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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. AlienShark

    I would actually be interested in learning about this

    October 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Rachel

      Go to Chabad.org It is a wealth of info

      October 28, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  2. TruthKeeper

    What About The True Jews ,...The Messianic Jews?

    October 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Dru Richman

      Messianic Jews?!?! Oh, you mean Christians! Whew, I got confused there. Jews don't believe in Jesus. Christians do.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • CheeseSteak

      Jews for Jesus?

      December 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  3. Sara Bean

    Pass....their culture never appealed to me.

    Much more to do and see in Brooklyn

    October 25, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Josh

      Good thing it is a free country, huh? Although, I can pick up on just a bit of hostility on that post. Why? Don't be frightened by us. We don't bite...if you can lower claws. 🙂

      October 26, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  4. Andrea

    As long as they don't go to Israel, they don't represent too much of a threat.

    October 25, 2011 at 3:57 am |
    • john swanson

      DO you mind if i ask what kind of threat are you talking about.?Leave them alone all they want to do is pray not hearing from some idiot woman like you.Go and kiss a rag head and be not afraid.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  5. Mickey

    Christians amazing me – they pray to a man who was an orthodox Jew – yet make anti-Semitic remarks against Jews at every chance they get.

    Without the Hasidim there would be no one to interpret the laws and the meanings. The Christians allowd the Greeks to interpret the Hebrew bible – to their own benefit. Look how peaceful Christians made this world.

    Sure, blame it on the Jews. As I can blame Jesus for causing Christianity, which he wouldn't understand at all!! He'd be in Brooklyn, folks.

    October 25, 2011 at 3:27 am |
    • Josh

      I think that hits the nail on the head.

      October 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • john swanson

      I doubt if JESUS would want any thing to do with any of us.Our so called RELIGIOUS leaders are some of the biggest QUACKS in the world,some are PERVERTS and the whole time they are praying for your salvation and plz donate more money.YEA JESUS would be really happy wouldint he.WHAT a life i love it.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • rose

      I was raised Christian but doubted the stories almost right from the begining and often asked about Jesus being a Jew. I still question the existence of G-d but find the Jewish faith more beliveable : )

      October 29, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Religionhurts

      Victim mentality much?

      October 29, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • CheeseSteak

      Christianity is profitable. Just ask Tammy Fay, Swaggard and the hundreds of other swine that lead the flock of sheep.

      December 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  6. wasso

    I am sure many Talibans would want to exchange notes with these 'Talibans' of the Jews !

    October 23, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  7. Rudy

    Going through a village of Murmons, will be a much interesting trip. You can even buy their farm products and other items and have a good time. They will never try to teach you anything and most certainly the will never you to pay a dollars let alone $36. for the proviledge of letting you come closer to see their dignity and life. Incidentally they also do not dress like most of us so why on earth anyone would want go to the Hasidic hood, let alone pay $36 for the unpleasant task of wasting his time.

    October 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Me Here

      agreed, Rudy. "We want to keep separate from the world. Now give us $36 so you can see how we keep separate from you and the society and legal system we are parasites on."

      October 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Josh

      You should def save that $36 and use it towards a spelling lesson. Moron.

      October 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  8. hassaan

    ^TyD;3JBnnRE

    October 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  9. Burnz

    They're just the mormons of jews.

    October 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • YesMan

      But they charge for it.

      October 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  10. Jonathan Abiton

    770

    October 12, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  11. Captain Darryl

    I'd like to go on this tour to learn more about their beliefs.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • AMAU

      I commend your open-mindedness. It is individuals like you that are tolerant of others and will find the truth as you sincerely desire to pursue it.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Jo

      Same here! It's fascinating...great article!

      October 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • ThisMann

      You have the respect of this Noachide.

      October 13, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Sheila

      First, I am a Christian and see this type of Judaism as an expression of the faith of my Lord and Savior, who was a practicing Jew. Second, I have nothing but respect for people who openly and deliberately live out their faith, visible to all, in a peaceful and accepting way. As for paying $36, you probably pay this on a Friday night as a bar tab – this is enlightening, and people are taking their time and putting forth effort to arrange it. Don't like it, don't go.

      December 28, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  12. nelly

    Kin-a-hora

    October 10, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  13. Pixie

    As a married Jewish woman to whom tznius (modesty) is important, the first thing I noticed about the photo of the tourists was the immodest dress of the women tourists! ... just sayin'. (I think Jim P. has some things not correct, for example, Jewish law requires the dead be buried within one day, since embalming is not done, in order that the person return to the earth whence he came. Again, just sayin'.)

    October 10, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • toronto girl

      IYes I noticed that too. I'm surprised they didn't ask her to cover up

      October 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • brett p

      they don't mind the non-relgious doing it

      October 12, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • Andrea

      Immodest ? because she is sleeveless ? WOW! this is looking like Utah to me... if you walk downany other public street then you'd see immodest.

      October 13, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • vbd

      What inapproprite dress? Did they remove a picture? All I saw was middle aged women dressed normally.

      October 16, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Kyleigh

      A sleeveless shirt is immodest? Wait, did I just do a time warp to the 19th century?

      October 16, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • dtcpr

      go to a Catholic church in italy and you would be asked to cover your shoulders, and didn't you read it, the women wear long skirts and married women cover their hair, sometimes with wigs!

      October 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Me Here

      They're paying to be entertained, not to follow your rules, Pixie. If you don't like it, there's an entire country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea where your rules are in force...just don't try to enforce them on the secular HERE.

      October 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Lesley

      There is nothing modest about the humiliating steps the women have to go through after their menstrual cycle.

      October 30, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  14. OregonTom

    Is there a market out there for Kosher gift baskets?

    October 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • jtrider

      No – a gift shop.

      October 12, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • toronto girl

      we have some stores here that do just that. The market isn't huge but its there.

      October 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  15. The Genuine Article

    CHABAD does not enjoy such adulation for authenticity among normative Jews (that would be the overwhelming majority) who see these folks from Crown Heights as cult members. They may assert incontestible correctness, but they are a source of amusement and embarrassment within the ranks of organized and disorganized Judaism.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • wr

      Speak for yourself. I wish I had a fraction of their commitment. There's nothing wrong with not being hypocritical about one's practice. It's the rest of us Jews who pick and choose what we'll follow.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Terre

      They are crazy. Ask any secular Jew who has had his/her car vandalized due to driving on the sabbath (in Israel) or ask the school children in a secular school next to some ultra orthodox neighborhood who are insulted every day and have eggs thrown at them. They mostly live on welfare in Israel.

      October 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • it israel

      true-nice ppl though

      October 16, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Kyleigh

      My aunt married a Jewish man, my wonderful Uncle Al, and he says the same thing. That the Ultra-Orthodox are, and these are his words not mine, "like cavemen".

      October 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  16. NorCalMojo

    sounds like hell to me

    October 9, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  17. DD

    $36!!!! Hahahaha. Note: you can go see the Amish for free.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • toronto girl

      do the Amish have tours of their churches and homes? Yeah its a lot of $ but its also double-chai or double 18 which is a lucky number to us.

      October 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • YesMan

      Better ways to spend that money on than on the kosher tour tax

      October 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Josh

      @yesman – Again, try spending the money on a grammar lesson and if you can get any change from your whooooore of a mother....try and education too!

      October 26, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Religionhurts

      The Amish don't look for handouts, and have a strong work ethic.

      October 29, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  18. Jim P.

    "The Chabad movement’s spiritual leader, Schneerson died in 1994 and has not been succeeded."

    That's because they are waiting for his resurrection. "Any minute now....reallly...for sure...wait for it....I am sure he'll be back really soon, he *is* the Messiah after all, we're quite sure of it.."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menachem_Mendel_Schneerson

    "...some believe that he died but will return as the messiah, others believe that he is merely "hidden." Other groups believe that he has God-like powers..."

    I suspect this part gets downplayed just a bit in the tour.

    The faithful used to carry beepers so they could be alerted when he rose from the dead and there were near riots when finally they had no choice but to bury him as things were getting a bit...ripe.

    Other than this quaint litte oddity, this is a fascinating glimpse into a world that generally does not care for outsiders. "Goy" is not a particularly nice word and the equibalent in English used towards a Jewish person would get you in a lot of social hot water. "Unwashed heathen" would be a polite approximation.

    Sounds like it would be well worth the time and money.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • dao

      African Americans, Hispanics and Asians also have some choice derogatory words for Caucasians. Why do you suppose these folks would have such words?

      October 26, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Jew-C

      The word goy is not an offensive word and I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who is actually offended by being called a goy for that matter. If you heard a Hasid refer to you as a goy would you actually be offended? If so, do you think this offense is anywhere near that of the n-word to the African-American population or the k-word to the Jewish-American population? Goy is a word that comes from the Torah and Talmund. I don't know where you came up with your definition but it certainly doesn't make sense.

      November 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • trip535577

      "Goy" translates to nation – as in the other nations of the world – As far as I know, there is nothing derogitory about it.

      Now if they call you a "shaigets" is derogitory – If they use that in place of the word Gentile when reffering to you, they definately don't like you....

      November 22, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • BR

      trip535577: you are wrong. Shaigetz is the Yiddish word for non-Jewish male.

      November 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  19. ilovefarts

    I'd rather visit a morgue.

    October 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • themadjewess

      'I'd rather visit a morgue.'

      You can arrange that ahead of time 😉

      October 7, 2011 at 3:02 am |
    • rs1201

      I sincerely hope that you're a guest at a morgue in the near future!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Me Here

      Aw, rs1201, that's so sweet. In the same spirit, may your entire people be such guests, and ALL your works and thought destroyed. Not so nice to be on the receiving end, eh?

      October 23, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  20. KellyinCA

    These tours offer a fascinating look into a largely unknown and often misunderstood religious culture. Such communities maintain a sense of the exotic precisely because they are perceived as so insular; any effort to help bring the community to the world should be welcomed.

    September 30, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Lesley

      The problem is that this community doesn't want to be brought into the modern world and has very specific rules against assimilation of any kind.

      October 30, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Sheila

      Lesley, why is that a problem? Free adults in a free country living their faith, while paying taxes and sustaining their communities. So what?

      December 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
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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.