Holy Daze

Rebecca Segall investigates the problems of young Lubavitcher Hasidim in a world without the Rebbe

As thousands of Lubavitcher Hasidim gather in Crown Heights for the High Holidays to ask forgiveness for their sins and pray for a better year to come, a growing number of the younger generation aren't repenting. College classes that would shock their elders, techno parties, and backpacking trips abroad are on the agenda for the new year.

One thing's for sure: these disenchanted youth are not going home. "It's way too stressful," says Chani, a funked-out, feminist-minded grad student, who left three years ago.

Lubavitch's emphasis on Messianism--the in-your-face belief held by many that Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, could have been the Messiah--as well as their unique commitment to missionary work, sets them apart from other Jews. That they have remained in the inner city when other Jews have fled further isolates them.

A modern (clean-shaven) yeshiva bocher, left gazes at a towering image of the late Rebbe
Andrew Lichtenstein
A modern (clean-shaven) yeshiva bocher, left gazes at a towering image of the late Rebbe

Ironically, although the Lubavitchers are far removed from mainstream Judaism, "they have come to represent the 'typical Jew' for many anti-Semites" partly because of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, contends Baruch Thaler, a former Lubavitch scholar.

Thaler, now a student at Columbia, cites statements made by Khallid Muhammad, leader of the Million Youth March held in September in Harlem. Muhammad, reacting to attempts by the Giuliani administration to relocate the event to Randalls Island, threatened to "take it to the Jews in Crown Heights," and later announced that next year's event would be held there.

While some Lubavitchers are venturing outside the community laden with baggage from a messianic and scapegoat past, others, in the spirit of their missionary upbringing, are desperately reaching out to them.

Rabbi Zvi Homnick, for instance, can sometimes be found in the back of clubs like Wetlands or the Knitting Factory discussing family problems and Moshiach (the Messiah) with stoned Lubavitcher teenagers.

Homnick, 34, has been scouting out kids dabbling with drugs and secular ideas as confusion has grown in the wake of the Rebbe's death. Just before the holidays,in a house in Crown Heights, he opened what is believed to be the first center of its kind for Orthodox youth. It provides counseling, tutoring, mentoring, and instruction in coping skills.

Homnick says young Lubavitchers are "experimenting" outside the community because of a post-Schneerson "lack of focus."

One of his recent expeditions took him to a Brooklyn pool hall. "A guy from the Lubavitch crowd comes in, heavy-metal T-shirt, Edgar Allan Poe sticking out of his back pocket. He tells me he's in a band that sings about drugs, sex, suicide, and God." The Yiddish headbanger describes his feelings about God:

"Did you ever have a fight so big with one of your brothers that you drew a line in the middle of the room? But if you saw someone beating him up, you'd protect him because you love him. That's how it is with me and God."

Homnick asks, "So, have you tried to fix this relationship?"

Eventually, the two "studied together," and the cleaned-up youth now comes by for an occasional meal.

While Homnick is working to keep the curious in the fold, others, disenthralled with Messianism, have sought out alternative Hasidic sects--and at least one ex-Lubavitcher has founded one.

Behind a bulletproof window in his newly renovated shteeble (synagogue) in Borough Park sits 31-year-old Shaul Shimon Deutsch, who is despised by the Crown Heights Lubavitchers for writing a book that he asserts offers a more "human" look at Schneerson, and establishing himself as the Rebbe of a new Hasidic sect. Deutsch says he installed the window after being threatened by Lubavitchers.

He claims that at least 100 "directionless" young Lubavitchers, full of angst over the Rebbe's death, have come to him seeking advice, and at least 1000 other Jews have sought his counsel. (Lubavitchers maintain that no more than 100 people take him seriously.)

A former lifelong Lubavitcher, Deutsch has been an object of ridicule in Crown Heights since he became the Rebbe of Liozna, his new sect. At a Shabbos service in the depths of summer--when many Borough Park residents were chilling out in gender-divided camps in upstate enclaves--11 men straggled into Deutsch's shteeble to pray with him. On Rosh Hashanah, 100 showed up.

His wife, Rebbetzin Pe'er Deutsch, reflects that at the height of the Moshiach craze, teenagers were "most taken in and hurt by it," and thus most likely to seek out new directions.

Indeed, there remain many young people who have ceased looking within the Orthodox community, and have chosen multifarious paths.

Two years ago, four tenacious young Lubavitcher women moved out of homes that were often filled with Hasidic melody, mystical consciousness, and rock-solid distinctions between male and female roles--a seemingly unprecedented act. They have since undergone a feminist/intellectual revolution--off with the long hair, on with the combat boots.

Twenty-one-year-old Rivky went farther. She got involved with a Latino boyfriend, moved to the Caribbean with him two years ago, and has since adopted his Communist beliefs. Returning to Crown Heights for a short period last month, she was amazed at the messianic "insanity" still prevailing in her hometown.

The distance from the Schneerson years can also be measured in a house on Crown Street, where eight young men clad in Hasidic/hipster fashion gather in a bachelor pad to smoke a jay and watch a short absurdist film made by a friend around the time the Rebbe got sick. In the film, the male protagonist, depicted with grotesquely exaggerated pais (side curls), eventually pops out of a surreal bubble, and flings himself into the sea. People toss bubbles at him to help him float, but his overlong fingernails pop each new hopeful. "I don't know if I'll ever find another bubble, but, hey, at least I got my typewriter . . ." the narrator says over cheery music as the flick ends.

Another view of alienated youth is set forth in excerpts from the poem "Generation X, Crown Heights," written by Cheryl Fish and published in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review:

Generation X Lubavitch boys

...staying out all night

With Rastas on Utica--six, seven, eight, ten

Children in two-family home...

No science, no math, no sex ed--you get

married

Go to bed. Everything is in the Talmud.

Lapsed Lubavitch boys in midnight discos. . . .

The Rebbe is like Elvis--has a shrine

dedicated to him, and is

Sighted on the beach....

On the fourth anniversary of the Rebbe's death, June 27, or Gimmel Tammuz (the third day of the Jewish month of Tammuz)--a term used to avoid acknowledging the Rebbe's passing--thousands of Hasidim flock to Montefiore Cemetery in Queens to pay their respects. Schneerson's soul is believed to linger around at the granite mausoleum where he was laid to rest.

A staggering-drunk young Lubavitcher with a closely trimmed beard (which would have been heresy when Schneerson was alive) comments on the scene, his speech slurred: "About a year before his stroke, the Rebbe said he'd done everything he could to bring Moshiach--he's still not here. You see the majority of these bochers [guys] crying in their vodka, trying to understand why . . . I'm just here to party. Well, it's a combination. . . ." he mumbles before collapsing on a chair.

Lubavitchers believe that with every one of their countless L'chaims, the Rebbe's soul is elevated. Homnick explains that alcohol "aids in deep spiritual work. As it releases inhibitions, it helps you get closer to your spiritual reality."

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