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Of Hasids, Hipsters and Hipster Hasids

In Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has recently seen lots of change in its population, an article on the Lubavitch website COLLive has sparked a bonfire of reaction. An anonymous “open letter,” titled “Take Back Our Neighborhoods,” urges Jewish landlords in the heavily Lubavitch and West Indian neighborhood not to rent to non-Jews, as it describes their immodest ways:

Friends, we pay a premium to live in this neighborhood, and we strive to create an atmosphere of holiness and kedusha for our children and teens. These yuppies bring pritzus [Sisterhood translation: immodesty, with overtones of whorishness] to our neighborhood. They come out at night to our restaurants and act inappropriately while waiting on line etc.

We would hope that landlords, especially the Crown Heights landlords, would put a priority on our values, but sadly the need to make money is taking precedence for them. Some young agents and landlords will specifically rent to these goyim instead of a fellow Jewish family. Sadly, some homeowners have gone so far as bringing these yuppies as tenants in their home in prime locations.

The article author points to things like suntanning gatherings on the rooftops of local buildings, at least one of which was visible to students at a Lubavitch school, and recommends forming a committee, as the Satmars have in nearby Williamsburg, “to curb this issue.”

It has prompted an unusual number of re-postings, on sites with an overt interest in all things Haredi, like FailedMessiah.com, but also in the secular outlets like Brownstoner.com and The Daily News.

Crown Heights has, in the last handful of years, become a popular place to live for young artists and professionals in search of relatively cheap housing in close proximity to Manhattan, and good restaurants and bars.

Haredi communities including the Satmars of Williamsburg have made a priority of putting up high virtual walls around their shtetl in the city. Dress and behavior codes are strict. A teenage girl can be kicked out of school for talking to a boy on the street, if he’s not an immediate family member, for instance. Secular publications are verboten. Girls go to school only through 11th grade, so that they can’t get a New York City high school diploma and then go on to college. Yiddish is the community’s first language.

Lubavitch shtetl walls are more permeable — given that the community’s highest form of service entails going out into the world to help other Jews fulfill Jewish obligations, like blessing a lulav on Sukkot, or, for men, putting on tefillin and for women, lighting Shabbat candles. The Lubavitch community is famous for being more welcoming to Jews interested in becoming more observant than other Haredi communities are.

Immodesty even within the Jewish community has recently been a simmering tension, as evidenced by signs often posted on street lights, like this one just the other day, urging women to dress in modest attire and promising that wearing a long skirt will bring long life. There’s a whole new style trend among people I call “hipster Hasids.” Chic young women (because they’re not limited to the black pants-white shirt uniform of their male peers) routinely wear close-fitting tops, tight, knee-length skirts, and high heels.

A popular new Lubavitch synagogue, Congregation Ahavas Yisroel, which is attracting hundreds of young Jews to its services, is also illuminating this tension in the community. The congregation, which makes a point of including women as much as possible rather than relegating them to an afterthought, has also led to men and women chatting outside its building.

One woman, in a New York Jewish Week article about the synagogue, said:

This kind of mingling may be appropriate in Chabad Houses outside Crown Heights. It is not appropriate inside Crown Heights. It’s confusing to kids.

Lubavitch has long tried to straddle the line between being in the world and maintaining separateness from it. This “open letter” is evidence that many in the community are finding it increasingly hard to do.

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