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. a

    How the Jews Treat Christians in Israel?


    December 12, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  2. a


    December 12, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  3. a


    December 12, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  4. Mikey

    If youre going to do the science fiction tour, bring a gas mask. Trust me, I grew up in Brooklyn.

    December 11, 2011 at 5:24 am |

    As Christians we should be accepting of others so we can educate them on how foolish they are to believe in anything other than Jesus

    December 6, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • propmgr

      The only fool here is you!

      December 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • randomguysteve

      Translated: We are the only ones that are right, and we will dedicated our lives to shoving our beliefs down other people's throat.

      You know what? Know one is going to truly know who is wrong or right in religion until death.

      December 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • AlbanyMike

      First of all, lean how to spell. It's "real" and not "reel". "Reel" is what you use for movie film (e.g., change the reel on the projector). Next, how many religions have there been over the course of human history? How many are there now? How many will there be 500 hundred years from now, assuming we are still here? Presumably, you believe in an objective truth, so you would surely agree that these many religions cannot all be true. In fact, what is more likely is that none of our religions, which are human inventions after all, is true. They may all contain some element of truth to them, but it is unbridled hubris to think that we, as puny mortals, have figured out the deepest mysteries of the universe (or multiverse). Religion, like science, has to be a process of exploration, discovery, and refinement when new facts come to light. We are all seeking this ultimate truth and these ultimate answers (that's part of why we are here and what makes life interesting), but please do not be so arrogant as to think that your beliefs are the ultimate truth and everyone else's are wrong. More importantly, allow everyone to believe as suits them best and, for heaven's sake, do not persecute anyone because their beliefs might be different than yours.

      December 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Brad

      REEL AMERICAN: You are a big, fat, stupid idiot.

      December 14, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  6. Hannan

    Jews have inovated there faith.
    You have to be born a Jew, to be Jewish.
    You can not convert to Judisim.
    And why do they not use the Talmud.
    Now they are afraid that there people will become Muslims.
    Go to: Youtube , see for yourselves, Jewish man and his family became Muslims.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Brandon

      Completely false Hannan. Anybody can convert to Judaism and they are equally as Jewish as a person born into Judaism. People change religions all the time, Christians become Jews, Jews become Mormons, Muslims become Hindu. Isolated cases of conversion are not representations of a more acceptable faith.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:16 am |

      Non Jews can convert and they do all the time I know many Christians who convert to Muslim as well as Judiasm as well as Jews who convert everyone is free to pick their own poison

      December 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm |

      Any one can convert to Judiasm but you have to be born Jewish to be a Jew

      December 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  7. Hannan

    Jews have inovated there faith.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  8. bill

    tourist in brooklyn – oye!

    December 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  9. Mishka

    Smart move. How else do you protect yourself from being scapegoated? Jewish persons have had enough of being scapegoated by political opportunists. Those same opportunists have cast their bid to rule the entire planet, and if they have to scapegoat every religion and their members, and even pit those members one against the other, they're going to do it. I suppose this is the Orthodox Jews' way of trying to remove themselves from the game of 'blame that religious guy/gal over there'. Will it work? I don't know... .

    December 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  10. palatot

    A true Jew pledges allegiance to Israel, not to the US even if he was born in the latter.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Mattmchugh

      Uh, no. No, they don't. That's a complete fabrication on your part.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Avi Lehyani

      A true Jew pledges allegiance to the country in which he lives, together with the understanding that Jews all over the world are connected one to another, Israel having its largest concentration. Of course for people like you, no proof, overwhelming as it may be, will never quench your need to hate.

      December 7, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • AndyTheGameInventor

      As a "true Jew" I can tell you that there is no pledge to Israel or to any other country anywhere in Jewish law.

      December 8, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  11. North of the 49th

    This is all very interesting however the reality is that nothing has been the cause of more deaths and destruction than religion going back to the days of the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. That was followed by the crusades which pitted Christianity against Islam. Then there was the Inquisition with Christian against Jews. Then, of course, there was the Holocaust. This was about the same time as Protestants against Catholics in Northern Ireland. More recently we have the Orthodox Catholics against the Muslims in Yugoslavia. I won't even go into the Middle East! When you add up all of deaths caused by the above paragraph it would probably be in the tens of millions.

    November 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Will

      Have you ever heard of someone named Stalin? ...or Mao? Do you have any idea how many millions of people they killed in the name of atheism? It's not faith that causes people to brutalize each other. It is human nature – sick, insecure, intolerant human nature – which transcends all belief systems whether they be theistic or atheistic.

      December 1, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Jon

      Will, you really believe Mao and Stalin killed in the name of Atheism? Really? Evil people do evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Avi Lehyani

      Well said Jon,

      December 7, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  12. Sura

    Only men learn and engage in interesting discussion, provoking cerebral thought and challenges... why no women? If the woman's intellect seeks challenges in addition to childrearing and kitchen activities, "Oh well, too bad...?" Is she just an anomaly who stepped outside of the mold? Please reply. Thank you.

    November 27, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Jon

      It's simple. Back in ancient days, men were the leaders of the family and women were just there to support the men. And religion tries very hard to keep things the way they were thousands of years ago. So if secularity can't be achieved and religion triumphs, the rights and lives of many people are in danger (as we see from a simple glance at Islam over the last couple years.)

      November 28, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • David

      Women have an important role in Judaism. In that area in the photo men and women are separated because men are so easily strayed, the Rabbis said that women and men should sit and study separately, because one thing can lead to another. Women in Orthodox Judaism are encouraged and mandated to understand and study a lot about Judaism in order to teach their children how to do things and where they come from.

      November 29, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Ira

      I am not Orthodox but I do a lot of business with the Chasidic community. The reality seems to be that women run the community. While the men are praying and studying Talmud it is the women who run the day to day operations of the households and the community. When community business has to be conducted, it is the women who I worked with and not the men.

      December 2, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Random Girl

      Women also learn and study, just privately, Journalists and outsiders like to focus on the separation, but girls and women also have many opportunities to learn and teach others, it's just mostly done with only women.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  13. Bright

    An interesting bit of information and a piece of history.

    November 27, 2011 at 6:34 am |
  14. Melanie

    There is something wrong with this; Religion is not for exhibitionism. Plus, this sect is only one representation of OJ.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Ira

      Yes and no. I get your point, but how can knowledge and understanding be a bad thing?

      That being said, I've visited the Amish areas in Pennsylvania, and I did feel a little weird about it. I got the impression that I was like someone visiting a zoo. However, since I was so impressed and enamored with how they lived...what they believed...how there's ANOTHER way to live than the way that I do...it was a positive experience.

      I don't know how the Amish feel about it, though.

      November 27, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • MsMohammad

      While religion is not for exhibitionism; how can one understand another religion if it is not made available to them? That's the problem now; no one wants to educate themselves to the diversity that is out here. Majority of the people feel that if you don't believe in what they believe than you're whatever negative image they want to give you or, they want to place with the radicals within that religious group without realizing that every religion, every culture, every race and/or gender has crazy and deranged individuals. I applaud the Hasidic community for opening up their doors. Congrats to them...

      November 29, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Howard

      BREAKING NEWS !!! ...

      Obama appointed two devout Muslims to homeland security posts.

      Obama and Janet Napolitano appointed Arif Alikhan, a devout Muslim,
      as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development.
      DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano swore-in Kareem Shora, a devout Muslim,
      who was born in Damascus , Syria , as ADC National Executive Director
      as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC).

      NOTE: Has anyone ever heard a new government official being identified
      as a devout Catholic, a devout Jew or a devout Protestant...?
      hhhmmm......Just wondering.

      Devout Muslims being appointed to critical Homeland Security-positions?
      Doesn't this make you feel safer already?
      That should make our homeland much safer, huh!?

      Was it not "Devout Muslim men" that flew planes into U..S. buildings on 9/11?
      Was it not a Devout Muslim who killed 13 at Fort Hood ?

      December 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Avi Lehyani

      @Howard: This may look disconcerting but on the other hand consider the major plus, it takes one to know one (ie a Muslim). Mr Arif Alikhan is not new to the job, he's done wonders for LA , I am inclined to think that he is a great appointment.As for Kareem Shora, I have to assume that he is right for the job for the same reasons. If not.... well we shall soon find out.

      December 7, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  15. jstu2012

    it seems to be a good story that Mr. Epstein has found a good source of time and energy in spreading the word about the Crown Heights area and how it exposes a different from of Jewish life and the traditions and customs that come with it, along with changing his life and how he engages himself in faith. However, i agree with previous posts that this form of Judaic religious practice should not be looked upon necessarily as a common type of Jewish faith. While several "tourists" that come and see Crown Heights may be influenced by what they do and could gain interest in participating, its important to understand that many Jews who see this ultra-Orthodox form of Judaic faith may be very turned off by its practices and categorize it as an extremist and incorrect way to worship in the Jewish faith.

    I think it is a good thing that outsiders are getting a more in depth look into the way in which Hasidic Jews function on a daily basis, but again, it is important to see Hasidic Judaism for what it is, which is a specific and ultra-Orthodox way of living, and not categorize it as a typical for of Judaic worship.

    November 21, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  16. Sarah

    This sect of Judaism is very misogynistic and should never be thought to represent all Jews.

    November 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  17. Tim

    Left out of this article: women are forced to bathe in the mikvah after their periods or their husbands refuse to touch them, for they are considered "unclean." This uncleanliness notion is also seen while the woman is experiencing her period – during which time she cannot be touched by any men, for she is considered as nasty as a split-hoof pig.

    November 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • guest

      Learn a thing or two beofre you spew your idiocy

      November 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • Fed_Up

      Left out of your brainless spew: scribes – MALE – go to the mikveh EVERY SINGLE DAY, or they are not allowed to touch the tools of their trade. Jewish women are not to be touched by any men but their relatives, EVER, period or not, because it's disrespectful to her.

      Oh, yes, & Sarah is an idiot as well. If Orthodox Jews are so misogynistic, why does ONLY Orthodox Judaism insist that ONLY Jewish WOMEN can make Jewish babies?

      November 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • BR

      Dear Fed Up: In defense of Sarah, Orthodox men thank Gd every day they were not born a woman. I wouldn't call this exactly inclusive.

      November 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Jo

      hey mr fed up
      an actual orthodox scribe here! who doesnt go to the mikvah everyday! and ask any married woman if she would want to be touched by anyone she doesnt know. another thing, please dont make up tripe and then apply it to all jews! thank you!

      November 29, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • David

      To BR, men pray to thank G-d each day for not being born a woman because the thought process is, there are many more Commandments that men are required to do than women, and it should be a great honor to do these.

      November 29, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • gnostic

      Women are considered "unclean" during or after their menstrual cycles in many different cultures. Among some Native American tribes, women are not allowed to participate in certain ceremonies while they have their periods because they are considered too "powerful." And, speaking as a woman, you do feel pretty unclean after you have your period. It's kind of gross.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  18. Jane

    Fundamentalism in all forms is wrong.

    November 19, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Stan Van Samang

      Religion in all forms is wrong, and an utter waste of everyone's time.

      November 24, 2011 at 7:27 am |
  19. RF

    Looks a lot like Dearborn Michigan. What's the problem?

    November 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  20. TC

    @Megapril, you are am ignorant, racist, redneck moron. You know nothing about Lubavitchers, you know nothing about Jews at all, you are the nasty person. Go spew your hatred in your in your evangelical church or wherever the neo nazis hang out and keep it away from the rest of us. Only in the good old USA is there racist bigots like you.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • sayitstr8

      TC – sweetheart read your last sentence again and then think it over. Do you really believe that racism only exists in the USA? Just saying that undermines everything else you say and so you become one of the 'no nothings' you seem to despise. hatred is hatred, ignorance is ignorance. i don't disagree with you wanting to rid the world of it, but you might like to start with your own ignorance and then, slowly, work on it and when you learn something better, pass that on to someone else. otherwise, the vehemence of your ignorance actually creates more ignorance. if you don't believe me, take your email and mine and talk it over with yr rebbe. good luck to you.

      November 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Kelly

      TC, you might want to heed your own "advice". You are every bit as guilty as those you criticize. You even managed to insult the entire USA. FAIL

      December 7, 2011 at 1:36 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.