Shabbis in Crown Heights

I attended a Chabad l’chaim a couple weekends ago in Crown Heights.

For those of you who don’t know, Crown Heights is the World-Wide Headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement. It is as close as you will get to a shtetl in modern day America. With the main arteries of Kingston and Eastern Parkway, Judaism springs from either side. Most of the row houses shooting off these main roads are adorned with a mezuzah. If not, then they house neighbors who are generally of African-American or Afro-Caribbean decent. If you have never experienced a shabbat in Crown Heights, you must. I am serious. Email me at Patheos (tdavis at Patheos dot com) and I will help you find a place to stay. It is a must!

For those of you who have not or could not stay in CH, let me paint the scene of my weekend in Brooklyn.

Friday morning, 6am – my red-eye flight from Denver lands at JFK in NYC. I am with the mother and two sisters of the groom and a very awesome woman who is heading to CH to teach Chabad women how to fundraise. [Background – I am very close with the sister of the groom (the chasson) and the bride (the kallah). We spent a week studying in FL together.] After we gather our luggage, we go to catch a cab. It’s about 6:30/6:45am at this point. We have to wait for a cab large enough to fit luggage + people. We make the squeeze and we are off. We tell our VERY Russian cab driver that we are going to Brooklyn but must detour to Queens first to go to The Ohel, which is at a cemetery. It is the grave-site of The Lubavitcher Rebbe and his father-in-law, The Previous Rebbe or Frediker Rebbe.  Within Chabad, anytime you are in NY, you must visit. Not because you are forced to but because it can be centering and uplifting and is an important thing to do.

We tell the guy that we are going to a cemetery in Queens and he pulls out a picture of The Rebbe and says, “For this guy?” Well we were shocked! He knew exactly where to go. Turns out, the guy is Jewish, brings people to the cemetery all the time but had never gone in. Well we get to The Ohel and the cab driver wants to leave us. I know in the movies it always looks like there is always a cab when you need one but that is SO not the case. We convinced him that he should wait 20 min and come in with us. SO meter still running, we go in and start the process.

We wash our hand in the ritual manner (netilat yadayim) then sit down to write a letter to the Rebbes. You put your Hebrew name, bat (daughter of) or bar (son of), then your mother’s Hebrew name. Then you just write. You can ask for a better job, a husband or wife, health, anything you want or need or need guidance on. Once you have completed your letter, you slip off your shoes (if they have leather on them) and slip on the oh-so-convenient Crocs they have provided in every size and color imaginable. (P.S. I think Chosids are the biggest consumer of Crocs… not kidding.)

Once you have done all this you trek out into the cemetery and enter the stone building (no roof) where the two graves are. You light a candle, grab a prayer book and head in. There are separate doors for men and women but it gets cramped really fast. Once inside there are a handful of prayers and psalms to read but then you read your letter, quietly outloud to the Rebbes. Once you have competed that, you tear it to little bits (see the pic). As you leave, you must be careful not to turn your back on the Rebbes, just like the Torah, and so people will back out of the area. I like to take a minute to touch each gravestone and say S’hma with each Rebbe.

Once you have completed all this, you head back to the tent that is set up and wash your hands again and head out. We wrangled all 5 of us AND we picked up another woman heading to CH so our cab was VERY full.

We got to Eastern Parkway and Kingston and all went our separate ways. Now here comes Shabbis in Crown Heights. It’s still early, not quite 9am yet. I put my bags down in my friend’s tiny basement apartment and I start walking Kingston, marveling at the shops we don’t have in Denver (but they don’t have a Target… so it might be an even trade… :)).

I had priorities. There were things I can’t get in Denver that I had to get before Shabbis shuts the stores down. I hit the Jewish Children’s Museum because they were open before 9am. Got some books and a set of Aleph Bet cookie cutters (VERY excited) and then I headed to Khan’s Kosher Market. There are a few markets on the street but I KNOW Khan’s has my Kosher gummy bears. Seriously. I can’t find them ANYWHERE (see my post here about that). And finally Judaica World opened. I spent forever in there, breathing in the books, looking for new titles, I got a cd, AND (I feel very triumphant about this) a pink, soft leather siddur with the Hebrew AND the English!!! 🙂 Very exciting! (I will write more about that later.) Kingston was full of hustle and bustle. Women getting last minute supplies, car horns, construction, men running to study or get home. Just like you imagine NYC. I headed back to my friend’s apartment and took a bit of a shluff (nap). We woke up in time to prepare her place for Shabbis. You have to decide what lights to leave on and what to leave off, prep water for tea if you want it in the next 26 hours, etc… otherwise that all will become Muktza. Once that is done and about 18 minutes before Shabbis comes in, you will hear a loud siren. This is to warn you that it is nearly time. Everyone keeps running and rushing and trying to finish until… BAM candles are lit and there is silence. Significantly less cars on the road, no radios, just quiet. And Shabbis has begun.

And since this post is getting lengthy, I will break it up. Tomorrow – the start of a beautiful 26 hours.

Originally posted at – AshkanOrthoNewalForm-ish



  1. http://yummyearth.comNot sure if the gummies are kosher, but everything else is. Great post! CH is the best.PS – this is Shoshana Z. from Denver, but Google posts my screen name instead. 🙂

  2. Thanks Shoshana! 🙂 Glad you found me!

  3. Crown Heights is hardly the closest you can get to a shtetl in modern-day America. Crown Heights is still overwhelmingly African-American, and in any case is part of an 8 million person (majority non-Jewish) municipality.The closest you cna get to a shtetl in modern-day America is Kiryas Joel, which IS a modern-day shtetl. That's aside from the fact that I suspect most shtetls would have expelled anyone claiming a dead guy was, right now, Mashiach (which a significant number of people in Crown Heights do)

  4. Hi Meir, thanks for commenting. I would agree and stand corrected that Kiryas Joel is more of a shtetl than Crown Heights, however, it is not accessible to anyone except people in that community. Semantically, a shtetl is defined as a typically small town with a large Jewish population, which I feel CH falls into. Additionally, wikipedia states, "The concept of shtetl culture is used as a metaphor for the traditional way of life of 19th-century Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks." Which, again, I feel fits CH quite well. It may not seem that way to insiders but for other people, it is kinda like going to an Amish village… a view into another world that we don't see everyday. Miriam Webster defines it as -Main Entry: shtetlVariant(s): also shte·tel ˈshte-təl, ˈshtā-Function: nounInflected Form(s): plural shtet·lach ˈshtet-ˌläḵ, ˈshtāt- also shtetelsEtymology: Yiddish shtetl, from Middle High German stetel, diminutive of stat place, town, city, from Old High German, place — more at steadDate: 1949: a small Jewish town or village formerly found in Eastern Europe A shtetl doesn't have to exclude others, rather it is a large Jewish population within a city. It doesn't mean only a Jewish population. As for the assertion about the Moshiach, I can't speak for shtetlach because I didn't live in one in pre-Holocaust Europe but I imagine there were always fanatics in the community, as there are in every community today. Yes, there are some people who believe the Rebbe was the Moshiach but I don't judge the whole group on some fanatics… just the same way I treat other groups (other Jews, Muslim groups, Christian groups). I think we do a disservice to our fellow Jews to demonize them as a whole.Again, I appreciate the comment!

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