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As Crown Heights Changes, A Jewish Landscape Diversifies

As Crown Heights Changes, A Jewish Landscape Diversifies

Hipsters, Modern Orthodox transplants and a growing progressive wing within Chabad are redefining both sides of Eastern Parkway.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

When Aimee Rubensteen was growing up in a Modern Orthodox community in Broward County, Fla., she never thought that one day she’d be living in Crown Heights.

“I knew of Crown Heights as the Lubavitch center of the world, and to be frank, I have family members in the Chabad community who have no idea why I live here. They’re very confused,” she said.

But now, at the age of 26, the neighborhood represents something altogether different to her: Jewish diversity.

“When I moved here I was looking for a Jewish experience that had options,” said Rubensteen, an art curator. “There’s Chabad down the street, there’s another Lubavitch congregation that’s closer to Kingston Avenue, there’s [the Modern Orthodox] Congregation Kol Israel. Really, in a 10-minute-walk radius for me there are just so many options,” she said.

While chatting at the recently opened Nostrand Avenue storefront of Repair the World, a national Jewish service nonprofit focusing on food justice and education, Rubensteen ticked off the places she’s gone for Shabbat since moving to the neighborhood two years ago: There’s also the inclusive-but-still-Lubavitch Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, the Chabad-house-style Chabad Heights, the Modern Orthodox Prospect Heights Shul, the LGBT Grindr Shabbat, the feminist-but-still-halachically-Orthodox partnership minyan, Kavod, the traditional-but-egalitarian minyan Shir HaMaalot and the home-based, monthly prayer group Mishkan Minyan.

“Having the choice to choose is the beauty of Crown Heights,” Rubensteen said. “As a modern, independent woman I have the choice to choose where I go to shul and I think that’s really empowering.”

And the choice keeps growing.

In the 1990s, the era of the Crown Heights riots, which began 25-years ago this month, there were basically two groups that lived in Crown Heights: African- and Caribbean-Americans and Lubavitchers. Now, two-and-a-half decades later, the neighborhood has diversified.

Over the past decade, the neighborhood has seen an influx of both families priced out of nearby Park Slope and adjacent Prospect Heights as well as post-college hipsters drawn by the neighborhood’s increasingly hip vibe, relatively affordable rent and quick subway ride to Manhattan. A sizeable number of Jews were among the newcomers: 20-something tikkun olam-oriented Reform Jews who got involved with Repair the World, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and other social justice organizations; families who have begun building up non-Lubavitch institutions including Kol Israel and the Open Orthodox Luria Academy (below).


And as these non-Chabad transplants move in, they’re revising what it means to be a Crown Heights Jew.

In June, a well-publicized dispute erupted over the construction of an eruv, a symbolic boundary that allows some Orthodox Jews to use items such as strollers on Shabbat. While Modern Orthodox Jews celebrated the structure, Lubavitch rabbis, who declared it halachically invalid, and many Chabadniks saw it as an affront.

But residents from both camps say such conflicts are the exception, and that for the most part, the two communities have a cordial, if distant, relationship.

Located in Central Brooklyn to the south of Clinton Hill, the 2.3-square-mile neighborhood extends north-south from Atlantic Avenue to Empire Boulevard and East New York Avenue and east-west from Washington Avenue to Ralph Avenue.

To be sure, Lubavitchers still make up the vast majority of the Crown Heights tribe. Of the roughly 23,800 Jews living there, according to UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 population study, estimates put the number of Chabadniks at approximately 21,000, or nearly 90 percent, with most living on the southern side of Eastern Parkway.

Despite their growing numbers, however, Jews currently make up only about 15 percent of the nearly 143,000 people in Crown Heights. The neighborhood, especially north of Eastern Parkway, is still firmly dominated by African- and Caribbean-Americans, who make up about 70 percent of the population, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

A Community of Individualists

But despite their relatively tiny numbers, non-Lubavitch Jews, who mostly live north of Eastern Parkway, are making their mark on the area, building new institutions and informal minyanim. And while those moving in are an eclectic mix, what most seem to have in common is an individualistic bent, a desire to buck traditional categories and forge a Jewish community that feels true to them.

“In other communities, such as the Upper West Side, you’re either this or that,” said Rubensteen. “But I think that most people in the [Crown Heights] community are not so interested in being specifically labeled.”

community_herb_garden_at_chabad_heights_2.jpgYuri Kruman, a 33-year-old career coach and start-up advisor, agreed that in Prospect and Crown Heights, Jewish identities can be more fluid. Kruman, who grew up unaffiliated and is now Modern Orthodox, attends both Congregation Kol Israel and Chabad Heights (left). In this neighborhood, he said, “You do what you want. There are plenty of options here, and the attitude is: ‘Live and let live.’”

Dov Alpert, a 31-year-old Judaic studies teacher who moved to Crown Heights last September, echoed the observation. “I think something that’s common among the ethos here is that no one really judges other people or cares how other people express their Judaism,” said Alpert, who came to Crown Heights after stints in Prospect Heights, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights.

“I think that’s what it is: People who make up the community in Brooklyn like to express their Judaism [individualistically], while people in other communities, they just like to follow their Judaism [conventionally],” he said.

Small-Batch Judaism

And express their Judaism, they do.

In November, Alpert co-founded Kavod, a partnership minyan that seeks to maximize women’s participation in services within the confines of Orthodox Jewish law.

“I was moved by this idea — I don’t want to say of changing Orthodoxy — but of changing the landscape so that it allows for more respect and dignity,” he said.

The group, which meets once a month at Repair the World (808 Nostrand Ave.), gets between 30 and 50 people each time. The next meeting is planned for Sept. 10 at 9:30 a.m.

Pinned to Kavod’s Facebook page is a link to the Jewish Ritual Life Tools Exchange, where people can sign up to teach or learn such skills as reading the Torah or Haftarah, leading services or reading biblical Hebrew.

Alpert started the exchange with Hannah Grossman after “hearing people in the community say they wanted to lead Jewish rituals/parts of services, etc., but simply did not know how,” Grossman said via email. She hopes the exchange will “strengthen the community” and “build relationships.”

“The peer-to-peer nature of it fits well with the general feel of the Brooklyn Jewish community I have been a part of. It reminds me of Limmud where often a teacher of a session will be a student in another.”

nechama_levy_at_bicycle_roots_cropped.jpgNechama Levy (right), 32, grew up chasidic in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and now is closer to the Modern Orthodox side of the spectrum. She moved to Crown Heights in 2012 and opened a bike shop called Bicycle Roots (609 Nostrand Ave.). In June, she started the Brooklyn Women’s Chavura, a woman-led Orthodox prayer group where men are welcome, but sit behind a mechitza (partition) in the back. The June meeting got about 25 people. This month’s meeting is scheduled for August 20 at 10 a.m. at Berg’n (899 Bergen St.).

She agreed that Crown Heights is a good community for Jews who like to go against the grain. “For people who want to be connected to their community, for people who are committed but also individualistic, it’s a great, great place, she said. “The liberal to Modern Orthodox community here is not one that exerts control. There are a lot of different ways that people express their Judaism in this neighborhood.”

Ben Kramarz, a 30-year-old music educator, moved to the neighborhood two years ago because of its diversity.

“I think all these categories, they all get jumbled [here], and that’s why I want to be here,” he continued. “I don’t believe in the idea of Modern Orthodoxy. People here, they’re not interested in labels.”

A year and a half ago he started holding a once-a-month, open-to-everyone Shabbat lunch. While he’d been invited to many Shabbat dinners, he said, “Shabbat lunch was just not happening — not a proper heimishe lunch with chulent, etc.”

Between 40 and 60 people “of all varieties” show up each month, “from Reform to Chabad and everything in between,” he said. One of his proudest moments: when he saw his non-Jewish, gay Brazilian friend talking with his Chabad shaliach (emissary) friend.

“I created a safe space for them to socialize,” said Kramarz, who spent a year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and earned a master’s degree in folklore with a focus on Jewish camp songs from UC Berkeley.

“One of my big goals is to create the feeling of camp within the city,” he said. “The basic idea is, get people together and create a feeling of unity, and the way to do that is to, first of all, have people see each other frequently, and in a variety of contexts, but also you want to create opportunities for people to get to know each other beyond just the surface level,” he said. “I think that we’re doing it here and there’s still so much growing to be done. “

Six months ago, Kramarz started Brooklyn Beit Midrash, where between 20 to 40 people — men and women — get together once a month to learn Torah. “As of now, there aren’t the kind of opportunities for serious egalitarian Torah learning in Brooklyn that there should be,” he said. “What I want to create is a beit midrash space, where people are learning in chavruta [pairs] and ultimately create a space where people are really learning how to learn.”

A longtime Lubavitcher, who asked that we not use his name for privacy reasons, summed it up this way: “Millennials want everything to be small-batch and artisanal, and they want their synagogues to be small batch and artisanal as well.”

Building A New Community

Indeed, just about everyone interviewed pointed to this sense of wanting to build community as a defining quality of the neighborhoods’ new Jews.

11692624_459268334255909_8030686166367660337_n_0.jpg“Because it’s an emerging community … if you want something to happen here you have to make it happen,” said Anna Hanau, 34, a member of Congregation Kol Israel (left) and owner of Grow and Behold, a company that sells kosher meat made from humanely raised animals. “It really is a little bit of, like, getting to build the kind of community you want to live in, which I think is pretty remarkable for a Jewish community, and it definitely appeals to a certain kind of [Jew who is] not quite conformist.”

Matthew L. Green, 26, a rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, started Grindr Shabbat two years ago after finding that people who contacted him on the gay dating app “just wanted to talk about the fact that I was becoming a rabbi.”

“There were all of these Jews on Grindr that I talked to who were either previously engaged or never engaged but were interested in talking about Judaism,” he said. He started inviting them to Shabbat dinner, and, with seed money from his rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the event, which now gets between 60 and 80 people, the majority being gay men but with many lesbian and straight Jews as well, takes place roughly once a month.

He said he hopes “it will be an entry point to Judaism for people who are new to the neighborhood.”

He also sees it as a way to connect the growing LGBT Jewish population in Crown Heights. “It has aggregated a lot of queer people in the neighborhood … and made it obvious that they are an organized population and a significant part of the population,” he said.

repair_the_world.jpgBut perhaps the most apt symbol of the influx of non-Lubavitch Jews to the neighborhood is the opening of the NYC chapter of Repair the World (right) last year. The organization, which partners with community organizations to provide Jews with the chance to volunteer in the areas of food justice and education, chose to open in Crown Heights because it is both an area “where service is needed” and also one that was attracting a large population of millennial Jews.

“It was already very obvious that as young people were getting out of Park Slope and even Prospect Heights, they were moving to Crown Heights. And we knew there were not a lot of resources there for non-chasidic Jews,” said Cindy Greenberg Repair the World’s NYC director. The storefront location is “also meant to be a hub for Jewish innovation in the neighborhood,” and hosts a bevy of other Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

On Aug. 21 it is partnering with other area nonprofits to mark the anniversary of the 1991 riots and “celebrate Crown Heights today” with “One Crown Heights,” a daylong festival of commemoration and festivities.


Community of Creatives

This summer, Repair the World also hosted the mixed-media art show “Brooklyn: Juxtaposition.” Curated by Rubensteen, the show (left and above) explores the concept of juxtaposition within the Jewish and Caribbean communities in Crown Heights.

Indeed, a combining of Judaism and the arts is common in the neighborhood.

“There are a lot of Modern Orthodox, liberal creatives that live here,” said Rubensteen.

elke_sudin_7-17-13_14309__v3-web_1.jpg“I’ll go to an event and there will be like 50 people there all fitting that category.” Rubensteen recently hosted a Shabbat Creatives Community Dinner at Repair the World, which brought in dozens of people. A year and a half ago, a trio of 20-something Jews created the Creative Healing Collective, where people can process the death of a loved one through the arts.

Congregation Kol Israel (of which the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Sam Reinstein, is married to Jewish Week staff writer Hannah Dreyfus) has been focusing on innovative ways to promote and feature the arts, including hosting an art gallery of Passover-themed work from artists across New York this past spring and an Andy Statman concert last November. The shul says it is planning the “first-ever Jewish Comic-Con” event for the fall.

Bridging Eastern Parkway

While most non-Lubavitch newcomers move to the North side of Eastern Parkway, some, including Kramarz, live on the southern side. With this divide, both physical and cultural, for the most part, Chabad and non-Chabad Jews peacefully co-exist. But they rarely co-mingle.

“Outside of a few very special spaces, in general those communities don’t interact,” said Levy.

But those special spaces are multiplying. In addition to Kramarz’s lunch, there are two congregations, Chevra Ahavas Yisroel and Chabad Heights, that bridge the two communities by, as Ahavas Yisroel puts it on its website, creating “a spiritual gathering place for all Jews, regardless of background or affiliation. … While maintaining an unwavering commitment to Halacha and the spirit of Chassidus.”

Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, who started Chabad Heights with his wife, Chaya, said the Orthodox congregation is “unorthodox in approach.”

“We have everyone from biracial, lesbian, gay to chasidic, and all in one room, and I would challenge you to find another shul that has that kind of mix — and not just that kind of mix, but that kind of mix that gets along, that respects one another and that really feeds off one another,” he said. “On any given Shabbos, you could have a tattoo-clad bartender talking about some chasidic insight on the parsha with a chasid, and on the other side of the room a yoga teacher kibitzing with another local from a completely different background and upbringing — and that’s what we call normal.”

Rabbi Shea Hecht, a Chabadnik and lifelong Crown Heights resident who is board chair of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, said that while the presence of non-chasidic Jews in the neighborhood might cause children to ask questions about why they’re not observant, that concern is outweighed by the opportunity this population presents.

“We don’t have to go out to Timbuktu to invite someone to our seder table. You don’t have to go to Manhattan with your mitzvah tank to ask people to put on tefillin. You can do it right on Franklin Avenue,” he said, adding that Rabbi Schneerson would have embraced the new arrivals. “The rebbe wanted Crown Heights to be an international community,” he said. “I’d like to believe that every Lubavitch Jew would welcome every type of Jew in the neighborhood.”

screen_shot_2016-08-16_at_7.02.45_pm.pngBut despite the generally peaceful relations, the Greater Crown Heights eruv dispute suggests tensions below the surface. Funded by a group of residents (who are rumored to be Lubavitch) and deemed kosher by the rabbi of Congregation Kol Israel, the symbolic enclosure covering nearly all of Crown Heights (in gray) caused a cross-parkway clash. It has been vigorously opposed by a Lubavitch religious court based on the belief that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had forbidden an eruv in Crown Heights. But some Lubavitchers contest the claim that the rebbe was against it and have begun using it.

Many Lubavitchers see its construction as disrespectful to their community, and the structure was vandalized three times in the three weeks after it went up.

One source close to Chabad-Lubavitch leadership, speaking off the record because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the resentment towards the eruv is exacerbated by a feeling of resentment among some Lubavitchers towards Congregation Kol Israel. When the shul, built in 1924 and considered a landmark today, fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Chabad community, at the direction of Rabbi Schneerson, who helped support and sustain it, with many a Chabadnik crossing Eastern Parkway to help complete a minyan. The source said there is “a lack of hakarat ha-tov” (the acknowledgment of a favor or good deed) from the Modern Orthodox congregation, and a sense that creating the new eruv was an affront to the Crown Heights community.

One 31-year-old Lubavitcher who would only give his first name, Mendel, said building the eruv without approval of Chabad leaders demonstrates a lack of “a certain respect and authority that is [normally] given to the local rabbi” and pre-existing Jewish community.

The committee that put up the eruv responded in a statement that they have discussed the eruv with Lubavitch leaders, and, since the “response was not particularly favorable. … it made much more sense to just build the eruv, rather than get into a fight with the non-unified leadership of the Lubavitch community.”

The statement said it is “absurd” to call the eruv’s construction disrespectful. “It would certainly have been disrespectful to build an eruv to Lubavitch standards around Crown Heights. To build an eruv that meets the standards of the Modern Orthodox community but not the Lubavitch community seems quite respectful, especially given the fact that we have dozens of members of the greater Modern Orthodox community who are now able to use the Greater Crown Heights eruv and previously did not have any eruv at all,” it said.

Despite this clash, Rabbi Kirschenbaum agreed that, overall, the relationship between the two communities has been quite good. “Obviously I’m not oblivious to the reports, but what we’ve seen by us has been one harmonious whole,” he said.

And, he added, all communities have some discord.

“I think the fact that there’s tension is natural,” he said. “It’s no different from the husband-wife relationship. A husband and wife who don’t argue — I have a great suspicion that the marriage isn’t working out. A husband and wife who argue, and do it respectfully, with care and the intent to build rather than destroy, I think is healthy and a sign of a good community. You’d be hard-pressed to find any community that’s all in line in one area. Any community that has respectful tension is a sign of a healthy marriage.”

Change From Within

Chaim Levin, 27, a former Chabadnik who still lives in Crown Heights, sees the eruv debate not so much as reflecting on the relationship between Chabadniks and non-Chabadniks so much as a representation of what is happening within the Lubavitch community.

chaim_levin4.jpg“You’re seeing the Chabad part of the people who live here kind of breaking off into two,” said Levin (right), an activist for LGBT Jews who is a sophomore at Brooklyn College.

Those against the eruv, he said, represent “a pretty strong group of Chabad people who are very opposed to any type of changes or anything different from what the rebbe wanted. The whole eruv thing comes down to what the rebbe wanted.”

He added that “the same people who are against the eruv were against any sort of LGBTQ events in Crown Heights. … They don’t want any changes that will threaten their identity. And the eruv thing was a perfect example of something that became a territory issue: It’s our neighborhood and you have no right to come and make changes here.”

On the other side, he said, “You have many people who are more modern and more chill, if you will, and in many ways they’re a separate community. It’s almost like it’s Chabad Light, or Chabad 2.0.

“It really does feel like there’s a modern movement happening here,” he continued. “There’s lots of resistance, but at the same time there are a lot of people who have lived here for a long time who are waiting for this modern movement to happen.”

Yosef Rivkin, a 31-year-old former Chabadnik who is earning a master’s in organizational psychology at Columbia University, could well be seen as one of those people.

He still lives in South Crown Heights, where he co-hosts the monthly lunch with Kramarz, his apartment-mate.

“I think the eruv represents the growing diversity of opinion of the [Lubavitch] community and a breaking away from tradition,” he said. The influx of more liberal Jews along with the shift left among some Chabadniks means that Rivkin now feels comfortable living in the neighborhood from which he once felt alienated.

“There are new, open-minded, fresh faces,” he said. “I might have always thought that I wanted to get away when I got older, but now I don’t think so. Now I’m seeing that there is capacity to build here. You don’t have to flee Crown Heights to live well.”

Photos (in order from top):

Ben Kramarz at the kosher cafe Manhattanville, started Brooklyn Beit Midrash for egalitarian Torah learning. Amy Sara Clark/JW

A preschool class heads to the playground outside the Open Orthodox Luria Academy. Michael Datikash/JW

Nechama Levy at her shop, Bicycle Roots. Mauricio Alvarez photo

Outside Congregation Kol Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul founded in 1924. Courtesy of Kol Israel

Inside Repair the World. Michael Datikash/JW

Working on the community herb garden at Chabad Heights. Courtesy of Chabad Heights

Portraits of Crown Heights residents by Rusty Zimmerman: "Gerri Buchanan," "Arafat Mansur” and "Mendy Margolin."

"Joseph in Exhile," by Elke Reva Sudin, part of the show "Brooklyn: Juxtaposition" which ran this summer at Repair the World. Courtesy of Repair the World

A map of the Greater Crown Heights Eruv, shown in gray, and the areas previously enclosed by two much smaller eruvim. Courtesy of Congregation Kol Israel

Chaim Levin near his home in Crown Heights. Michael Datikash/JW

Corrections: This story has been updated with the new date of the next Kavod meeting. It also corrected the month of the first meeting of the Brooklyn Women’s Chavura, which was in June, not July.

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