Hasidic Rebels Find Home in Brooklyn Chabad Congregation

Hippie Art and Vegan Cholent for Crown Heights 'Misfits'

Rebels in Crown Heights: A unique community of Hasidic rebels is carving out a niche for itself in Brooklyn.
Avi Crevoshay
Rebels in Crown Heights: A unique community of Hasidic rebels is carving out a niche for itself in Brooklyn.

By JTA

Published February 26, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

One of 13 siblings raised in a Chabad family, Toron kept his sexuality a secret through years of religious camps and schooling, including a stint in a rabbinical seminary. He finally came out to his family four years ago, and still maintains some religious practices – keeping a full beard, covering his head and learning Tanya – though he doesn’t associate with communal institutions.

He does attend a new synagogue, however: Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, or CAY, led by Rabbi Chezzie Denebeim, a 27-year-old Californian, and his wife, Sima, who pride themselves on creating an environment open to everyone.

Compared to a typical Chabad synagogue, CAY is revolutionary. Board members are mostly women, who are permitted to lecture and sing along during services, and there is no dress code. Social events are coed, without a mechitzah gender partition.

The synagogue has been around for two years and recently purchased its own space, despite occasional opposition and criticism from the community.

“Our shul breaks the black and white in this community. It comes with color,” Denebeim said. “I can’t say that we have an agenda, I just want each person to embark on their own personal journey at our shul. And if they don’t and just come for the music, that’s fine, too.”

The community around CAY has become something of a magnet for the wayward children of Chabad families from across the country. Aviva Bogart, the 21-year-old daughter of a Chabad rabbi in Massachusetts with a partially shaven head, says more misfits have been moving to the area.

“This feels like the first time there’s in-reach within the community, instead of sending efforts to help those in the outside world,” Bogart said, referring to the global outreach corps of Chabad emissaries. “I think Chabad is beginning to realize how many people are getting lost and losing their religion, and how much of a change they really need. We’re not all completely lost, just because we don’t keep everything.”

When Toron first came out as gay, his mother cried incessantly and begged him to go to reparative therapy, fearful of the ostracized life he would live. Today, Toron has a boyfriend and says he is happier than ever.

“When I first realized I was gay, I wanted to toss the whole thing,” Toron said. “I felt like an abomination, I was so ashamed. And it’s terrifying, but I’m still trying to figure out where I stand, with my religion and my sexuality. I’m constantly living with one foot in and one foot out, but a part of me knows I can’t let go.”

Not surprisingly, not everyone in Crown Heights is embracing the new arrivals.

Last week, Bogart said a stranger approached her while she was walking to synagogue and demanded that she pull down her skirt. Bogart said there is an old-school mentality within the community, but she thinks it will change as CAY grows.

“Sure, I’m afraid to mix the pot and change things up, but there’s no other option,” Denebeim said. “Everyone here is status quo and that is a very dangerous thing.

“We needed something else because what we have is not working. You have to remember that the rebbe was revolutionary, too, and he taught us to be leaders, not followers.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.