On a freezing Friday night in Brooklyn, a group of 18 Crown Heights residents scurry through the crowds of Jews leaving synagogue and make their way to a second-story apartment on Rogers Avenue for Shabbat dinner.
Inside, hippie art and vintage John Lennon photos share wall space with drawings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad hasidic sect, and a yellow “Moshiach” flag, the symbol of the movement’s messianic wing. A large glass table holds the evening’s spread: sauteed vegetables, kale salad, vegan cholent and a challah so perfect, attendees say, “only a gay man could have baked it.”
After a ceremonial blessing over wine and bread, the guests get to talking. A disc jockey, graphic artist and rabbi are having a heated discussion about Chabad’s influence on Indian meditation, while a photographer is explaining to a pregnant lady why Mitzvah Tanks, Chabad’s outreach vehicles, are the most brilliant thing to happen to planet Earth since Miles Davis.
This is not your typical Shabbat dinner in Crown Heights, the worldwide headquarters of the Chabad movement.
While nearly all the participants were raised in hasidic homes, most have strayed from strict religious practice. Yet rather than flee the neighborhood, they have chosen to remain in the heart of the Chabad community.
“The way I grew up, you had to either be 100 percent committed to religion or you’re out. There was no picking and choosing,” said Shmuley Toron, the 25-year-old gay man from Cincinnati responsible for the perfect challah. “But there are parts of the religion that I love, which is why we’re still here in Crown Heights. And I know I can be as religious as I want to be without having to leave completely.”
Toron and his friends are part of a community of Chabad misfits who, while not fully embraced by the Crown Heights mainstream, are beginning to find a place for themselves in an outwardly conformist community. His apartment has gained a reputation as the place people go to party, relax or escape the neighborhood’s rigid social norms – a situation that is virtually unthinkable in other hasidic communities, which are more likely to shun members that don’t fully abide by communal standards.
“The acceptance fringe members see in Crown Heights is really rare to that community, and it wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” said Hella Winston, a sociologist and author of the 2006 book “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels.” “Crown Heights is a type of place that is much more tolerant that most insular, hasidic communities. And their attitude is that they will mostly meet you where you are.”