I Was Wrong About Crown Heights

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a dislike of religious communities. A distaste. A feeling of being closed in. Of being watched.

Of suffocating.

New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago, LA, Florida. They all sounded… crowded.

My first memorable visit to Crown Heights, Brooklyn (otherwise known as the epicenter of Chabad Lubavitch activities) was during an annual women’s convention. I was overwhelmed.

Houses and apartments and gymnasium floors transformed into accommodations for thousands of guests. Masses of women flowed in from far-flung countries to celebrate the awesomeness of femininity. My senses were overtaken by a potent mixture of estrogen and religious fervor.

Groups of high schoolers supported Jewish stores and swished down the main road in pleated skirts and button down shirts. And things ran with a chaotic sort of smoothness. Until these lovely young ladies saw their friends for the first time in a year.

Or for the first time in three days (you could never really tell).

Regardless of the separation time, the moment a long-lost friend was spotted, purchases were crushed amidst hugging and excited babbling about things of all sorts.

And the shrieking. There was this awe-inspiring, fear-inducing, other-worldly shrieking. The kind of excited shriek that would emerge from somewhere deep inside me when I was 5 and was given a new package of stickers.

But multiplied by 2000.

And I ducked my head and cowered on the side and covered my ears. Because I barely knew anyone and had a deeply rooted fear of masses of people and loud noises.

And I felt myself slowly disappearing. Back down south, I was unique; I was one of the token religious girls. In high school, I was unique; I was one of the token less-religious girls. But in Crown Heights?

In Crown Heights, I could not even say that I was ‘one of the girls’.

It felt like there was no ‘Me’ in Community.

And I just kept telling myself the same thing: I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.

That I belonged somewhere quieter, more relaxed. Somewhere with trees. Somewhere where people sat and talked and had full feature length conversations… not screams and quick chats and pecks on the cheek.

That feeling of isolation dissipated a tad as I grew older. I got to feel more at home in the world of Chabad. As my social circle expanded, I became acquainted with more people.

I recognized something in Chassidus and mysticism that resonated. Deeply. I decided that if I could be anything when I grew up, I would be a Chabadnik.

I even connected with my feminine side and learned to appreciate the significant outpouring of emotion that occurs during that whole shrieking thing.

But still, most of my friends were ‘out of towners’. And still, Crown Heights intimidated me.

Crown Heights was the kind of place that I was overly excited to visit:

Because a part of my glorious family lived there.

Because of the stores that were filled with food products. A ridiculous amount of kosher food products. Everything. Kosher.

Because of Fridays. The day I would travel in from the city and find a perch on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Ave (the busiest corner in town) and just watch. Because on Fridays, all the young Chabad boys would travel all over Brooklyn and Manhattan to go put tefillin on people. And learn with others. And allow every Jew the opportunity to do something Jewish.

And as the sun began it’s decent, these boys would return from their adventures via underground. And every 6 or 7 minutes they would spurt out of the subway station; a fountain of black hats and white shirts.

But the colors that greeted my eyes were not black and white, but conviction and passion.

And light. So much light.

Because of Friday night, when there would be a rush of activity and then. Silence. The air on Shabbos moved slower there. Moved with purpose.

Crown Heights was the kind of place that I was overly excited to leave:

Because the longer I would stay there, the more it would grate on me. That girls my age seemed to be stuck, waiting eternally for men who never seemed to arrive. That my friends would put on their heels in order to obligatorily attend a wedding for 10 minutes. That someone once told me to fix my hair before I walked down the street, because ‘you never know who will see you.’

Because when people would stop me on the street to say hello, their eyes would periodically flick to look past me rather than at me. Because they were  anticipating and on the lookout for the next approaching person.

Because of the way that, when I walked into a home, some would ask for my last name and not my first.

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And because after a while, I caught myself doing the exact same things.

And I found that my overexposure to a multitude of others in my chosen sect made me callous. Made me take the magic of kosher food shops for granted. Made me immune to individual interactions. Made me lose a sense of what made me… well… me.

And I would repeat it to myself: I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.

And, as openminded as I prided myself on being, I began to stereotype. ‘Crown Heightsers’ began to take on one face. I began to refer to me as Me and them as Them.

And I would come to Crown Heights and fill myself on conviction and passion and light and leave Crown Heights and return to space and individuality and anonymity.

In Crown Heights and Out of Crown Heights never seemed to touch.

But of late, things have changed. Circumstance has found me in Brooklyn much more frequently than ever before. For Shabbos. For holidays. For happy things. For sad things.

And… well… there’s no other way to say this. I’ve seen that I was wrong.

Because I hadn’t, in fact, been looking at Crown Heightsers. I had been overlooking You, in all of your individual, fantastic glory. So many little moments of You.

You, who has four children and three bedrooms, and yet always provide me with my own room in which to sleep.

You, who have not only had me over when I was sick and coughing and congested, but plied me with chicken soup and stuck me in a room with a vaporizer and yelled at me when I tried to go for a walk in the cold.

You, who I had met only once at a wedding, but when I asked if you had room for Passover (meaning for a meal) asked, ‘for you to sleep?’ and included me in your family-only meals.

You, who not only invited me to your house for a Purim feast, but sent me away with bags of food to deliver to my sister, who had just given birth.

You, who opened the door when I rang your doorbell, even though you didn’t know me. Because I had been walking with my camera equipment, and it randomly started pouring. Flash flooding. And so I raced to the closest door with a mezuzah on it. And you invited me in and gave me tea and hosted me for an hour until the rain had stopped.

You, who randomly messaged me on FB, out of the blue. “Hey Roch, I know we haven’t spoken in a while, but I saw you yesterday and I was just thinking… I met a guy who might be good for you.”

You, who have stopped inviting me over, because you’ve told me that I’m at a point where I don’t need invitations.

I once brought a friend to Crown Heights for her first Orthodox Shabbat meal. As I walked her to the subway, she described what struck her about the experience.

“I’ve never seen a group of people sit around and wish each other well like that. There was so much affection there.”

I had no idea what she meant. And then I realized: she was describing something that I took totally for granted- the blessings that we gave each other as we each spoke at the table during the meal.

Sometimes I fear that being in a community means negating the existence of self. Means giving up one’s individuality.

And in a way it does.

Because truly connecting with others… giving to others… requires a person to put himself aside.

And it’s true, there’s no ‘Me’ in Community. There’s a bit less room for it. In Community, ‘Me’ falls a bit to the wayside. And for the ‘creative’ or ‘individual’ that can be terrifying.

But there is ‘Unity’ in Community. And true Unity has space for both ‘U’ and ‘I’.

And, of late, Crown Heights has not been a place that I run in and out of; it is a place that I stroll in. It is not a neighborhood that suffocates my creative side; it is a place in which my soul can breathe. Because it’s surrounded by other souls who care.

Who truly and honestly care.

And it is not a homogenous blur of faceless ‘him’s and ‘her’s and ‘skirt’s and ‘beard’s. But a heck of a lot of You’s.

Because Community provides something which space and ‘freedom’ and even trees just can’t compete with.

Love. Generosity. A truly G-dly sense of, ‘hey, we’re family’.

And you know what? I may live elsewhere, but a part of me feels like I belong here.

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