Community prepares for Lubavitch pilgrims

Leaders strategize to better handle the 20,000 to flood Cambria Hts.

Queens Chronicle, New York/May 10, 2012

It may be more than a month away, but the Cambria Heights community has already begun preparing for the arrival of some 20,000 Lubavitch pilgrims who will come to visit the grave of the sect's beloved leader on June 23.

The Rebbe Menachem Schneerson and his father-in-law, Yosef Schneersohn, the prior rebbe, are buried at Montefiore Cemetery. Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, located at 226-20 Francis Lewis Blvd., is a synagogue and community facility that abuts the graveyard, and was constructed more than 15 years ago after the rebbe's death. It provides a place for pilgrims to reflect and pray before going to the burial site.

On many occasions the pilgrimage coincides with the Sabbath, as it does this year, so individuals will not able to leave until the next day. Members of the sect are not allowed to travel by vehicle, carry things in their hands or push baby carriages on that day.

In years past, residents have complained about blocked driveways, traffic jams, excessive trash and people urinating in the streets. Now, area leaders are developing a strategy that they hope will alleviate those problems.

"My job is to make sure the community doesn't get trashed, and that people coming here for their religious observances can do what they have to do, get out, and get home as expeditiously as possible," said Larry McClean, the district manager of Community Board 13.

On April 19, McClean and members of the 224th Street and 229th Street block associations met with representatives from various city agencies and the congregation's rabbi, Abba Refson, to devise a plan to best accommodate the pilgrims while minimizing the impact on the community.

A special event permit has been approved to allow Ohel Chabad to erect tents with tables and chairs at the Delphin H. Greene Playground on 121st Avenue between 235th and 237th streets, a spokesman for the Parks Department said in an email.

The usage of the playground would increase the traditional pilgrimage area by six blocks, McClean said, stretching from Springfield Boulevard and 229th Street to Springfield Boulevard and 235th street.

McClean said the NYPD will be providing round-the-clock coverage, including traffic control. The Department of Sanitation will be putting wire garbage baskets around the perimeter, and the synagogue staffers will be responsible for periodically emptying them. The FDNY will have extra ambulances in area, just in case anyone gets ill from the heat, since they will be outdoors.

The Department of Transportation has agreed to put up signs reminding people of the prohibition against engine idling so buses bringing pilgrims from Brooklyn will remain in the cemetery parking lot until they are contacted by radio to pick up passengers or the buses will not stay at all. They will drop off people and immediately leave to go pick up more. For those using mass transit to get to the site, the MTA has agreed to put up signs directing pilgrims to city buses that can get them the closest to the cemetery.

The congregation will put up signs on homeowners' lawns warning motorists not to block driveways or their vehicle will be towed — a practice it has employed in previous years. The synagogue also has rules of appropriate conduct listed on its website advising visitors to "respect the neighborhood."

City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), who represents the area, said Tuesday that he applauds the efforts of the community board and civics in trying to correct the ongoing problems associated with the pilgrimage, and he said he would work with all parties to help ensure safety and quality of life remain intact during the event.

"For many years the pilgrimage has been a blessing for some and a nightmare for others," Sanders said. "Some rejoice in visiting the graves and receiving blessings while others are cursed with traffic, noise, litter and crowds — the loss of their community. We can correct this."

Even though McClean said the plan, when finalized, should alleviate 90 percent of the problems, there are those who remain pessimistic.

"We are not happy about it. I can tell you that," Kelli Singleton, president of the Cambria Heights Civic Association, said of the pilgrimage. "There are going to be thousands of people sleeping here."

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