Monday, September 29, 2008

Synagogue, and ‘Spiritual Starbucks’

September 29, 2008


To find the 10th man for a minyan, the quorum required in Orthodox Jewish services, some rabbis on the Lower East Side of Manhattan have been known in recent years to step into the street and stop passers-by. Are you Jewish? they ask.

It is a troubling notion for the remaining Jewish population of a neighborhood that in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the American portal for Jewish immigrants — hundreds of synagogues once thrived there — and where now a few dozen synagogues struggle in a place jammed with Indian and Thai restaurants and secular-minded young people.

So if there is trepidation among the older members of the weather-worn Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street about the changes coming with the start of the High Holy Days this week, it is leavened with a sense of forbearance in the absence of alternatives.

Starting this evening with Rosh Hashana services, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a Lubavitcher rabbi from Crown Heights and founder of the Meaningful Life Center — a project known for blending religious teaching with tai chi, introductory kabbalah and Hasidic rap — will become a kind of Jewish mystic-in-residence at the traditional, Orthodox Community Synagogue.

Inspired by the movement known as Chabad, a Hasidic sect with a missionary tradition around the world, Rabbi Jacobson said he would offer his programs — which until now he has operated on an itinerant basis around the city — at the Sixth Street synagogue in hopes of creating “a spiritual Starbucks.”

The plan is to attract people, regardless of their faith, from all over the city, he said. But the goal is to restore Jewish identity to those estranged from Judaism and, if possible, to add them to the membership rolls of Community Synagogue.

Like many Lubavitchers, Rabbi Jacobson embodies a paradoxical mix of strictly conservative theology and a freewheeling, nonjudgmental hipster style. He is partial to drum circles. He is friendly with the Hasidic reggae-rap-klezmer artist known as Matisyahu.

Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

“Is there tension because we love things the way they are and he wants to make everything completely different?” asked Ruth Greenberg, 90, a member of the congregation, which had about 250 members when she joined in 1950 and now counts not quite 100. “Not at all, not at all. We may not like each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s tension.”

The realities are unmistakable. The building needs work. The pews and the pipes date from the mid-19th century, when the place was built as St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (which effectively died on June 15, 1904, along with about 1,000 of its parishioners, in a fire aboard the steamship General Slocum, en route to a church picnic). The roof leaks.

Aside from the higher religious imperative of sustaining the faith, the collaboration with the Meaningful Life Center represents a new source of income for the synagogue. In lieu of rent, receipts from all the classes and events that Rabbi Jacobson arranges — including workshops on relationships, mysticism, reincarnation and one he calls “the kabbalah of cooking” — will be split between the center and the temple.

“We want to keep this congregation alive,” said Brenda Pace, a former president of the synagogue, who is in her late 60s. “If we need the help of outsiders to do that, so be it.”

Community’s full-time rabbi, Charlie Buckholtz, will continue to lead the congregation. He has never had to struggle to make a minyan. Most Saturdays in the sanctuary, which holds up to 700 people, there are at least 20 or 30 men and about the same number of women, divided by a decorative partition.

But he describes the charismatic Rabbi Jacobson as a perfect fit for a neighborhood that has evolved from Jewish to Beat to Flower Child to Loisaida Squatter to a mix of all of the above, plus an influx of young professionals, including many who are secular Jews.

“This area used to be a place with a deli or a shul on every corner,” he said. “There are lots of young, unaffiliated Jews living here. They just do not go to synagogue.” In terms of Jewish practice, he added, “It is a kind of tundra, and we are trying to figure out how to resettle it.”

The partnership of the Lubavitchers’ outreach tradition with more conventional synagogues like Community has invigorated several declining congregations around the country, said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Gary A. Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said such partnerships marked “the convergence of the two major trends in Jewish life: the expansion of the most successful movement in world Jewry, which is Chabad, and the undeniable fact that Jews are becoming birds of passage like everyone else, less likely to belong to a synagogue but still searching for the authentic religious fundamentals.”

But Samuel Heilman, chairman of the Jewish studies department at Queens College, said there was a theological catch that people attracted to programs like Meaningful Life should be aware of. “While the outreach tends to be very open and ‘feng shui,’ ” he said, “the more they absorb you, the more Orthodox everything gets. It is nice they are going to the Lower East Side. But people should know that in Chabad there is no tolerance for gay marriage, or even people living together before marriage.”

When asked about that, Rabbi Jacobson said it was basically true, but somewhat irrelevant to his mission. “We are not here to change anybody,” he said. “Some of my students will become radically religious, some will continue to lead secular lives. All we want is to help people live more deeply and spiritually.”

He described one former student, who announced after many years of attending his classes, “Rabbi, you have given me the courage to discover my true identity, and after 27 years of marriage I have decided to leave my wife and move in with my boyfriend.” (The former student, Robert Golden, 62, who confirmed the story, said he had since drifted away from Meaningful Life programs, but remained a fan of its founder.)

At Community Synagogue, the pending arrival of Rabbi Jacobson has prompted a subtle shift of focus in that one preoccupation of all religious traditions, worrying.

For years, a major structural concern has been the steep front steps, and how to make sure elderly members have help in climbing them. A lookout is stationed at the top of the steps during services to summon assistance, as needed.

But last week, people were talking about a different sort of structural problem: whether there would there be room enough inside if both Matisyahu, the reggae rapper, and Sway Machinery, a cantorial blues band, performed before a midnight prayer service that marks the beginning of a week of penitence leading up to the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Jacobson, who would be helping Rabbi Buckholtz lead the service, had invited both.

In the end, about 250 showed up. Everyone got in. “It was fantastic,” Rabbi Jacobson said afterward. “Spiritually elevating. A transportation for the soul.”

The question of the minyan never came up.

Monday, September 08, 2008

In Ste. Agathe, a very public wedding story

Resort town hosts Hasidic ceremony; Age-old ritual conducted in the open to demystify ultraorthodox Jewish sect

The Gazette

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"As water mirrors a face, a heart responds to another."

- Proverbs 27:1

- - -

The veiled bride wore a long white gown, the bearded groom wore a big black hat, and with 300 friends, relatives, dignitaries and curious onlookers gathered by the lake yesterday in this Laurentians town, the two were married in an unusually public Hasidic Jewish ceremony.

By custom and fundamentalist religious belief, Hana Sellem, a French immigrant, and Moshe Barouk, an American visiting from Florida - who met only several months ago, through a matchmaker - hadn't seen each other for one week before the ceremony. They had also fasted and studied the Torah to prepare for their big day.

Their ceremony was meant not only for them but for Ste. Agathe. Despite close to a century of Jewish presence, the town has been under a cloud lately because of an incident two weeks ago in which a visiting Montreal Jew was attacked and assaulted by a gang of local youths while walking to synagogue.

With uniformed security guards watching discreetly, Sellem and Barouk yesterday solemnly observed the rituals of their tradition, so strange yet so fascinating to the non-initiates who watched from the lawn of downtown Place Lagny on the shores of Lac des Sables, where the early evening wedding took place under a tiny raised canopy beneath balmy late-summer skies.

Inside a reception room of the park's pavilion, provided free by the town, the groom first brought down a veil over the bride's face, a symbol that she's now off-limits to other men. Then the knots on the groom's clothing were untied, emphasizing the couple's new bond of holy matrimony.

Bride and groom and their entourages then proceeded outside to the canopy, singing in Hebrew and carrying lit candles. There, Sellem and her family circled the groom seven times, symbolizing the number of days the devout believe it took God to create the Earth.

Readings and blessings in Hebrew followed, kosher Israeli white wine was sipped, witnesses were called to attest to the procedures, and finally the groom placed a simple gold band on the bride's right forefinger.

The marriage contract was then read out in Aramaic, more blessings were read, a second glass of wine was sipped, and a glass was broken under the groom's right foot to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Her veil finally lifted, and with the crowd whistling and cheering before the setting sun, the bride and her husband then retired to a private room in the pavilion, first stepping over a silver spoon on the threshold, and spent a few minutes together to break their fast and live their first moments unobserved by others.

The wedding was deliberately public. By doing it in the open, Sellem, an educator and administrator at a local Jewish girl's seminary, had hoped to demystify her Chabad-Lubavitch brand of Jewish ultraorthodoxy in this otherwise nominally Roman Catholic town.

To that end, guests yesterday were handed a wedding guide in English and French explaining the rituals and their meaning.

Mission accomplished, it seems.

"I hope this event will inspire others - it should have been done a long time ago, because it's so necessary to bring our nationalities together," said retired nurse Marie Fortin, who lives in a condo complex next to the park and whose downstairs neighbours are Jews from Texas.

Like many of the onlookers, this was was her first Jewish wedding.

Now it'll be up to the new couple to make something of their new life together. But it won't be in Ste. Agathe.

In the coming year, they'll move to Florida to start a home and have children - "lots of them, God willing," the 26-year-old bride said with a chuckle.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

New Flights to Benefit Chassidic Pilgrims to Ukraine

VINNITZA, Ukraine — A recent development in the city of Vinnitza may produce some real benefits for visitors making a pilgrimage to another renowned Ukrainian city – Uman. As explained by Chief Rabbi of Vinnitza Shaul Horowitz, a Chabad Lubavitch emissary serving in the region, the ‘Gavrishovka’ airport in Vinnitza is being re-opened by the local government. Once renovations to the runway are completed, it will have the capacity to receive aircraft.

This is good news, particularly for Bratslav Chassids, who traditionally embark on pilgrimages to Uman, especially at Rosh Hashanah. While this question was raised with local authorities previously on numerous occasions, it is only this year that this project is actually attainable, with the flight route Tel Aviv-Vinnitza being scheduled. While such flights cannot accommodate all Bratslav Chassids who make their way back to Ukraine, this is certainly a benefit for many.

Such a development is noteworthy, since it significantly lightens the load on those making the pilgrimage to Uman. Vinnitza is located between several places that are sacred for Chassidic Jews. It is 90 km from Medzhibozh, 80 km from Berdichev, and 160 from Uman. In addition to this, Vinnitza is situated rather close to Bratslav, separated by a small distance of 30 km.

Uman is home to the gravesite of Rebbe Nakhman of Bratslav, the leader of the Bratslav Chassids. Here, males come to pay tribute at the Rebbe’s grave and jointly celebrate Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year. According to unofficial estimates, Uman was visited by some 20,000 pilgrims over the past 12 months. Chief Rabbi Horovitz had noted that this latest development is not only advantageous for pilgrims themselves, but will also raise the prestige of Ukraine as a state.