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!


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15 Responses to Carlebach-style Hasidic community Expands into Borough Park

  1. ami says:

    First of all, wow, shkoyach, sounds like notes of revolution. Rav Kook and Rav Yoel meeting via Reb Shlomo in Williiamsburg… ge’uladik.

    Two comments on the article itself.

    First, Reb Shlomo did not come from a Lubavitch family. The Carlebach family were leading Yekkishe rabbis for generations, and traced their lineage back to people like the Bach and David Hamelech.

    Secondly, the story is important in showing some of the new directions that people in the frum world are taking, but why spend so much ink talking about people’s clothes and not more about what they’re really about? To me this only emphasizes the issues in the frum world that these people and many others are trying so hard to get away from, which include painstaking attention and care about what you wear, what your hair looks like, etc.

  2. yoel m. says:

    נו ווי איז דער אדרעס אין בארא פארק? דאכט זיך אז דער שטאט בארא פארק נויטיגט נישט אזוי קריטיש אין אזא סארט שטיבל אבער וויליאמסבורג איז טאקע א חידוש נפלא אז עס שטייט נאך אזא סארט קיבוץ אויוויי געוואלד דער בושה איז דאך שרעקליך וויאזוי קענען זיי אויסהאלטן די לשון הרע’ס און אומפארגינערישע יענטאדיקע בליקן?! גיבורים וואס איך קען נישט באגרייפן זייערע גייסטישע קוראזש. איך האף זיי זענען נישט אויף דראגס

  3. Abe says:

    Thanks Jacob for such a beautiful article well written… Thanks for participating was nice seeing you…looking forward

  4. rebjo says:

    First of all Shlomo may have had a different approach to outreach which he in fact developed at Chabad ,but the Rebbi gave him his blessing by saying it’s not thier “way” but Mazal & Bracoht . Any who thinks it happen in any other way is a fool, i heard it from Shlomo himself . Though he never went back , it was a personal choice . As for carrying S’forim of Satmer , they may have been in his library but he fully understood their retro- relevance . Finally Shlomo was such a Anti-Yekke Yekke ! Oy ! Rav Kook Visited his Grand father house and Shlomo learned The love of The land of Israel & the love of a fellow being while sitting at Rav Kook feet and that’s where all of the love came from.

  5. Yoel says:

    This article was written by someone who I guess doesn’t know much about the shtiebel aside from a simple visit, a lot of the ideas mentioned herein do not at all reflect the attitude at all, I know the place inside out and Jacob has done a poor job and a disservice for the guys there with this article, sorry brother

  6. Jacob Gluck says:

    ami, thanks for the corrections — will implement them shortly. Yoel M., I don’t know the BP addy, when I find out I’ll let you know. abe you’re welcome. rebojo, let’s not get bogged down by the trivial details. yoel, I won’t bother responding to an ad hominem.

  7. Yoel says:

    Seems like were dealing more with a circumstantial ad hominem

  8. Yishai the Lubav says:

    I walk in every Shabbos from Crown Heights and speak at a couple of shuls in Willy. The Shtiebel is one of my favourites to speak at the love and energy is up lifting.

  9. l berger says:

    It sounds like an inspiring and inclusive minyon has been established. But it is unnecessary to denigrate the other types of chassidim. While there may be some truth to your insiniations, there is no need to air these resentments in pubLic. It just reinforces old stereotypes of jews. -I was not brought up frum and derived my idea of jews from isaac bashevis singer. Boruch Hashem, I learned about Torah and became frum. Let’s leave the negative press for the New York Times.

    • Yoel says:

      Well said! I agree 100% this article should have been extremely positive, which is what the shtiebel stands for, to bring back the positivity and joy back into Judaism, however the author unfortunately looked at the situation through his own tinted glasses and hence put forth a distorted image.

      I hope Jacob goes to visit the shtiebel more often and starts seeing the place for what is really is, what they all have in common is the unconditional love for Hashem, His Torah and His people, this is the modus operandi behind the Shtiebel, which as well includes the love for Jews who may be blind to the right or to the left, they pity them, they pray for them and they hope for their success, they are not another rebellious bunch as the article would have you believe.

  10. chaim says:

    there is a trend here in eretz yisrael to make carlebach minyanim not so that they hold everything that reb sholomo
    stood for but people would rather sing kabalas shabos than
    falling asleep.

  11. Moshe says:

    I heard about this shtibel in willi, now there opening a shtibel in borough park I’m very excited. Does anybody know where it is or gonna be ? I’d like to join.

  12. Shlome says:

    Oh Vey..! This Artical Is so Off… What you are writing is Exactly the oppesite from what the Shtiebel Really is… Another Bad job Done…

  13. Englard says:

    Is there a woman’s section? I am originally from flatbush…now I live in Boro park and I’m searching for a non judge mental shul that is people oriented.

    • anna says:

      In Boro Park a NON JUDGMENTAL SHUL ?!?!
      Good luck !!

      how much money you gonna give to the shul ???
      when you give a nice sum of money then maybe they will look at you as a normal human being.

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