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!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • 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.