The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part I

By Ray Schultz

One spring Saturday in 1973, an African-American doctor was trying help a patient in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but the access road where he was parked was blocked by Hasidic Jews observing the Sabbath. There was a scuffle, the police arrived, and Hasidim poured out of their synagogue. The cops arrested several, then entered the renowned Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway like Cossacks raiding a village, and committed the offense of making their prisoners ride in vans on Shabbos.

What a story: Orthodox Jews being clubbed by cops on horseback–in modern-day New York. How could this be? As a writer who specialized in urban strife, I thought this was perfect, and it would be so easy to get: All I had to do was talk to Samuel Shrage, who in 1964 had founded a Hasidic street patrol called the Macabees, said to be nice Jewish boys with walkie-talkies who tried to defend the elderly from muggers. Shrage now worked in city government as director of the Neighborhood Action Program, under Mayor John Lindsay. I called, and was given an appointment.

A few days later, I entered a spare but high-ceilinged government office on Chambers St. and met a large dark-haired man dressed in a crisp modern suit and head-covering, and wearing the obligatory fringes and beard.. He greeted me cordially, using my full first name instead of the single syllable I used in my byline, then started talking and didn’t stop for two hours.

First , he described the episode. “They walked into 770, the Temple of the world, with guns drawn on the Sabbath. Can you imagine what would happen if they came into St. Patrick’s Cathedral? With their guns drawn? Can you imagine when a cop walks into a Black Muslim temple? It’s a big issue.”

Were the cops anti-Semitic? “Cops are big in our community,” Shrage answered. “They represent order. That Saturday, a lot of it wasn’t racist at all, just too many cops for too small an issue, and too many who didn’t understand the Hasidim don’t ride in cars on Shabbos. The Hasidim will gather if one their people are in trouble. They’re not going to assault anyone, they’re just going to be there.. Too many cops from different precincts were not as familiar with the cultural thing of the Hasidim. They saw a mob coming, and said, ‘Let’s take our sticks and break the mob apart.’ The cop who works there knows the Hasidim are always in mobs. We’re mobs.”

Shrage was used to this kind of controversy. He had been criticized for starting the Macabees, even within his own synagogue. “’What are you doing?’ they said. ‘The goyim are gonna say this, the goyim are going to say that.’ There was so much concern about the goyim. Well, I like to get along with the goyim, I like the goyim. I’m part of this society, I’m an American. But damnit, I can’t go around doing things to please other people when I’m being stepped on.”

Shrage went into politics, campaigning for Lindsay and eventually was named director of the New York City Youth Board, the first Hasidic Jew ever to achieve such a post. “After the Macabee experience, I said, ‘If we can’t fight in the streets, let’s fight in City Hall. And I also believe that we broke ground then politically. Up until then, if you take a look at the Hasidim, they were the lovely little remnants of yesteryear walking the street. If they ever wanted to see somebody in government, like a district leader, they had to hire a lawyer to be a spokesman for them. And the lawyer will say to them, ‘Chaim Yankel, you stand in the corner, there, I’ll do the talking for you,’ and there stood the Hasid smiling, looking good. I’ve seen that, and it killed me.’”

And now?

“There were those here who said look closely at this because you’ll never see it again,” he went on. “The acculturation processes of America are going to make real American Jews out of these people, meaning that their beards and their earlocks and their black kaftans will go. They said, ‘That’s a dead generation.’ The fascinating thing is right here in America the movement has not only increased in quantity, it has increased in quality,” Shrage said.

I wanted to know more, especially about the latter point, so Shrage gave me some phone numbers, and I found myself at 770 Eastern Parkway a few days later, meeting with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a kindly but slightly pained-looking man, who served as personal secretary to the Lubavacher Rebbe, in charge of public relations, among other things. He had attended the Boston Latin School, and had a partially non-Lubavitch background. Krinsky asked if I had any religious affiliation. I answered that I had none—I considered myself an existentialist, neither Christian nor Jew. I think he sensed some softness both in that and in my plan. He advised me that. I could write about the neighborhood conflicts, and the Lubavitchers would offer what little comment they could. Or I could write about the Hasidim in general, and they would help. Maybe it was his paternal manner, but I chose the latter.

Meanwhile, I studied up on the Hasidim in my imperfect way. Hasidism was founded by Israel Bal Shem Tov (circa 1700-1760), a Jewish peasant and mystic who taught his followers, mostly illiterate Jews who could barely live off the Polish mud, that book learning was not as important as fervor in dealing with the Almighty. His ideas were opposed by Jewish scholars like the Vilna Goan. But they were accepted by the suffering masses. Within 30 years of the Bal Shem Tov’s demise, half the Jews in Eastern Europe were Hasidim (pious ones), and every town had its tzaddik or Rebbe, a Hasidic master whose word was taken as law by his followers.

Some were in Poland, some in Hungary, still others in Russia. And while their beliefs and observances were the same, each group developed its own character. “There was practically no contact at all,” one rabbi told me. “Once in years would different Hasidim ever meet—at a wedding, perhaps.”

Schneur Zalman founded what is now known as Lubavitch (or Chabbad) in the Russian city of Ladi. It was both mystical and intellectual, a “profound system,” one man called it, based largely on Hasidus and Kabala.

But it was a hard life in the Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jews were restricted in Russia: They could expect a pogrom by Cossacks at any time. And things worsened, if anything, when the Bolshevik experiment started in in 1917. Joseph Isaac Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was sentenced to death by the Soviets in 1927 for spreading Judaism, I was told. Jews in the United States appealed to Herbert Hoover to get him freed, and through some diplomatic maneuver, it was done in 1929. But it was only a temporary relief.

In 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Like Hoover, Roosevelt intervened on behalf of Schneerson. “Two men from Goering came and asked the Rebbe for a list of people he wanted to take with him out of Poland. He picked 10 or 11 people, and they crossed the Lithuanian border in December 1939 after promising never to return.”

The Rebbe arrived in the United States on May 25, 1940, determined to reach out to Jewish youth. In Europe, The Nazis commenced the Holocaust. “The Hasids were particularly massacred in Europe, because they were so visibly Jewish,” Shrage said. “In fact, if you take a look at Nazi propaganda materials, they taught their children in Goebbels and those books it would always be a man with a beard with the earlocks.”

Rebbes like Schnerson “demanded very much from themselves, and they demanded very much of those people who were close to them, who adhered to whatever they said,” Yehuda Krinsky said. “It was true in Russia. It wasn’t only the Rebbe who was involved, but hundreds of Hasidim who used to go around literally with a sword at their throats, building mikvas in basements and establishing chedorim. Getting matzohs to the Jews for Pesach, all this went under the threat of the death penalty. Many were killed, or sent to Siberia and never heard from again.”

Their ranks decimated, the Hasidic survivors tried to regroup after the war. Many went to Palestine, and large groups ended up Brooklyn. Some gravitated to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brownsville and Crown Heights, some to the Satmar Rebbe in Williamsburg, still others to the Bobover Rebbe in Borough Park. They hadn’t all been followers of these Rebbes, but their own tzaddiks had perished in many cases. I wondered if a few chose their new Rebbes based on where they could find an apartment.

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