The Ohel (Hebrew: אהל, lit., "tent") is the name of a religious shrine in Queens, New York, to which tens of thousands of Jews make a pilgrimage each year. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and his father-in-law Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (the two most recent leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch school of Hasidic Judaism) are interred there. Many Lubavitchers visit the shrine especially on the anniversary of Schneerson's death on the Hebrew calendar.
The Ohel is located at Montefiore Cemetery (Old Springfield Cemetery) in Cambria Heights. The cemetery is a remnant of the large Jewish community that once inhabited Cambria Heights. Today the area is largely African American.
The Ohel is situated at the northern edge of the cemetery, near the corner of Francis Lewis Blvd. and 121st Avenue, in a section designated for prominent Lubavitcher men and their wives. It is an open-air structure containing the side-by-side graves of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994).
A row of small brick houses along Francis Lewis Blvd. abuts the cemetery. In 1995, Lubavitcher Hasidim bought one of these houses and turned it into a 24-hour visitors center. This center includes a video room, a library, a small synagogue, a quiet room for visitors to compose the prayers they will say in the Ohel, and refreshments. The entrance to the Ohel is through the back door of this house and down a pathway. Men and women enter the Ohel through separate doors.
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According to Jewish law, a kohen (Jewish priest) is not allowed to ritually defile himself by entering a cemetery. Halacha mandates that the kohen be a distance of four amahs from a tombstone providing adequate fencing is in place. The construction of fencing along the pathway leading to it attempts to solve this problem according to the halacha as fences separate the pathway from the other graves in the cemetery.
At the Ohel itself, which is open to the sky to eliminate problems of tumas meis ("impurity from the dead"; see Tumah and taharah) in an enclosure, a low wall surrounds the graves and keeps the kohen at least 12.59 inches (320 mm) away from a tombstone to maintain his ritual purity.
Following the burial of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson in the cemetery in 1950, his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, would visit his father-in-law’s grave several times a week – even up to six days a week. He would read out the requests of people who came to speak with him, then tear the notes and leave them at the gravesite. After the death of his wife in 1988, the Ohel was the only place the Rebbe regularly visited outside Brooklyn. He suffered his first stroke at the Ohel in 1992.
Following Schneerson's death and burial at the Ohel in 1994, the number of visitors to the Ohel increased significantly. Today, tens of thousands of Jews visit the Ohel annually. It is also frequented by travelers going to or returning from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport or 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad in Crown Heights.
The presence of large numbers of pilgrims, nighttime visitations, and the build-up of Chabad homes and facilities in the area has resulted in tension with the surrounding African-American community.
At the Ohel, visitors have a tradition of writing kvitlach — prayers on small pieces of paper — which are then torn up and tossed onto the graves. In the visitor’s center, a fax machine receives over 700 faxes a day, while a computer receives 400 e-mails daily. These kvitlach are all printed and then taken to the graves, where they are torn into shreds and placed atop the graves. When the pile grows too high, the shredded notes are burned. The visitor’s center also receives many wedding invitations for the Rebbe; these invitations are read at and/or placed on the graves. In addition to kvitlach, visitors are encouraged to light memorial candles at the Ohel.
The Ohel website advises visitors to wear modest clothing, cover the head with a hat (men) or head-covering (women), and avoid wearing leather shoes. When leaving, visitors walk backwards as a sign of respect.
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- Heilman and Friedman (2012), p. 63.
- Heilman and Friedman (2012), p. 18.
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Media related to Ohel (Chabad-Lubavitch) at Wikimedia Commons