In Brooklyn, a Hasidic walking tour opens ultra-Orthodox Jewish life to outsiders
A walking tour in Crown Heights opens the door to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
September 28th, 2011
11:58 AM ET

In Brooklyn, a Hasidic walking tour opens ultra-Orthodox Jewish life to outsiders

By Philip Rosenbaum, CNN, and Ryan P. Casey, Special to CNN

New York (CNN) – When he was 18 and still living in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, 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, New York, 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.

“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.

A torah is displayed in the workshop of a scribe.

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 http://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.

The building also houses the office of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. The Chabad movement’s spiritual leader, Schneerson died in 1994 and has not been succeeded.

A replica of the 770 building, constructed of bricks from the same quarry, stands in Israel. “This is the community center. This is life,” Epstein says. “This is where the mundane becomes holy.”

In a nearby building, the tour group watches scribes write and restore Torah scrolls, making every effort to avoid a slip of the hand.

Although it takes almost a year and 60 kosher animal skins to write all 200 columns of a Torah with a feather and kosher ink, Epstein says a computer program can scan the scroll’s 304,805 letters for mistakes. Any errors, including illegible letters or two letters touching each other, can render the scroll inaccurate, which means it’s not sacred.

Downstairs, the scent of paint and varnish permeates a small room where men make tefillin, small black boxes containing Torah verses that Orthodox Jewish men 13 and older wear during morning prayers. One box is put on the head and another on the arm, using leather straps.

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.

“Don’t read everything in here, or I won’t have anything to say today,” he jokes when the tour ducks into a library with thousands of religious books in Hebrew.

Epstein peppers his talk with life lessons and anecdotes on relationships, family, spirituality and parenting, including the fact that Hasidim do not watch television or follow the news very closely. They say they’re keen to avoid exposure to negative messages from secular culture, especially violence, sex and gossip, which is forbidden under Jewish law.

Members of the community hear about important events like last month’s Hurricane Irene, Epstein says, by word of mouth.

“Some parents spend a lot of time making sure nothing unhealthy goes into their child’s mouth,” Epstein says. “I don’t see why they don’t spend more time monitoring what goes into their child’s mind.”

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.

On the way back to 770, Epstein gestures across the street to an empty parcel of donated land, where he hopes to someday build a visitor and learning center to help educate outsiders about the Lubavitcher movement.

“My goal is not to create a museum,” he says. “It’s not about the past – it’s about what’s going on right now … an immersion in Jewish living history.”

He has fostered the idea since the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when violence erupted between the neighborhood’s African-American and Jewish communities. August marked the 20th anniversary of the three-day riots, which ignited after a Jewish driver in the rebbe’s three-car motorcade accidentally struck and killed a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato.

Hours later, an Orthodox doctoral student from Australia was fatally stabbed by a mob of young men.

Two decades later, New York as a whole has transformed into a generally safer place, including Crown Heights with it. Still, occasional tensions linger.

“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.

"I’m coming away with a lot of questions, but a lot of answers, too,” says Irene Broussard of Austin, Texas, as she finishes her meal. “I want to wipe away my ignorance about religion.”

On another recent tour, a classical recording artist from Clearwater, Florida, said he was inspired to work his Crown Heights experience into his music.

"I felt like crying at 770 because I could feel the love and sincerity of what was happening,” Epstein says.

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Judaism • New York

soundoff (270 Responses)
  1. judaica store

    What good threads are happening here Rabbi Joshua. A call to action joining in the forces HaShem established. Implementing that in the Morning Minyan. Becoming more minedfull of HaShems spiritual call Through Messiah. And yes Gene, There's no excuse not to Be Observant. Is there a better way to prepair for HaShems' Holydays?"L'Shanah Tovah

    September 30, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  2. hippypoet

    i think some of you have the wrong impression of my previous posting... all i meant is that the cultural sharing that will happen is always and has always been a good thing.

    now as for the religious aspect – my thoughts of religion and religious people – wasted time and space and money... but further more – i view religious beliefs to be circling the drain and untill the final flush we will endure crap forced upon us in schools, at the super markets, at soccer games, and my personal most hated of all – family outtings! it infests, breeds confusion to our children, questions that can only be answered by making up more...just like santa clause – and yes there is no santa in my home as well. so religion is nothing but a washed up turd floating in the world its has helpped form and let decay and then finally slip away from its grip – the only reason why the heads of religion have been campaining, is they sense there own demise!

    so my view is simply this- belief can stay at home, in a shoe box filled with the toys and dreams of a child and left there to become dusty and forgotton like the myths of our ancesters.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Conrad Siegfried

      It can be put right next to the foolish belief that anyone loves you.

      September 29, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • John Coles

      DO try to improve your English and don't blog (or write poetry) until you have done so. Rediscover the joy of correct punctuation (full stops, commas and hyphens), reconsider your cavalier approach to capital letters, check your abysmal spelling and, finally, think before you type unless your aim is always to write utter drivel.

      October 4, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Me Here

      @Conrad Siegfried, "somebody loves you" is at least objectively testable. Find me an objective test for your deity that an unbeliever will accept, and then maybe there's something to discuss.

      Until then, you're just a mean person, who probably wouldn't have found a life mate thru love, and only got one via an arranged marriage to a spouse that I'm sure secretly despises you. Not so much fun on the receiving end of an insult, no?

      October 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  3. Bo

    @TomTom, and anyone else, Yeah, I was getting sleepy, I even dropped my cell a couple times. I just went back and looked at it,.and yes it is embarrassing.

    September 28, 2011 at 9:57 pm |


    September 28, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • elsie




      October 10, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  5. Central Scrutinizer

    Bieber Bless You All.

    September 28, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Me Here

      CS, you should just, "...give him a DOUGHnut and tell him to stick closer to Church-Oriented Social-Activities..."

      October 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  6. Bo

    @Bobinator We have come full circle I think it is negitave to critize a persons belief to build a place of worship.I feel saddened that a person is offered eternal life in a glorios world and he refuses it because he doesn't have the faith to believe. Especialy when it comes down to a self existant piece of matter, self exiistant gravity and self existant energy, or an eternal God. When I was struggling with self existant evalution or God I chose God because there was more of a future..it made more sence. Something or nothing

    September 28, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  7. Bo

    @HUH See, what you just did? You let your negitivity come out again, by saying wasting money on a church building, it is not a waste I could say, but it would be negitive on my part, that because I never go to a McDonalad's that it was a waste of money to build it. Although I didn't say so before the walking tour is an educational thing, it's not a waste of money.

    September 28, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  8. Cisco Kid

    Why do they all look like Woody Allen? Lol these people are a trip!

    September 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Josh

      Why do you all you racists and bigots look like you fekk farm animals in the sun?

      October 25, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  9. Bo

    @Uncouth Swaine & KNOW WHAT Do you really think spending some money to learn something about you neighbors is a "waste"? What I see as "waste" is the millions of $$ spent on the Rose Parade, Macy's Christmas Parade. That is a lot of money that could be better sent to help some poor people in this world. I know it is wrote off as advertisement, without looking it up, can you remember who sponsered the winning float in last year's Rose Parade, (I supose if you have a good memory you can) honestly I can't even rememer what it looked like. But, I remember a whale watch I went on.

    September 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      I think you misunderstood my sarcasm.

      September 28, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  10. Bo

    @Uncouth Swaine & KNOW WHAT Do you really think spending some money to learn something about you neighbors is a "waste"? What I see as "waste" is the millions of $$ spent on the Rose Parade, Macy's Christmas Parade. That is a lot of money that could be better sent to help some poor people in this world. I know it is wrote off as advertisement, without looking it up, can you remember who sponsered the winning float in last year's parade, honestly I can't evenrme

    September 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Huh

      "What I see as "waste" is the millions of $$ spent on the Rose Parade, Macy's Christmas Parade. "

      LOL – The worse waste of money is what is the billions spent on religion paying for the building of churches, buying land, etc... Duh!

      September 28, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Bo

    @ chuckels I'm going to agree with you that there are some fatnaticatial "Christians" that come on this board and spew a lot of anger and hate and sometimes they don't even know what they are talkin g about. Since I did post to Mary Halsbourogh the other day and told her to cool her retortic, I don't think I'm saying anything behind her back, she is an example She apparently ignored my post, but she was spewing a lot of anger. I believe Christ was a teacher of love and we should reflext that love, It is true, He did show some righteous indignation at times, like when He kicked the money changers, that were cheating the people, out of the temple.

    September 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Jesus, Bo, will you sober up or learn to write? You're an embarrassment.

      September 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  12. Bo

    @ Bobinator Perhaps you negitivity has been instilled in you and you din't reconize it as negitvity. "imagine the amount of money that could be sent off to to good causes if it wasn't being WASTED on beliefs.". that is negitive thinking. It is indicitive of your negitive attaitude toward religion.

    September 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Know What

      Bo, Bo, Bo, - Where is that old "glass half-full" philosophy here? The Bobinator's viewpoint could also be considered positive toward realism (and yours negative toward realism).

      September 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      Wasting time and money on the supernatural is foolish. WE should be spending our time and money on things we know exist and can prove.

      September 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  13. hippypoet


    @hippypoet–this post is the most positive thing I think you have ever said on this blog site–keep it up!

    no, i have said more poistive things than this.. they are just not very poistive to you or fellow believers as i preach the truth compared to thoughts... as we can all agree, the idea of god is grand, the fact of god is lacking. i prefer what is provible by facts and evidence. so i can see how some thing i post are seen as negitive, but infact they are far from it. they are posted to help my fellow man break free from tyanry and raise to new heights with truth in your brain not "god" in your hearts. the heart is only a muscule, the brain is the power yet i have neve heard a believer say that "god" is in there head.. it does come off as a bit insane to say it that way.. compared to heart which has a warmth kinda sound to it.

    September 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Kenosis

      Are you loved?

      September 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  14. Chuckles

    It's nice that this guy wants to introduce and educate people on Hasidism, however this is tantamount to doing the same for say, Hamas, or Westboro and saying, "Well if we gave me them a tour and taught them about what we do and why they'll like us". Yes, the analogy is a little harsh but these ultra-orthodox are as exclusive as any of the above groups I just mentioned, and represent a sect of Judaism that in this day and age does not represent the entire religion. If you're really interested in learning about Judaism, you don't need to go to Brooklyn to learn, you can go to your local synagogue and speak with the rabbi and get a better picture.

    September 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  15. Bo

    @Garnet I8 have wa ted to get to understantatheist better because it seems to me that although they are intelligent they come across to me as people who are very insecure and act as though they need to prove to people that they are intellectually superior, and get very angry and insulting when challenged.

    September 28, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Honestly Bo, for most atheists on this board, it isn't anger (most not all), a lot of people get frustrated by the way that many believers look logic straight in the face and spit on it. It's not that believers choose not to ignore rationality, a lot actively oppose it and believe their opinion is equally valid. I disagree and choose to engage in debate, sometimes heated, sometimes very useful, to try and point out why exactly religion is entirely rational and does not deserve that staus of never being questioned. I would call that insecure in what I believe, nor would I think any atheist on here.

      September 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  16. Bo

    @Bobinator–You remaime negitive, compared to hippipoet.

    September 28, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      > @Bobinator–You remaime negitive, compared to hippipoet.

      I have no idea what you're saying.

      September 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  17. Bo

    @hippypoet–this post is the most positive thing I think you have ever said on this blog site–keep it up!

    September 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  18. Garnet69

    I have always said that every 7th grader should be required to take a comparative religion class. Ignorance breeds intolerance.

    September 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      It would be nice. Sometimes I think the social sciences that revolve around such topics as culture and religion need to be focused more in school. Whether one agrees with a certain outlook on life, we all share this nation of ours and should have a working knowledge about the average citizen and their culture/beliefs.

      September 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  19. The Bobinator

    Imagine the amount of money that could be sent off for good causes if it wasn't being wasted on beliefs.

    September 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Yeah..understanding your fellow man..such a waste. *rolls eyes*

      September 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  20. hippypoet

    this is a very good thing.. many are beyond ignorant of other religions/cultures, so bad that they believe what others say about them... this is a great idea and i think others should follow!

    September 28, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.