Carlebach-style Hasidic community Expands into Borough Park
About one year after a Carlebach-style shul was first opened on Penn Street in Williamsburg, the inchoate movement picked up some steam and expanded this week with the opening of an additional synagogue, called The Shtiebel, in Borough Park — Williamsburg’s less devout sister neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Carlebach movement is known for its ecstatic liturgy and an emphasis on communal singing of the Psalms and prayers in an egalitarian setting and an unconditionally accepting ambiance, though segregation of the sexes is strictly maintained during prayers.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (d. 1994), a talented Rabbi, composer, singer and guitarist, stemmed from a Lubavitch family. When in the course of an emissary outreach mission he persisted in holding concerts in front of a non-segregated crowd, the Lubavitcher Rebbe revoked his mission and he thereafter embarked on his own initiative to rekindle the Jewish flame among estranged populations through an exuberant, trance-like engrossment in music, dance and song. His audience was adamant that they not be segregated by the sexes and he reluctantly relented, viewing it as a worthwhile halakhic concession for the sake of the greater good of outreach to estranged Jews.
On account of his permissiveness regarding gender segregation and even mixed dancing, hugging and kissing, he was shunned by the bulk of haredi jewry of his time. His prolific compositions, however, have been indelibly preserved in dozens of cassettes and, later, CD’s.
While Rabbi Carlebach was dismissed in his lifetime by the mainstream Hasidic body as a lascivious oddball, our current generation Y and Millenials see in him as an authentic and viable alternative to a mainstream that has become jaded, stoild and “corrupt” — a term numerous congregants at The Shtiebel (as the congregants call it) have used to describe their frustration with mainstream Williamsburg Hasidism.
The Williamsburg Shtiebel, in quintessential hippie tradition, was not launched in a top-down planned and organized fashion. A number of young men in their 20′s and early 30′s started getting together a bit over a year ago on weekday evenings for a study group in private homes. Unlike typical shiuurim (Jewish lectures), which are led by an expert, this study group was completely peer-driven, spontaneous and free-wheeling. They decided upon a tripartite study of mishna berurah, ayin yaakov and shulhan arukh. When they had a question or needed further inquiry a discussion would erupt between the participants and would continue until the matter was settled. To illustrate, when the group arrived at the verse in Exodus “and I shall you carry you on the wings of eagles…” a debate was launched over whether it was meant literally or metaphorically. “And the matter is still not settled”, says Moshe B. T., one of the leading figures of the group.
The group’s eagerness to ask questions and engage in Jewish traditions on a visceral, free-spirited level soon extended beyond the cerebral. A member suggested they use a derelict basement owned by a relative as a shtiebel (- small synagogue; cognate of “chapel”) for shabbat prayer services if the group can manage to remove the rubble and fix it up. Sure enough, after several group sessions of removing debris, installing insulation, sound-proofing, sheetrock and air-conditioning, the basement was ready for service.
The group had one thing in common: they all knew that they would not pay tribute or take orders from any leaders in the community. They were not going to conform to prevailing standards merely because it’s what the Rabbi says or to uphold a reputation for the purposes of doing business in the community or being able marry off in the community. Undaunted and uninhibited, they were determined to define Judaism for themselves and find relevant meaning in their religious studies and practices. Another core value laid down early on was that all were welcome. Unlike mainstream congregations who would oust “disreputable” members of the community in order to uphold their image, they were going to welcome everybody. As Mr. B. T. put it: “the only rule in our shtiebel is that there is no rule which violation would ever constitute grounds for expulsion”.
Beyond disregard of prevailing contemporary authority, though, there were some divergences in their membership base. Some had a predilection for the religious Zionism of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935). Others had a penchant for singing and dancing in the Carlebach fashion. Still others espoused the Breslov forgiving approach to Judaism which mirrored the shtiebel’s creed of unconditional inclusivity and an emphasis on rejoicing in our very essence, despite our sins and indiscretions. Many in the crowd also had more traditional leanings of admiration for the doyen of Ultra-orthodox Hasidic-style Judaism in post-WWII America, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (d. 1979) the first Satmar Rebbe.
The stark differences in observance between some of those Judaic streams are perhaps difficult to reconcile. But, contends Mr. B. T., “R. Carlebach was known to keep the Oroth Olam (by R. Kook) alongside the Vayoel Moshe (by R. Teitelbaum)”, pointing to a possible acceptance of both. Indeed, it is possible that R. Teitelbaum’s vehement opposition to religious Zionism was directed primarily or exclusively at the Agudists; those who were willing to “sell out” to the secular Zionists in exchange for certain concessions. The Mizrahists, on the other hand, who vigorously strove to shape the new state in accordance with traditional Jewish precepts, may have been acceptable to R. Teitelbaum, argues Mr. Moshe B. T.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned variations in overall approach to Orthodoxy, the group agreed to adopt the Carlebach nusah (liturgical formula) at the shtiebel. Accordingly, most of the liturgy is sung in unison by the congregants with relish and exuberance, a practice alien to other Hasidic synagogues. At last Friday night’s services, not a peep was heard from the designated leader of the services throughout the Reception of Shabbat Psalms until barekhu (bless ye) was proclaimed, at which point the crowd had to be hushed and alerted so that they can respond “blessed is the Lord, the one eternally blessed”. For one of the Psalm the congregation rose on its feet locked arms and danced together. Others were dancing back and forth, wedding Mitvah Dance-style.
In The Shtiebel normal Hasidic Williamsburg rules for conduct in the shul do not apply. Many members remove their shtreimels from their heads at one point or another during the services. Mr. Moshe B. T., wearing an oversized Yarmulke and long smooth peyos (sidelocks), the right one flowing freely and the left one redirected behind his ear, never had his shtreimel on throughout the entire prayer services. One young adolescent who arrived late, and appeared “bummish” with a trimmed beard and dandy appearance, initially kept his hat on but neglected to tie his bekisheh belt. By the time veshameru rolled around he was girded according to custom but his hat had disappeared. Nonetheless, with a contracted face and with hands raised towards heaven he seemed to achieve communion with God and find genuine meaning in the liturgy. Another yungerman (young lad) sat sprawled out shtreimel-less in the oyvenun (front row) while the congregation was on its feet enthusiastically chanting magen avos. One middle-aged man, lost in a reverie, was already facing west during the yamin usmol when the congregation was still facing east as customary.
Non-judgementalism, which seems to be the overarching and unifying credo of the shtiebel, is a truly newfangled phenomenon. In the American shtetel of Hasidic Williamsburg, not having to constantly look over one’s shoulder to ensure that nobody is following your tracks and ascertaining that you are in complete conformity with the norms is a marvelously new trend. Coupled with the full complement of “Breslov” educational institutions founded by Yoely Roth, in which the inclusiveness policy is likewise boasted, Williamsburg is evincing telltale signs of coming of age: the age of individualism, libertarianism and self-determination.
Welcome to America!