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Crown Heights, NY - Hasidic Tour Opens Lifestyle To Outsiders

Published on: October 3, 2011 09:35 PM
By: Read more at CNN
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Men examine religious books and CDs on Kingston Avenue in the heart of Crown Heights.Crown Heights, NY - When he was 18 and still living in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., Beryl Epstein received a call from his older brother, Mordechai, who was about to join the Israel Defense Forces.

Mordechai urged his younger brother to come to Crown Heights, a largely ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was studying before heading to Israel.

“I knew there must be more—something I was missing,” recalls Epstein, 53, who grew up in a secular Jewish home.

His visit to Crown Heights the following year, 1977, inspired him to move there and to join the Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish sect predominant in the neighborhood. Inside his new community, Epstein noticed there was a misconception among outsiders that Lubavitcher Jews—who are distinguished by dark clothing, frequent use of Yiddish and what they say is an unyielding focus on devotion to God—shun the outside world.

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“I felt there was such a need to acclimate society to Hasidic Jews,” he says. “It’s one thing to have people speak about Hasidim. It’s another to have Hasidim themselves speak.”

Since 1982, Epstein has helped to bridge his community and the rest of the world by leading more than 200,000 New Yorkers, tourists, scholars and others on his Crown Heights walking tours.

With four other guides, Epstein runs the three-hour, $36 tours through an organization he founded called The Chassidic Discovery Welcome Center.

As the tour begins, it’s easy to feel transported far from Manhattan. Streets bustle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who don seemingly identical black suits, long coats, big black hats and shiny black shoes.

The men, who spend hours each day studying the Torah and Torah commentary, walk briskly between home and synagogue for morning, afternoon and evening prayers.

Epstein calls this seeing “people living in a natural habitat.”

The neighborhood’s women wear long skirts and long-sleeve shirts, revealing as little skin as possible. Married women cover their heads with hats or scarves, and some wear wigs, following Jewish laws of modesty.

Old-fashioned bakeries, Judaica stores and kosher restaurants bearing worn-out signs in English and Yiddish dot the streets. Chain stories are a rarity.

Still, signs of modernity are commonplace.

Men examine religious books and CDs on Kingston Avenue in the heart of Crown Heights.

The first stop on the tour is the neighborhood’s main synagogue. Dissonant voices carry through a large room as men and their sons pray, read and chat.

One man pulls out his iPhone. Chabad, which is headquartered in Crown Heights and is well known for running Jewish study centers around the world, has eagerly harnessed technology to spread its message. The synagogue’s activities are streamed live on the Internet at www.770live.com.  In adjoining classrooms, lessons are digitized for students to download.

Sitting in the second-floor women’s gallery, the tour group watches the action below, snapping photos and asking questions while a young woman prays silently just a few feet away.

The synagogue and school, or yeshiva, are part of the building known as “770,” which refers to its address at 770 Eastern Parkway.

Epstein addresses questions from the group, which includes curiosity seekers from nearby and as far away as Texas and South Africa. The tourists say they were intrigued by what they read about the tour online and in guidebooks, as they seek off-the-beaten-path experiences. They ask about everything from the definition of “kosher” to the role of women in ultra-Orthodox Judaism and even what Hasidic Jews do for fun.

Rabbi Beryl Epstein speaks with the tour group before hitting the streets of Crown Heights.

Epstein answers with a smile and sharp wit, his body swaying back and forth in the same way Jews sometimes do when enveloped in deep prayer.

Later, the group crowds into a mikvah, a ritual purifying bath in a building nestled among a row of brownstones. Although it translates to “pool” and looks like a large bathtub, a mikvah is not for swimming or bathing; one must be clean before immersing in one.

Epstein leads the way through brightly lit preparation rooms stocked with showers, soaps, shampoos and beauty products.

For some men, mikvah is an infrequent ritual, while others use it every day before morning prayers. Women are required to submerge in the mikvah at the conclusion of their menstrual cycle, before resuming intimate relations with their husbands, as well as after childbirth. Using the mikvah is also an essential step in converting to Judaism.

“The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown,” Epstein says, “and I knew that if people knew what was going on here, they would feel connected to it rather than fight it.”

At the end of the tour, the group eats lunch at a kosher deli. Epstein takes out his Flip Cam to record everyone’s reflections, which he compiles into a short keepsake video.

Epstein says this kind of response is his greatest reward.

“My hope is for people to incorporate a little bit of this community back into their own lives.”



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Read Comments (11)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Oct 03, 2011 at 10:21 PM Lodzker Says:

this sounds weird.

2

 Oct 03, 2011 at 10:29 PM Anonymous Says:

Isn't there a chashuve rav in crown heights (the Lionza Rebbe ??) who also has a museum that has exhibits explaining the lifestyles and customs of the heimeshe neighborhoods

3

 Oct 04, 2011 at 01:03 AM esther Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Isn't there a chashuve rav in crown heights (the Lionza Rebbe ??) who also has a museum that has exhibits explaining the lifestyles and customs of the heimeshe neighborhoods

no,no,no.he comes from a regular ch family but made himdelf into a rebbe in bp.

4

 Oct 04, 2011 at 04:47 AM alterknaker Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Isn't there a chashuve rav in crown heights (the Lionza Rebbe ??) who also has a museum that has exhibits explaining the lifestyles and customs of the heimeshe neighborhoods

Competition brings business

5

 Oct 04, 2011 at 06:28 AM Chelmite Says:

Rabbi Epstein is just about one of the most beautiful people you can find. He is
the perfect Ambassador to any outsider,

6

 Oct 04, 2011 at 09:32 AM realistic Says:

There's a misconception by many, including this article which states that the main shul's address is 770 eastern pkwy. That's not so. It's the building adjacent to the main shul that has its address as 770. That was where the previous rebbe lived and where the rebbe mh"m z"l had his office.

7

 Oct 04, 2011 at 11:39 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #3  
esther Says:

no,no,no.he comes from a regular ch family but made himdelf into a rebbe in bp.

Harav Shaul Shimon Deutsch, shlita, is a rav with semich from lubavitch and did not as you denigrate him, "make imself into a rebbe". He is a rebbe and is called the Liozna Rebbe after a small town in Belaruss where there was a lubavitch community in pre-war Europe. He also has organized a major food bank for poor familes that feeds hundreds of families each week. Please be careful what you say about a big tzadik and baal tzadakah during aseres ymai tshuvah

8

 Oct 04, 2011 at 12:21 PM Proud Chabad Says:

We refer to the entire complex as 770. There is a contiguous entrance which no one except the Rebbe used from what I remember (I don't live in NY).

9

 Oct 04, 2011 at 01:00 PM realistic Says:

There's a misconception by many, including this article which states that the main shul's address is 770 eastern pkwy. That's not so. It's the building adjacent to the main shul that has its address as 770. That was where the previous rebbe lived and where the rebbe mh"m z"l had his office.

10

 Oct 04, 2011 at 03:59 PM esther Says:

Reply to #7  
Anonymous Says:

Harav Shaul Shimon Deutsch, shlita, is a rav with semich from lubavitch and did not as you denigrate him, "make imself into a rebbe". He is a rebbe and is called the Liozna Rebbe after a small town in Belaruss where there was a lubavitch community in pre-war Europe. He also has organized a major food bank for poor familes that feeds hundreds of families each week. Please be careful what you say about a big tzadik and baal tzadakah during aseres ymai tshuvah

smicha is not the question.neither is chesed.if i one day decidei i'd like to be called the los angelaser rebbe,what do you call that?

11

 Oct 04, 2011 at 08:56 PM CSLMoish Says:

This is great bring goyish tourists into a Shul and Mikvah. What's next "Jews for Rebbi" knocking on doors to convert people??

12

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