A Home Away...
When Orthodox Jewish men and women pray, they are separated by a mechitzah (a partition). The portrait of the Rebbe hangs over the proceedings.
For the first six years of my life, my family were observant Orthodox Jews. It accounts for such a small fraction of my life that I hardly remember it. Now, there’s a menorah in the house and a painting of a rabbi, but my family no longer checks packages for kosher symbols, fasts on Yom Kippur, or dresses modestly. Somewhere along the way, my mother decided she loved her Judaism but desired a secular life as well.
About two decades later, I wound up on the Chabad radar when a rabbi stopped me at UNLV. He gave me his business card, which read “Chabad at UNLV” followed by an italicized suggestion that said something about a home away from home.
Chabad is one of the world’s best known Hasidic movements, famous for its outreach. Unlike other sects of Judaism, it follows the inspiration of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who died in 1994 at age 92. He is respectfully known to the Chabad community as the Rebbe.
Like most Hasidic groups, Chabad is defined by its “spiritedness,” but differentiates itself by its passion for inclusion and outreach. You know you’re in the presence of Hasids when you see a group of bearded, hatted men spontaneously dancing together, and if you’re a guy, they’ll invite you to join in.
Even Chabad rabbis pursue friendships differently than your average Jewish leader. Most rabbis will not flag you down, equipped with business cards and directions to their home. Chabadniks will text on all occasions and at all times of day. There are classes and dinners nearly every day of the week. Interestingly, much of the outreach focuses on college-aged Jews. And begins with Shabbat (Sabbath).
Many observant students stay for a “Shabbaton” at the Chabad houses on Friday night and all day Saturday to avoid driving. These houses operate as second homes for many, offering several bedrooms with beds lining the walls.
A few months after attending a number of Shabbatons at the UNLV Chabad house, I accepted an invitation to an international Shabbaton for college students in the most Jewish place in the United States: Crown Heights, where Chabad has its headquarters. I was determined to explore my roots in Orthodox Judaism and to try and find a stronger sense of community.
Crown Heights has been spared the well-documented effects of Brooklyn’s great hipster influx. Judaica shops and all-Kosher bodegas still line the streets. I spot a shop for sheitels (wigs)– for the married women prohibited from displaying their natural hair in public. Children with kippot (male head coverings) walk the streets alone — Orthodox Jews are the true pioneers of the “free range kids” movement. There’s a Mitzvah Tank, a large traveling van where Jews can pray and receive advice. And there are plenty, I mean, plenty of signs welcoming the Moshiach (Messiah).
The building used to hold the Shabbaton is an ornate edifice, a synagogue that once opened its doors for wealthy New York City Jews, before they left for more ritzy neighborhoods. Most of the services and activities occur in the building’s great hall, which contains several chandeliers and painted moldings. The ceilings include raised gold and blue decorative flourishes. A painting of the Rebbe hangs above a mounted candelabra. During times of prayer or dancing, a mechitzah (wooden partition) is placed in the center of the room to divide men and women.
Young people show up for Chabad events in droves, sometimes to honor G-d, but more often than not, to connect with other Jews. Women participate wearing “short” skirts or pants and many of the men sport tattoos and lack head coverings. Chabad doesn’t mind the gulf between their beliefs and those of the Jewish students they host. A Jew is a Jew. And once a Jew, always a Jew.
Here, Judaism is less defined by the act of believing and the devoutness of that belief, (as in Christianity), but more by the communal act of ritual. The ritual, Hasids believe, brings one closer to God, rather than the other way around. Judaism conflates ethnic identity with religious belief, making it hard to classify Jews as just a religious denomination.
It’s that attitude of inclusiveness that makes it so easy for me to love Crown Heights. It’s a life too regimented for me, someone who celebrates the 21st century feminist advances. Yet oddly enough, it’s a life I am happy to see exist in these troubled times. If not for the Hasids, who would preserve the love of Torah, the teachings of the Talmud or speak Yiddish? Hasids are the ardent custodians of Jewish belief and thought.
“I’m not buying it,” Dan, a young man from New Jersey, says over Shabbaton lunch. We’re seated at a circular table of about 10 people, and because our table belongs to the older students’ “grad track” program, we have bottles of sweet wine to use to make Kiddush, the formal blessing over the first glass. Someone at our table has plucked bottles from each abandoned table, and now the group is on its seventh bottle, which at a low 5.4 percent alcohol is closer to juice.
Not that Chabad ever needs wine to get rowdy. The large, ornate room holds a thousand participants, most of whom are under 21 and jumping up and down in exultation and song. Hands cling to the top of hats and dress shoes stomp in time with music. Moments like these come in waves, in part due to the composition of Jewish songs. The structure is circular; it repeats the same melody for different stanzas. Some songs don’t have words, only “oys,” “ahs,” and “ays.” The same song could theoretically run forever, and as one song loses momentum, another begins. A song could also end if someone ever drops anything, which will prompt everyone in the room to sing “Siman Tov Umazal Tov,” a song for good luck traditionally sung at weddings. Breaking an object resembles a Jewish groom’s ceremonial stomping of a glass, hence the song.
A welcome Moshiach neon sign at a pharmacy in Crown Heights.
“I’m just not buying it,” Dan repeats, as we scoot in to make way for the incoming conga line. “I’m really here for my brother.”
He explains that his twin brother is very religious and has recently turned to Chabad. He believes his brother’s recent foray into religious life has been motivated by impressions of Orthodox Judaism, its joy and its rich identity.
“I think people see this life as possible for them,” Dan says, mentioning that he saw the appeal.
Controversies do surround Chabad, one of which has cost membership for the organization. It concerns the Moshiach. Chabadniks universally believe in the Moshiach literally. But a small fraction insist that the Moshiach has already arrived in the form of the Rebbe, and some even argue that the Rebbe never died. While this group comprises a small number, it’s enough for many Jews to dismiss Chabad as cult-like or strange. Critics are quick to point out that Chabad has picked no successor to Schneersohn, the last in a line of leaders, even though he died in the 90s.
While at the Shabbaton, a rabbi explains to me that to most of Chabad, the Rebbe serves as an inspiration. His philosophy of intense service and of “lighting” the world with small good deeds, or mitzvot, inspires those in Chabad to keep going. With our mitzvot, we cleanse the world and make it habitable for God.
Because the Rebbe spoke often of the Moshiach in his final days, claiming that we lived in a Messianic age, some Chabadniks believe he must be the Moshiach.
“I’ve tried arguing,” the rabbi said. “But nobody changes their mind from an argument. When has that happened?”
Those in this group claim that the Rebbe must still be living to resolve issues with biblical law. Since Judaism is a text-based faith, it determines its values, traditions, and beliefs through the Torah. And the Torah communicates that a person cannot die and come back to become the Moshiach. Ergo, he’s living somewhere, maybe alongside Tupac and Elvis.
“I was at the Rebbe’s funeral, but some will still tell me he’s alive. That it was illusion.”
The Rebbe may not be alive, but that doesn’t make his legacy one that won’t live on as a Moshiach might. He was adaptive and, in many ways, a revolutionary. He was an activist, championing women’s rights within the Orthodox community by opening Torah study to women and girls. In the late 1960s, he also met with Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, to urge her to use her new position on the Agriculture Committee to expand the food stamp program. With his blessing and encouragement, she did.
The Rebbe led and inspired a traditional movement within Judaism, but he also updated its values. For me, that’s enough. Without the Rebbe’s message of inclusiveness, only my memories would have formed my connection to Judaism. Now I know how to recite Kiddish and how to properly wash my hands before breaking bread. I can say I love Judaism and want to practice it more closely, albeit in my own, gender-egalitarian way.
At the end of Shabbat, the students gather in the great hall to celebrate. The same partition separates the men and the women, and this time a live band plays for the crowd. The ceilings are just high enough that voices carry across the room, and it’s the usual rumble of feet and clapping hands. A drone with a camera attached hovers overhead, moving between the men and the women’s sides of the room, capturing video. The crowd waves and gestures until the drone hits a glass chandelier on the women’s side and without a second pause, a thousand Jewish voices change their tune: Siman tov umazal tov, mazal tov vesiman tov, siman tov umazal tov...