By Libby Herz
Photos: Arianna Sharfman
A group of adults sits around the hardwood tables of the Levi Yitzchok Library in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At first glance, this may be a beginner’s class on Chassidic philosophy. The men’s heads are uncovered, and all of the women are in pants. They sit open-mouthed as Rabbi Manis Friedman speaks. “We’re not here to get to heaven,” he says, “we’re here to bring heaven down to earth.”
But this is not your typical Torah class. In fact, this is the introduction to an award-winning Airbnb Experience called “Hasidic Brooklyn,” spearheaded by Rabbi Shlomo Friedman as a project of Lubavitch Youth. Each attendee has paid $69 to join Yoni Katz’s 3.5 hour tour of Crown Heights, and they are soaking up every word.
Attendees hail from all over the globe. Sinja lives in Germany, and is passing through North America as part of her motorcycle tour around the world. John is here with two buddies from Columbia University.
“I normally wouldn’t do this,” he says. “We all thought this tour would be a fun thing to do on a Sunday morning.” Marek hails from Poland and is in the U.S for business. He has three days to tour New York. Rather than spending the day in Manhattan or visiting Ellis Island, he decides upon Crown Heights. Where else can he experience an Eli Marcus concert, examine Torah scrolls at HaSofer, and eat freshly baked rugelach at an authentic Chassidic home?
Reasons for joining the tour are varied. Some join out of sheer curiosity. Some, because the Hasidic Brooklyn tour is one of the top-rated tours on Airbnb with a 4.95 rating and 284 positive reviews. Francesca is from Italy. She found this “experience” on the Airbnb website, and she immediately knew she had to join. “I work in Williamsburg,” she said, “and no one ever talks to me. Once, I stuck my hand out to my Hassidic landlord, and he refused to shake hands. I just want to know why.”
The tour begins with a discussion on G-d and what He needs from all people. “We all need to join together to make this world a place where G-d feels comfortable,” explains Rabbi Friedman. “In the Torah, G-d explains how to do that.” Most attendees have never heard these concepts before, and some venture some questions. “Why does G-d need us?” Marik asks. The Rabbi smooths his beard. He chuckles. “We don’t need to know,” he says.
Next, Yoni introduces Chassidic music star Eli Marcus. Marcus explains the power of a Chabad niggun. “These songs are meant to touch your soul,” he says. Marcus tunes his guitar, and begins to sing soulfully. People take out their iPhones and begin recording the heartfelt renditions of Anim Zmiros and Kol Bayaar. He follows the niggunim with more contemporary tunes such as “One Day” and “Od Yavo Shalom.”
Now, the group has a feeling of what to expect. They move out of the Levi Yitzchok library, and onto Union St. where everyone files into the empty women’s Mikvah. Yoni explains about the sanctity of a Jewish marriage. He also shows them the Mikvah used by the Rebbe. Tears well up in Sinja’s eyes. “This is very emotional,” she says. “It’s a completely different view of the world.”
At HaSofer, the group gets to see how tefillin and mezuzos are made. They ask questions about the differences between the elaborate Sfardi Torah scrolls and the simple Ashkenazi scrolls. “Eastern European Jews needed Torahs that were easy to hide at a moment’s notice,” Yoni explains.
Out on the streets again, the participants join the throngs of people walking down Kingston Avenue. It’s a sunny day, with just a hint of a September breeze. Yoni chats with participants, and then stops when he sees a bearded man wearing a blue button-down shirt. “This is my good friend,” he announces. Yoni introduces the group to the top-rated Uber driver, who is also a Lubavitcher. Marik is impressed. “Being an Uber driver is very contemporary,” he says. He is getting used to the blend of the modern and ancient that he sees all over the streets of Crown Heights.
Next, the guests file into the Friedman house. They gawk at pictures of the Friedman children. “There are so many,” says Francesca. “None of my friends have this many children.” She asks how Chassidic women manage to raise such large families. “We find a way to make it work,” says Mrs. Bracha Friedman. “The children always come first.” The guests are then welcomed into the kitchen where they are taught the basic laws of kashrus. Following this, they get to enjoy Mrs. Friedman’s homemade honey cake, baked in honor of Rosh Hashanah. “I try to make foods that relate to the holidays,” she says.
The next stop is one that the women find fascinating. It’s the Zlata Wigs showroom. The room is modern and has a clean, upper-class aesthetic. Some women bravely try on some wigs. Francesca tries on a blonde wig. “I love it!” she exclaims. She takes out her phone for a couple of selfies.
The tour ends with a trip to 770. Most attendees never imagined that they would have the opportunity to step into an Orthodox shul. “I thought that it would be quiet, but it’s so full of life!” Marik says. On this part of the tour, Yoni often gives Jewish men bar mitzvahs by helping them put on tefillin for the first time.
When the tour is over, participants feel like there is so much more to know. Many ask to stay and speak with Yoni about Chassidic life. Some ask to join for a Shabbos. Their preconceived notions have proven false, and they are loving it. “I would expect that people who dress differently, keep different habits and live differently would be quite closed,” Marik says. “The tour proved just the opposite. Chassidic Jews keep their identity, but I’ve discovered that at the same time they are open to meet and share with other people.”
This article was first published in the COLlive Magazine – Tishrei Magazine for 5780, distributed free to Crown Heights residents and guests. Click here to read the full issue.
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