Chabad’s Crown Heights Visitors Bring New Energy - and Tensions

For the Jewish holidays, thousands descend on the Brooklyn neighborhood that was home to the late Lubavitcher rebbe to be close to his spirit. Year-round residents are generous hosts and the guests behave themselves – for the most part.

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A few hours before Shabbat during Sukkot, Nachum Markowitz is in the managers’ office at Raskin’s fruit store in Crown Heights, frantically trying to source enormous quantities of fruits and vegetables to feed the thousands of visiting Lubavitchers who have no place to eat.

Markowitz has parked four refrigerated trucks outside 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad movement’s headquarter synagogue, known as “770,” with a fifth truck on skids nearby. Breakfast – orange juice, chocolate milk, cereal – was served earlier today from crates stacked on the sidewalk. An expected delivery with produce for meals on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah hasn’t yet arrived, so he’s trying to scare up alternatives. “How much is the bananas? How much is the grapes? How much is the tomatoes? You have 50, 60 cases? Okay so make me a price. I need two skids of bananas,” he says to the distributor on the phone.

Markowitz is spending more than $100,000 to feed the faithful between Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah, following instructions he received when he sought a blessing from the late Lubavitcher rebbe 31 years ago. The blessings continue through him, he told Haaretz. And he promises miracles to his funders in return. “I was zoiche (merited) to get an answer from the rebbe that I should be able to bless other people,” he says, claiming that he has been able to bring babies to the infertile and a groom to one funder’s aging daughter.

But more than blessings is involved in hosting the huge influx of Tishrei visitors. Between 3,000 and 7,000 people from out of town stay in Crown Heights during the holiday period, said Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. Others put the number as high as 10,000.

While most of the community’s roughly 20,000 Chabad residents open up their homes to visitors, countless other guests stay in illegal dormitories set up in the gym of the large yeshiva across the street from the synagogue and in people’s basements. Some teenagers sleep inside 770. Even from federal prison in upstate New York, convicted felon Sholom Rubashkin is hosting people: he had 150 people staying in the basement of his family’s home, said one Crown Heights source.

The fire department raided several such dormitories just before Sukkot, evicting 120 young men from the yeshiva gym, where they slept on mattresses on the floor, and 170 more from a nearby basement, where they had been “living in the cellar in wooden makeshift bunk beds in unsanitary conditions,” a fire department official told reporters on September 28. “It’s a definite hazard.”

Guests were allowed to return to the yeshiva gym after the school made proper fire safety provisions and paid city fines for the violations. But those ousted from basements could not return, and “were distributed to various other locations,” Cohen said.

Visitors, many of them teenagers and young adults, come from all over the world, most from Israel it seems. Many arrive without a place to stay, much money or knowing where they will eat.

“There’s no place in the world that takes 10,000 people without any reservations, any money, and has a place for everyone,” said Rosalynn Malamud, who has lived next door to 770 for more than five decades. “It’s a marvelous scene.”

There is a longstanding tradition of Hasidim wanting to be close to their rebbes for the holidays. Tens of thousands of Breslov Hasidim travel to Uman, Ukraine, where their dead rebbe is interred, to be near him for Rosh Hashana.

Crown Heights attracts such a large number of Lubavitchers because it “is where the iconic 770 – the original – is, and they can feel the presence of their absent leader more,” said Samuel Heilman, co-author of “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” (Princeton University Press, 2010). “Every young Chabadnik who comes of age needs to make a pilgrimage to this holy place.” As in Uman, he said, “the Rebbe is absent and present at once.”

But the influx has also created friction with Jewish locals. The women’s section inside 770 has far too little room for those trying to squeeze into the balcony, hidden from men by one-way glass. Israeli visitors — and some locals — have been accused of pushing and shoving. So local women this year divided the women’s section into four parts: one for Israelis, one for women from France, one for other holiday visitors and one for older permanent residents of the neighborhood.

While many young visitors come only to spend time in the rebbe’s community, others also come to Brooklyn for a good time. Four young Israeli men, none of whom spoke any English or possessed a driver’s license, but all wearing yarmulkes emblazoned with the words identifying them as “meshichists,” who believe that the late Lubavitcher rebbe is the messiah, borrowed a car the night before Sukkot and went for a joy ride. About a mile from Crown Heights, they crashed head-on into a parked garbage truck, destroying the car. No one was hurt or arrested, according to New York City Police Department spokesman Det. Joseph Cavitolo. The driver was given a summons.

The period culminates with frenetic dancing by thousands of men and boys on the blocked-off streets of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Kingston Avenue, during Sukkot nights. From 10 P.M. until the wee hours, the streets are filled with live music and dancers filled with energy and joy, all organized by Rabbi Yisroel Shemtov, who has been doing this for 33 years.

Visitors “come because they want to be in the place where the rebbe is doing what he has been doing all of his life and is still, from wherever he is,” Shemtov said. “This is our holiest place.”

Between 3,000 and 7,000 people from out of town stay in Crown Heights during the holiday period, says local community leader.Credit: Nir Kafri

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