“Where’s the Love?… That’s it — goodbye?” were Isaac Schonfeld’s words after realizing that he may have played his last hand in negotiations with the Millinery Center Synagogue Board. Schonfeld and his anti-institution, “Chulent,” have been on serially monogamous terms with the Synagogue on and off for over four years now.
As well as providing an informal meeting center for the misfits and the marginals of the Orthodox world, Chulent has garnered media attention (not least from the Forward) — including “Punk Jews” a documentary film by Evan Kleinman and Jesse Zook Mann about three of the Chulent’s artists: Y-Love, Levi Okunov and Rivka Karasik,for its innovative and dynamic programming as well its hot bean stew offered for free to both the hungry and the vagrant.
It has been described by one visitor as a “Jewish Alcoholics Anonymous where you have to bring your own chair.”
Disputes over who is getting more out of the relationship have finally come to a head. As worshippers attempted to enter for Friday services last week they found protective locks put in place to guard the synagogue and sanctuary had been broken. Schonfeld and Chulent were asked to cough up the costs of the damage. After years of love — paying no rent and being responsible for only minimal upkeep — the incident of the broken locks triggered a series of mutual recriminations that threaten to sever the relationship once and for all.
According to Rabbi Wahrman, the synagogue has new board members who have little patience for the indulgence shown to the group over the years.
Chulent was originally ejected from the synagogue for property damage years ago, returning only when they were chased out of their subsequent home in the East Village. They have attracted unwelcome attention to themselves at the synagogue by allegedly clogging sinks, causing water damage in the sanctuary, throwing items out of the window and finally attracting “all kinds of crazy people,” as Rabbi Wahrman puts it.
The new president thinks the shul has been neglected and has hopes for the congregation which, though once the sanctuary for a myriad of Jewish workers in the garment district, now only hosts daytime prayers for the occasional Orthodox professionals of midtown.
Board members have also apparently taken notice that Chulent, has come to be seen as a “refuge” for those in outright flight from the frum world, far from the Carlebach-style kiruv they once thought they were sponsoring. Nevertheless, according to Rabbi Wahrman, all they are asking for is a nightly rental fee, to keep a struggling synagogue afloat, which Schonfeld insists is beyond the means of most of the regulars.
“Are we the enemy now? Have they decided we are just a menace and that it is all about money?” asks Schonfeld. Both shy and temperate, Schonfeld resists steps that would make Chulent just another organization on the Jewish landscape. Though not an equipped community center, members have bailed out those in need of temporary lodging or even those imprisoned on drug charges who have nowhere else to turn.
He distances himself from “Footsteps,” which is a more explicit support group for those taking a path out of the Orthodox world. He takes pride in the accepting and non-judgmental atmosphere whose goal is to lend moral support for those who have lost community otherwise. For Schonfeld, the negotiations are not about putting a price tag on the relationship but rather reminding the synagogue of their obligation as part of the “public trust,” to provide such resources. Regardless, these post-modern luftmenshn may not make have it in them to make their anti-Darwinian endrun around the fittest in pursuit of their survival of the misfits.
Watch the trailer for “Punk Jews” below, which they are raising funds to finish, here.