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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. Iqbal Khan

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35qbO4_Lgng&w=640&h=360]

    November 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  2. eyesopened

    Bear with me on this one people, But correct me if I am mistaken; We the people meaning all who are citizens of the united states of america, are living here why? because whether you believe in freedom and liberty and justice for all your here and are living under the protection of this nations flag, The flag that Honors the God of the bible as the foundational message of freedom stems from the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who the Son sets free is free indeed, freedom from sin, there is no greater need for a savior than this than being set free from bondage to sin or the curse of death. Remember Jesus came to His own and they recieved him NOT, so its because of this that they are chosen, chosen to be made an example of so as not to be treated special but to suffer as Christ suffered, So anyone who may call on the name of Jesus can be saved, But the message of suffering too falls on the follower of Christ, not to be treated special but to treat others as special in the name of Jesus. The Character of our Lord is that of a servant

    November 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Totally wrong. As usual.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • jasie

      You are not mistaken.

      November 15, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  3. EM

    I love Judaism!

    November 14, 2011 at 1:11 am |
  4. sheckala1

    I cannot believe there are so many ignorant people out there. Does anyone with any sense ever blog here? Other than me of course....

    November 7, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  5. geoth

    it is your life jew

    November 7, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  6. brainaic3397

    When muslims refuse to culturally mix and isolate themselves from others,it's viewed negatively yet when jews do it,no one gives a crap.

    November 6, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Colin in Florida

      Well, I don't see a lot of Jews flying planes into buildings, or stuffing plastic explosives into their shoes then boarding a plane. In addition, jews are not out to destroy all non-jewish people, unlike radical extremist muslims, who believe everyone should believe like they do, or die.

      November 7, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Megapril

      @Colin: You should check out the Torah a little more carefully... While maybe you don't see Jews doing some of the things you mentioned, the hard core Jews, like the hasidics absolulutely believe that non Jews are evil and should be killed, for they are not pure, among many other reasons. Hasidic Jews are some of the most racist and hateful people I have ever met in my life. As my Father always told me... Beware the true believer.

      November 8, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • Dr. Bombay

      @Colin in Florida...Perhaps you should review the history of Jews in Palestine before washing your hands so publicly. Your eyes will see all that you allow them to see.

      November 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • trip535577

      There's a difference between a man who doesn't want to eat pork and one who does not want to allow anyone else to either.
      Hassids live strict religious lives, but don't expect others too. I live in the area, Hassids come and go all the time – hassidics become secular, secular jews become hassidic, it's a free country do as you like – Taliban types don't believe it should be a choice, they believe it should be imposed – I know most of you don't get it, but there is a HUGE difference.

      November 22, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • propmgr

      @Dr. Bombay – There is no such place as Palestine.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  7. lex

    They nmight as well in orfder to preserve Judaism. In 25 or 30 years these guys will be the only jews left who really believe. The rest will either be cultural Jews or abandoners.

    November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  8. On my knees for God's pleasure

    These people are nuts, as all religious zealots are.

    I would rather be one of the secular Jews in Manhattan, that is the way to go.

    November 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  9. Aud

    I am from Richmond and I am looking into taking this walking tour right. What a great idea!

    November 5, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  10. Rich39

    Who wrote the Torah?
    Many years ago a group of Hasidics came to my city and tried to tell the Jewish community what to do, when to do it, and how to live their lives. They almost got their butts whipped.

    November 4, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • apostate

      J, E, D, P

      November 5, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  11. Boyd Bauer

    Very informative. I would enjoy the tour if I am able to visit this great city again in the future.

    November 2, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  12. 3D02

    Come on Mormon haters unite and provide your comments for this religion.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  13. ursula kersh

    the chabad organization is a wonderful organization, helping all over the world to keep judaism alive, also their large families contribute to this. To my knowledge most work like everyone else, if some abuse the welfare system, so do secular people, no group is perfect. Though I belong to a conservative sinagogue, every Simcha tora my family , friends and I go to the Lubvich Synagogue in our area and we have so much fun!!! After the prayers, men , woman and children are together for dinner. I am a child Holocaust survivor.

    November 2, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  14. Moishe

    As someone who attends services at a Chabad Shul and whose wife is the daughter of a Chabad Rabbi, I wish I was half a mentsch and as observant (they walk the walk and talk the talk) as my Rabbi and Rebbetzin. Those who criticize Chabad or Orthodoxy in general, have not experienced a true Shabbos, or what it's like to study from centuries old commentaries (and more modern ones too) on the Torah. As for the work ethic of Chabad Rabbis and Rebbetzin, most do have real world occupations including professional ones. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, my wife tells me, was an Engineer.

    You may criticize out of ignorance or out of what has been told to you by others, but do go to Crown Heights and you'll see the truth, the kindness, and the piety. Are there bad folk, yes, if you look for them. But why preoccupy yourself with such matters.

    I live in Maryland now, in an area which does not have a lot of Jews, but before Chabad came to my town, we had another Rabbi, who is also Orthodox and so beloved in this town that this was one of the reasons we came here. I wish we got to know him before he retired.

    November 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  15. John

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dz59JANSdg&w=640&h=360]

    November 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  16. adriana

    Mr. Epstein has created a way to allow others to that which we know nothing about. I give him, the most utmost respect. There is nothing wrong with trying to eliminate the stigma about the religion, which has so much been criticized. Mr. Epstein, I hope one day, I shall be part of the tour...Many blessings.

    October 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  17. JewTour 2012

    .....I would love to have all their free time to study and hang out. Where do I get my black suit, floppy hat and long beard? I'm in.....bring the easy life on.....

    October 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Eric

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but these folks have "real jobs" too. The prayers and study are done in what the other people call "free time" although from the Hasidic perspective it is the "real job" which takes up the "free time." Even the great sages and scholars worked in addition to their studies and writings: Rashi (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki) was a winemaker and Hillel the Elder was a woodcutter.

      That being said, many families send their sons to Yeshivas (seminaries) until they are in their twenties before they begin their secular work lives. But after that it is prayer, study, family, work (usually in that order) and repeat until such time as one retires from work to leave more time for the other three. It is said that Jews don't recruit because they could not, in good conscience, recommend this regimen to any one else. It is viewed as a religious commandment to be a light unto the world and to work each day to repair the imperfections and cracks in society and in the world. This task is seen as divinely assigned and is both a yoke and a blessing.

      If you are looking for a life of leisure, then look somewhere else.

      November 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  18. fight back

    Proove it Kassy. You spout hate and blood libel.

    October 29, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  19. Religionhurts

    The truth about Hasidics: About 1/3 of them produce enormous families (10, 12, even 14 kids), and collect welfare while pursuing "scholarly" pursuits and don't go to work. A lifetime of religious study that is not associated with any job skills, and their prodigious spawn, is billed to the taxpayers.

    October 29, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • whoodle1

      Can't see how they collect welfare, if there is a man in the house. All of these are intact, working families that are all cared for. Read the book, "There are no Jewish Slums".

      October 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Religionhurts

      Wow, you are misinformed. They are willfully poor due to their relentless reproduction, and their refusal to pursue "worthless" secular studies. Jewish welfare for the ultra-Orthodox is well known, and doled out generously here and in Israel.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Lesley

      Religionhurts is correct; Hasidic Jews are well known for manipulating the welfare system. It is even becoming a major source of concern in Israel. They have also managed to get zoning laws in Brooklyn changed to allow them to build on greater percentages of the lots in order to accommodate their over-sized families.

      October 30, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • david

      A lie. As one of them, I can tell you that most have full time jobs, paying taxes and contributing to society. Too bad that you are interested in degrading speech. You should try saying something nice about others. Make the world a better place instead of destroying it!

      October 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • rzzzll

      They have real jobs you ignoramus. They don't just sit around and collect welfare, they do everything from being doctors to sales to musicians.

      November 6, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Megapril

      Exactly, these people are not quite as nice and inviting as this article would like to portray... I lived in a town in close proximity to one of theirs and when I was younger a friend and I installed gutters on some of their homes. Problem was, that as we drove into their neighborhood, they would see we were white boys and the adults and kids would throw rocks at our truck. They are nasty racists, rarely bathe, and are downright rude and nasty to anyone who is not one of them. Not to mention that many of the men are in the diamond business in NYC, yet dont pay a dime is child support to the dozen kids kids they have fathered. And I know this as my Mother worked for NYS in child support collections for Rockland County, NY.
      I could fill up pages of comments about these people, none of them good, this article is a sham. And their political power in NY and NYC is practically unrivaled, just ask Coumo who courted them to secure their vote...

      November 8, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  20. Kassandra

    Will they include the home of the Rabbi who was trafficking human organs? I'm still waiting to hear where he got the organs from...

    October 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • rzzzll

      Again a bad apple, that Rabbi has committed "chillul Hashem", an against the Eternal One. Does not represent the community as a whole at all. The Lubavitchers actually do great things, they reach out to all Jews, regardless of denomination with their centers, they just want to do good things for others including those who aren't Jewish. They don't totally isolate themselves from the world. They've really sought out to find common ground instead of the differences in observance and belief in Judaism.

      November 6, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Megapril

      @rzzzll: You are full of crap and obviously only believe what you read or others tell you... And if you are part of their community then you have not dug deep enough to see how backwards these people really are. If you are any religion besides theirs or not religous at all they don't even think you should EXIST, let alone live along side them. Unless you are one of them, you are not even considered relevant, and according to their Torah, you don't even deserve to live. Nasty people indeed...

      November 8, 2011 at 1:44 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.