Over the past few years, thousands have made pilgrimages to Eastern Europe, visiting the kevarim of renowned rebbes on auspicious times. Rosh Hashanah in Uman has become a “thing,” as have visits to the burial places of Reb Yeshayale Kerestir in Hungary and the Noam Elimelech in Lizhensk. For those of us who live in New York there are the Satmar Rebbe’s burial place in Kiryas Joel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ohel in Queens, with a Monsey cemetery becoming a popular destination for individuals hoping for anything from a simple divine bracha to an outright miracle.
Reb Chaim Zanvil Abramowitz, more commonly known as the Ribnitzer Rebbe, was recognized in his lifetime as a miracle worker, cheating death multiple times during World War II and serving as a shochet, mohel and chazzan in Communist Russia through the 1970s, despite the ban on the practice of religion. Stories of incredible events that unfolded through his brachos abound in Rabbi Avraham Cohen’s recently published book The Ribnitzer Rebbe which will likely inspire even more people to flock to the Monsey cemetery on Brick Church Road where the Rebbe is buried, hoping to witness salvations others have seen after going to pray at his gravesite, even now, 24 years after his passing.
As it happens, I live on Brick Church Road, just down the road from the Monsey Cemetery. When we bought our house in 1990, it never occurred to me that I would one day be living near a location that would draw 25,000 visitors in a single day, but things were different back then. At the time, Brick Church was a road that measured just over a mile long, with four cemeteries at its western end, including one with graves dating back to the Revolutionary War as well as the aforementioned Jewish cemetery. It was in 2010 that I first heard of the Ribnitzer Rebbe when I was asked to write a news story covering his yahrtzeit on Isru Chag Sukkos, with several thousand expected to mark the occasion, I headed to the beis olam, where a large white tent had been erected and snapped pictures of the people who came, some milling about and others pouring their hearts out in prayer at the matzeva. I stopped for a few minutes to say some Tehillim and then back home I went.
As time went by, I became more and more aware that people were coming from miles away to daven at a grave that was literally minutes from my house. In 2012, Israel’s then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman made news when he detoured to the cemetery to daven by the Ribnitzer Rebbe while on an official trip to the United States. Driving by the cemetery any time of day or night, there were always people on the hill where the Rebbe is buried, no matter what the weather. Faced with a complex decision in 2014, I made my way to the cemetery to daven for clarity on a day so cold I had to chip the washing cup out of the icy cemetery sink when I went to wash my hands, and despite the temperatures, I wasn’t the only one there.
The crowds continued to grow larger with every passing Erev Rosh Chodesh and eventually, ISSM, a local private security firm, stationed personnel at the cemetery each month to ensure that things proceeded smoothly. The dirt parking lot was expanded and covered in gravel to accommodate more cars and, thankfully, a solid paving job this summer filled in the potholes that threatened the suspension of many a passing car. Dividers have been put up to designate a separate lane for women to access the ladies’ side of the matzeva, with a slot in the mechitza providing access to submit kvitlach to the Rebbe’s tzion. A center path is clearly marked for kohanim, allowing them to get as close as halachically possible, while a large sign at the bottom of the hill respectfully asks visitors to refrain from using smartphones while on cemetery grounds.
Drastic changes have taken place since 2015 to accommodate the increasing number of visitors on the Rebbe’s yahrzeit. In addition to the large tent at the gravesite, multiple tents dot the area including one for men’s candle lighting, separate food tents for men and women with hot and cold drinks, snacks and sandwiches, one for kohanim and another to accommodate minyanim. The Ramapo Police Department manages traffic in the area, shutting down some nearby streets and diverting traffic to others during the busiest times of the day, with shuttle buses ferrying visitors to and from designated parking areas in order to keep things moving smoothly on the normally quiet suburban roads. Chaverim of Rockland reported that this year a record number of people flocked to the cemetery just hours after Simchas Torah ended, with many who had spent yom tov in the Catskills making a detour to the beis olam on their way back to the city. An estimated 25,000 people descended upon the cemetery for the Ribnitzer Rebbe’s yahrtzeit this year, a number that is only likely to grow.
Ironically, in my own little corner of the world, many people have still never heard of the Ribnitzer Rebbe. Every year on Isru Chag Sukkos, someone pops up on our neighborhood chat asking “Does anyone know what is going on at the cemetery today?” It is almost funny to imagine that people travel from miles away to daven by the Ribnitzer Rebbe, while people who live within walking distance of his burial place have no idea of the treasure who is literally in their own backyards.
As the Ribinitzer Rebbe’s reputation as a miracle worker continues to proliferate, even now 24 years after his passing, I submit this offer to those of you who can’t make it up to Monsey. Feel free to email your names and requests to me at email@example.com – I’ll be happy to pop over to the beis olam and say a kapitel on your behalf. While I can’t promise any miracles, a prayer said at the grave of a tzaddik certainly has merit and for those who believe, yeshuos may be just a perek of Tehillim away.