Won’t you come home, Shlomo Carlebach?
Seventeen years after his death and several generations after he split with the Lubavitcher rebbe in the late 1950s, the charismatic — and controversial — leader of New Age Judaism has regained a haven in his native Crown Heights.
Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, the “people’s shul” that has become the talk of the Brooklyn neighborhood since its opening last winter, has found its singular congregational chorales to be a powerful calling card. The singing has drawn an estimated 2,000 worshippers — many of them in their 20s and 30s — to its Sabbath services so far. And at the center of its musical offerings are the celebrated compositions by Carlebach, perhaps the community’s most prodigal son.
This month, Ahavas Yisroel (Hebrew for “Love of Israel”) is gearing up for its first High Holy Day season. Its members — about 400 strong, equally distributed between men and women — expect attendance to easily exceed the 300-person capacity of its present quarters. And the music will no doubt soar.
The seamless wall of sound at Chevra Ahavas Yisroel is roof-shakingly big yet subtly delicate. But it doesn’t just build itself. “You’re listening to all the sounds, and you just feel what’s missing,” said choir member Yossi Silverstein. “You know to go high here, put some bass over there. The niggun [melody] is very complex. If the other voices are all on the same key, you try to make it more of a buffet.”
Music is but one prong of the youth-led synagogue’s campaign to re-access the primal vitality of chasidic worship. Its other two fronts are the introduction of the ebullient model of the Chabad House into Crown Heights itself and a quantum boost in the participation of women in synagogue life.
Any one of Ahavas Yisroel’s innovations alone may well have been enough to turn heads in insular Crown Heights. That Ahavas Yisroel opts for three at once suggests an encrusted community status quo as perceived by many disenchanted young local Jews.
“Every community can become set in its ways,” said the 25-year-old Rabbi Yehezkel Denebaum. Familiarly known as “Chezzie,” he bears a notable resemblance to the actor Johnny Depp. “It can happen to us too. But you want to fight it, so you don’t become stale.”
In fact, it’s a story familiar to New York’s several chasidic communities: young people chafing under what they see as an out-of-touch, autocratic, gray-bearded elite. Many have fled the neighborhoods, shedding varying degrees of religious practice. Some have found succor in organizations like Footsteps and Chulent. Others have dug in their heels within familiar surroundings, groping for the rare counter-institution like Chevra Ahavas Yisroel.
The differences encountered by a visitor at Ahavas Yisroel, presently located in the ample basement of a large house on President Street, are few but telling. There is the music, of course. At other Crown Heights synagogues, as with shuls everywhere, liturgical ardor, not harmonic polish is the order of the day. If anything, Ahavas Yisroel’s intricate chordal mosaics most resemble the impromptu, often wordless sing-alongs that break out all the time between young chasidic men around study tables or in moving cars, but multiplied by several score.
The choice of tunes borrows heavily from the Carlebach songbook, but also the ample storehouse of traditional chasidic niggunim from many sects, including Lubavich itself.
Thanks to his music-steeped years at yeshiva, Silverstein knows his place in the up-to-200-member male chorus at Ahavas Yisroel. A travel agent by day, he admitted to past classical, non-chasidic voice training and hires himself out as a cantor. Singing with the Ahavas Yisroel congregation, he said, “maximizes my potential.”
According to Rabbi Denebaum, the ensemble of gifted amateurs harks back to the teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18-century founder of the Lubavitcher movement: “Music is the pen of the soul.”
The rabbi emphasized that though Ahavas Yisroel is “Carlebach-esque,” borrowing something of the embracing spirit of Reb Shlomo along with his tunes, it’s not another “Carlebach shul” that happens to have planted itself inside Crown Heights. “We are 100 percent a Chabad shul,” he said.
But a less chatty one.
“The level of people’s talking at Lubavitcher shuls is, frankly, a little embarrassing,” said member Ilena Spencer. “It’s like they can’t wait for the davening to be over.
“Ahavas Yisroel may very possibly be the quietest shul in Crown Heights,” she said.
Spencer termed the arrival of Ahavas Yisroel in the neighborhood not only long overdue but “revolutionary.”
Outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitcher world headquarters, Ahavas Yisroel may also be the most female-attended shul in Crown Heights. More often than not, the women present outnumber the men, including on Friday nights, not a traditional venue for females.
The gender-centered ferment that has roiled other Jewish denominations has not passed over the chasidic world. “Women are not represented in the Crown Heights community,” said Sima Denebaum, 24, the rabbi’s wife and full partner in synagogue operations. “Most new shuls are set up by men for men. Some don’t even have a women’s section.
“Women are very spiritual, and Ahavas Yisroel allows access to that spirituality. It’s very welcoming. When you walk in for the first time, you’re given a smile and a siddur,” she continued, using the Hebrew word for prayer book.
Though they don’t sing with the men or lead services, women take a dominant role in planning events, running the synagogue’s public relations machine and creating their own religion classes.
As if to drive the point home, at sermon hour Rabbi Denebaum pushes back the separating curtain the necessary few inches, straddles dead center the invisible mark at the head of the sanctuary that divides the men’s and women’s sections and begins to preach to all.
Said Rabbi Denebaum: “In every Chabad House women are involved equally with the men. This generation of women are smart, they’re educated and they’re ambitious.”
The breaching of the wall between the comparatively freewheeling Chabad Houses and the tradition-bound homeland of Crown Heights was perhaps only a matter of time — and Rabbi Denebaum may be the perfect candidate to lead the charge.
The son of Chabad emissaries in Palm Springs, Calif., young Denebaum absorbed the pervasive West Coast spirit-quest vibe along with his aleph-bais. Coming of age, he alternated yeshiva studies with wanderings among Israel’s soulfully observant, “hippie Jews,” on a global trek from South America to Australia, with an American stopover for a tour of prison chaplainry.
This grounding, shared with some in his congregation, fits comfortably with the synagogue’s regular meditation sessions, music jams and drum circles.
At services, the rabbi accents his cantorial duties with hand-clapping, finger-snapping, lectern-pounding flourishes. He blends into the men’s snake dance that caps the prayers, moving around with the abandon of an underage raver.
While some neighborhood hardliners bemoan the growing permeability between Crown Heights and the world at large, many observers applaud its effects that create room for new institutions like Chevra Ahavas Yisroel.
“Historically, younger Chabadniks have continued to leave Crown Heights,” said Maya Balakirsky Katz, associate professor of art history at Touro College and the author of “The Visual Culture of Chabad. “On the outside they inevitably become more worldly, more educated. Their spirit of tolerance has really saved Chabad.”
The congregation’s swift expansion, from its inaugural service of 50 congregants in a converted flower shop, surprised everyone, Rabbi Denebaum and his charter members included. The new shul became the buzz of the local blogosphere. A short series of mostly favorable articles in popular blogs CrownHeights.info and Collive.com sparked several hundred emotional pro and con comments, an almost unheard-of volume, according to Collive.com editor Yehuda Seitlin.
“It no doubt hit a nerve,” said Seitlin.
Much of the criticism centered on social mixing of the genders and the character of Shlomo Carlebach, originally a pioneering Chabad shaliach, or emissary, who over the years alienated many fellow Lubavitchers with his long-ambivalent relationship with the sect’s late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and reports of sexual improprieties with female followers.
Today, controversy has subsided thanks to favorable accounts by visitors, avid membership by young sons and daughters of Crown Heights’ renowned dynastic families and support from some of those dynastic elders themselves.
Said Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board of the Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education and onetime official Lubavitch spokesman: “My hat goes off to them. We are a diverse community and we have to have diverse institutions.”
He lauded the synagogue’s attention to music and women’s needs in particular, adding, “As long as they look for guidance from the old-timers, they will do well.”
Some Crown Heights residents remain unyielding. One local educator, who identified herself only as Estee, remembered the Friday night when her teenage son came home horrified by the sight of men and women conversing outside Ahavas Yisroel’s walls.
“This kind of mingling may be appropriate in Chabad Houses outside Crown Heights,” she said. “It is not appropriate inside Crown Heights. It’s confusing to kids.”
One young man, who declined to give his name, expressed a more mixed reaction. He likes the synagogue’s spirited services more than the application of its no-talking policy, which he termed heavy handed.
“They call themselves Ahavas Yisroel, ‘Love of Israel,’” he said. “They could do things like that in a more friendly way.”
Nevertheless, he said he planned to attend the shul’s functions again, pronouncing the spring Purim party “out of this world.”
Sensing that the congregation may outgrow it current basement location in a home belonging to a member of the locally prominent Rubashkin family (another branch of which has figured more notoriously in the recent Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse scandal), Rabbi Denebaum is searching for more permanent quarters.
Would the rabbi object if visitors came to services not for the religion, but solely for its exceptional music?
“No,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind. If they’re spiritually open, they might find something they were looking for, even if they didn’t know they were looking for it.”