Saturday, September 24, 2005


I stayed over in Park Slope for Shabbat. Mazal tov to the Park Slope Minyan on their new space!

I missed the new Brooklyn Shabbat morning minyan by a week. So on a whim, I decided to do some armchair ethnography and go this morning to Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. Since this whim occurred at 11 PM last night, and I hadn't been home since before work on Friday, I didn't have anything to wear that would make me even remotely blend in (and the ponytail wasn't going to help either). I had done my usual thing when I don't go home after work on Friday, and kept on the same clothes I had worn to work (but taken off my tie in order to make a distinction for Shabbat), and my only change of clothes was suitable for rooftop lunch. But I figured that Lubavitch wasn't Satmar, so they were supposed to be welcoming to outsiders. I briefly pondered the question of whether there was an eruv (a google search for "'crown heights' eruv" turns up no indication that there is, so there probably isn't) and whether I would look out of place carrying a backpack in, but I realized that I was going to look so out of place anyway that this wouldn't matter.

As it turned out, there were a few other people who were also clearly outsiders, and though I got a few puzzled looks, no one interacted with me for good or for ill except when the end of my ponytail got stuck in the button of the sleeve of the jacket of a young boy who was walking by.

I slept late, but figured that they must start late anyway. I got there during Torah reading.

Wow. There were a lot of people there, some of whom were sitting at tables, and most of whom were standing, crowded into every available square inch. There were steady streams of people walking around in all directions. I was clinging to my hippie liberal Jew habits and trying to, you know, hear the Torah reading, but I think I was the only one. Almost everyone was engaged in side conversations to the point where the noise made it almost impossible to hear the Torah reading. I've been to Chasidic shuls several times (in Israel), and it wasn't like this. Someone who is better informed can enlighten me as to whether these observations are unique to 770, or typical of Chabad shuls in general, or of Chabad post-1994, or what.

At the end of each aliyah, people threw something toward the bimah; it might have been candy, but I couldn't tell, nor could I tell whether it was a bar mitzvah or aufruf or something else. After the Torah reading ended, the background noise was loud enough that I really had no idea what was happening on the bimah; maybe they read haftarah and concluded the Torah service, but I'm not sure. So I walked around and looked at the signs around the room. Most of the large signs were in Hebrew, with one in Yiddish, and one in English that used the rare English subjunctive: "Live our master, teacher, and rebbe, king moshiach forever and ever!" This line (in Hebrew) was also exclaimed three times by the congregation at the end of the Torah reading, and appeared on many kipot and at the top of the ark. They weren't being subtle about their Hebrew-Christian beliefs. One of the Hebrew signs said "Melech hamashiach the Lubavitcher Rebbe says: Giving away parts of the land of Israel ENDANGERS THE LIVES of millions of Jews". But there weren't any pictures of the rebbe, unlike in other Chabad contexts that I've seen -- is this an opposition to graven images in worship space?

A number of signs said that it is forbidden to speak during Torah reading or prayer, a rule clearly honored in the breach. Another sign asked people to turn off their cell phones. I assume that this was intended for weekday minyan, since anyone who could read the sign in Hebrew would already know that 770 isn't a good place to use cell phones on Shabbat. However, unlike certain places, they didn't find it necessary to ask men to cover their heads.

Speaking of which, black hats and black kipot were split about 50/50. Does this reflect a division into two factions, or just differences in individual style?

The women were seated in luxury skyboxes, high above the action.

One sign (in Hebrew and English) had a kashrut alert about a particular restaurant. It said (paraphrased) "People have asked whether this restaurant uses Lubavitch shechita. There is no such thing as Lubavitch shechita - it's just a question of whether it's under the supervision of the beit din. And it's not. Those who are concerned about their spiritual well-being should not eat there." (The phrase "spiritual well-being" was not a paraphrase.)

Some people were catching up on their davening. I looked into someone's siddur to see where he was. It was around noon and he was at "Baruch she-amar."

Musaf began at some point, with no pause in the chaos. Then, all of a sudden, kedushah began, and everyone must have gotten a signal sent directly to the brain, because all conversation ceased, and everyone was standing and facing forward, responding at the appropriate points, completely focused. It was like the magnetic domains of a ferromagnetic material lining up in the presence of a magnetic field. At various points during the kedushah, the whole congregation sang niggunim, apparently the same niggunim they sing every week, since they started singing them on autopilot with no prompting from the leader. Then, as soon as kedushah ended, entropy descended once again, and the shaliach tzibbur was inaudible. I left soon after that.

Can anyone share information to help make sense out of the experience?

UPDATE: Two things I forgot to mention:

There was a wall filled with wedding invitations, most of them for this weekend. Some of them were taking place at 770 itself (one had the chuppah on Sunday at 3 PM, another at 4 PM, another at 5 PM, and all had receptions elsewhere), while others were in Minnesota or Jerusalem or Kfar Chabad. Presumably anyone reading these invitations was invited to any of these weddings all over the world.

Also, there was some coeducation going on. During davening, while everyone was doing his own thing, an older man was drilling two young kids on the words of the Shema - he would say "v'dibarta" and they would say "bam", etc. And these kids were one boy and one girl!


  1. I'd be glad to help explain.
    Where shall we start?

    Leave an email or IM on my blog and I will contact you.

  2. a google search for "'crown heights' eruv" turns up no indication that there is

    man, great idea now let me check if williamsbug has one, yes but only google uses it

  3. Yup, that's 770 all right.

    Chabad shuls vary in their level of entropy with 770 probably the most disordered.