“I mean, there are more and more moving in every day! In over fifty years, I’ve never seen so many modern Jews in Crown Heights,” Crown Heights native Shlomo Weiss told me during the first of several interviews I conducted in his neighborhood this past March. I had set out on a mission: to find out more about these new Crown Heights Jews and how they were being treated by the old Jewish establishment.
Before delving into the results of my investigation, a brief background must be given about Crown Heights’s Jewish history and the two Jewish groups occupying it now. Following the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants moved to the outer boroughs, many planting themselves in Crown Heights, “[in] Central Brooklyn to the south of Clinton Hill, [a] 2.3-square-mile neighborhood [extending] north-south from Atlantic Avenue to Empire Boulevard and East New York Avenue and east-west from Washington Avenue to Ralph Avenue.” At its height, “some 75,000 Jewish people were living in [Crown Heights], making it a hub for Jewish life.” Then, in the 60’s, the neighborhood demographics began to shift, “as the Jewish, Irish and Italian populations of Crown Heights moved out of Brooklyn [and] were quickly replaced by African-Americans from the southern United States and black immigrants from the Caribbean.” By the end of the 70’s, most of the Jewish population of Crown Heights had left. The remaining Jewish population was concentrated in the southern part of Crown Heights and mainly consisted of Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim, two characteristics which hold true even today.
What is Chabad?
Named after the Russian town of Lubavitch where it originated, Chabad-Lubavitch is a sect of Chassidus, a more mystical and pious form of Judaism, and is made up of members called Chassidim, who generally place a large emphasis on tradition and religion. Its main headquarters is 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, where it has, since the 50’s, comprised most of the Jewish population, nearly 90% of it in 2011, according to a United Jews of America study.
What makes the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Judaism unique is its extra firm commitment towards public outreach and support. Chabad-Lubavitch has sent emissaries to and established itself in over 81 countries and over 400 college campuses to bolster Jewish life. In addition, Chabad-Lubavitch operates dozens of soup kitchens in multiple countries and provides financial and educational support to broken families.
Who are the “new” Jews and why are they coming?
As opposed to Chabad, the new, young Jewish arrivals range on a religious spectrum from totally irreligious, to Reform, to Modern Orthodox. They come from different backgrounds, from totally secular to hardcore Chassidic. Yet, it is the very differences of the new Jews of Crown Heights which unify them and cause them to appreciate the move to Crown Heights more and more. “Young Jews who are new to Crown Heights say the neighborhood’s diversity and open attitude makes them feel free to express themselves spiritually.”— and they do, as can be seen from the numerous religiously progressive and diverse synagogues and Judaic learning centers that recent Jewish arrivals have erected in Crown Heights. As modern Jewish Crown Heights resident Aimee Rubensteen put it, “the neighborhood represents Jewish diversity.” It is that very diversity and lack of religious labelling and judgment that drew Reform Jewish couple Jerry and Lindsey Einhart to Crown Heights, a move they told me, “was a no brainer”.
Investigation: How do the two communities interact?
“We love our liberal Jewish community but we also love Chabad,” Jerry Einhart told me.
“But aren’t you guys Reform?”
“True, and we don’t have much to do with [Chabad], but that does not mean we do not appreciate Chabad and everything it does for the community.”
Such was the reaction of virtually all of the new Crown Heights Jews I interviewed. “We like Chabad; we just don’t really interact with it that much.”
It was reassuring to hear Jerry and a few other new Jews like him speak only positively of the Chabad community and its treatment of them, despite their limited interaction. Ben Kramarz, who moved to Crown Heights a few years ago, has established positive contact with Chabad, hosting Chabad Chassidim at his Shabbos (Sabbath) lunches, where it seems they get along fine with the new Jews present.
The Chabad Response
“Of course we have no problem with the new Jews moving in. We love all our Jewish brethren, no matter whether they are religious or not,” Simcha Kashevsky assured me.
“Okay, but you [Chabad] guys are pretty traditional, right? Shouldn’t–”
Simcha cut me off. “What difference does that make. Chabad Chassidus teaches us to embrace all Jews, even the modern ones. I will admit, there are a few [Chabad] people I know who are trying to stay away from the new, modern Jews who are moving in. They are only a few, though, and that is certainly not the Chabad way.”
“Can you give me an example of how Chabad is embracing the new Jews?”
“Sure! Every Shabbos (Sabbath), Chabad Chassidim go out looking for more modern Jews who might not have a Shabbos meal waiting at home, and invite them to eat it at their houses. My family even hosted a secular couple, new to the community, for Shabbos lunch last week!”
“Well, if that’s true, how come so few of the new Crown Heights Jews mention having extensive contact with Chassidim like you?
Simcha answered, “It is a process. There are just so many [new Jewish arrivals], that we have not caught up to them. Give [Chabad] a little time, and we will find and welcome all of them.”
Simcha was telling the truth; “On any given Shabbos, you could have a tattoo-clad bartender talking about some Chassidic insight on the [Bible] with a [Chabad] Chassid,” boasted Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum about his open-door Shabbos meals.
The Eruv Controversy
Clearly, for the most part, the old and new Jews of Crown Heights treat each other well and do not discriminate against each other. Only once have the two communities butted heads. Briefly put, in order for Jews to be allowed to carry items outside their homes on the Sabbath, they must be within the confines of an Eiruv, a network of strings (in Crown Heights’s case, up near the telephone wires), which ultimately form a large perimeter. Different Jewish sects have different standards for an Eiruv and where it can be constructed. The opinion of Chabad Chassidim is that Crown Heights is not a proper place to erect an Eiruv, whereas, the opinion of the modern Jews is that it is. “All three members of the Crown heights [High Rabbinical Council]…voiced their objections to an Eiruv being built [in Crown heights].” Nevertheless, the Eiruv was built, and as Naftali Hanau, a proponent of the Eiruv construction, put it, “If you don’t like it, don’t [use it].” The Eiruv controversy has been the only time that the Chabad establishment has overstepped its bounds and attempted to unnecessarily limit the functions of the more modern community. Yet, at the end of the day, as Simcha the Chabad Chassid pointed out optimistically, “an argument over some strings is not the end of the world. We still get along fine.”
In conclusion, while one might have thought that the growing, modern Jewish community might generate a discriminatory and prejudicial reaction from the traditional, Chassidic Chabad establishment, and that the two communities might seek to undermine each other whenever possible, in reality, the old and new Crown Heights Jews coexist just fine, and are even on the path to much more productive and beneficial interaction. Hopefully, the two communities will only continue to work together to enrich the ever-changing neighborhood of Crown Heights with a fusion of traditional and diverse Jewish ideas.