelman, who grew up in Crown Heights, said he grew away from his Judaism and never looked back, until he met Zaklikovsky. “I’m 74 and change,” he said. “I think most seniors, as they get older, feel more connection to where they used to be when they were younger — more Jewish. This was my answer to that,” he said, nodding his head toward Zaklikovsky. “I have never had my own rabbi. That’s my rabbi.”

Also along for the ride was Leonard Posnock of Monroe, a key supporter of the Chabad Jewish Center and a longtime board member of the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch in New Jersey. A former president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Posnock is cochair of the NJ-Israel Commission.

“Having these people assembled here means to me the coming together of a community,” Posnock said as he sat at the Ohel. “To have people come to this very important site and go to 770 is a very special happening. It shows the tremendous dedication the rabbi and his wife have had to help this Chabad movement grow in Monroe Township.

“The thing that impresses me the most is the dedication and commitment these young kids have,” he said, indicating the young Chabadniks studying and working there. “It’s Lubavitch that keeps Judaism alive. You hear a lot of negatives about beards and black hats, but when you sit down and think about it, they’ve done a lot of good things for humanity.”

For several of those on the trip, including Edelman and 62-year-old Harold Rosenblatt of Monroe, the day was a nostalgic return to the Crown Heights neighborhood where they had grown up.

“I lived a non-Jewish life. I was into alcohol and drugs,” said Rosenblatt, a retired teacher. “They used to take care of me, talk to me and give me guidance,” he said, referring to the Chabad community. “They never told me to do their ways, but they taught me to be a righteous person.

“When I met [Rabbi Zaklikovsky], I decided to support him as much as I can,” he said. “I think they’re like emissaries — good people who are trying to spread the word of God.”

Henri Samson, a 75-year-old survivor from Edison, called the visit to the rebbe’s grave “very impressive.”

“I find it very interesting and very moving,” said Samson, a Conservative Jew. “I find it very moving, but I can’t say I consider [the rebbe] as a god. He was a very intelligent man, a man to be respected as a rabbi and a leader. But I can’t understand him being treated like a god.”

At 770 Eastern Parkway, known as the Beis Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the group viewed a display of the rebbe’s honorary keys and medals in the library, which the rabbi described as the world’s largest privately owned collection of Judaica. Then it was on to HaSofer — The Scribe — a Crown Heights walkup where craftsmen were making and repairing tefillin and proofreading the parchment scrolls that go inside. “Moshiach is on his way,” read a sign on the door. “Let’s be ready.”

“I’m very glad I came,” said Beth Curtis, a retired banker from Monroe. “I was so curious about it. This is something I would never see otherwise.”

Dorris Mangel of Monroe, a retired office manager, called the glimpse into the world of Chabad “phenomenal.”

“I think the outreach work they do is wonderful,” she said. “I admire every single effort they do.”

Mangel added that she had always attended an Orthodox shul, but when she moved to Monroe and tried to join an Orthodox congregation, they would not accept her, because she would have had to drive her car to attend services.

“I was very, very turned off,” she said. “Now I’m turned on again, because Chabad welcomed me.”

As the time neared for the return home, Ellen Diamond, a retired salesperson from Monroe, said she had thoroughly enjoyed the trip. “It was very educational for me,” she said. “I’m very non-religious, but I love the tradition of my heritage. I don’t follow the rituals of Judaism. I never had the background. I wish I would have more of a faith.”

Even so, visiting the rebbe’s grave was very thrilling, Diamond said. She enjoyed writing the letter of prayer, although she wished she could have had more of a spiritual feeling. “He was a person who did good for the world, so it was wonderful to see that,” she said. “I just feel it’s another way of life. It’s interesting to me to see how people live and behave.”

On the walk back to the bus, Zaklikovsky invited some of the group into a classroom where about 150 newly ordained, newly married young Chabadniks were studying together in hevruta — study pairs.

“There are people here literally from every country around the world,” the rabbi said. “I’m looking now at Canada, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Israel — literally everywhere,” he said as he recognized acquaintances throughout the room.

The rabbi turned to leave — and then he turned back again. “The answer to Jewish continuity,” he said, “lies in this room.”