The first people I saw when I climbed out of the Kingston subway station on Friday were men in long black coats, wide-brimmed black hats and beards.
I was in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn borough that is the “Jerusalem” of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, in which the black suits are the norm. Founded 250 years ago in what was White Russia, the movement survived under the leadership of inspired rebbes (teachers), the latest being Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.
The dilapidated brick building I faced as I exited the subway was his movement’s headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. The interior was a rabbit warren of dingy hallways with sheets of paper – tacked onto various doors – identifying various agencies.
I stepped into one room claimed by Jewish Educational Media, where Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin showed me an array of multimedia archives of talks by the rebbe, plus video of almost every encounter he had had with the thousands of fans who had dropped by to see him on Sundays. He would give each a dollar bill, which they in turn were to contribute to charity.
The rebbe founded an amazing missionary corps of rabbinical couples who established beachheads of Jewish culture worldwide. I met such a couple in South Florida while reporting there in the early 1980s, and I’ve maintained contact with them to this day. Their synagogue turns 30 years old this month.
Other endings are not so happy. When terrorists attacked Jews in Mumbai in November 2008, it was a Chabad center that was targeted. Nine Jews died there.
I had long wanted to see the nerve center of the Chabad movement. A few hours later, the lower floor of 770, as they call it, overflowed with black-coated men saying prayers in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Up in the balcony in the women’s section, a woman held out a card bearing Rabbi Schneerson’s likeness, comparing him to the moshiach, the long-promised Jewish messiah.
A Lubavitch friend and I strolled through the snow up Kingston Avenue, “the Champs Elysees of the Lubavitch world,” he told me, with delis, a bakery shop, Judaica stories, flower shops and butchers, all kosher. A glossy tourist brochure at a florist portrays a street map of where 43 shuls, or synagogues, can be found in a 77-square-block area.
Most impressive was the interactive Jewish Children’s Museum across Kingston Avenue from the world headquarters. When the little ones enter on the third floor, they go through a walkway portraying the seven days of creation.
There were shofar-shaped microphones in front of an exhibit on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new-year holiday during which the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown. There’s an olive press to create oil for Hanukkah lamps, a chestful of Purim costumes and a kosher supermarket where children can practice selecting kosher products off the shelves.
Then there is a room devoted to observing the Sabbath, with computers instructing children how to construct a Sabbath menu and a talking wine bottle that describes how to say the kiddush blessing over the wine.
Lots of Christian youth groups visit the museum, I was told, because of its Bible-friendly atmosphere. And certainly, with a surrounding neighborhood and culture geared to making faith attractive, Crown Heights leaves the visitor almost wishing he or she could be Jewish.