A Brooklyn Mitzvah: Converting the Hipsters

The gentrifying core of Bushwick occupies only a few blocks, and for Rabbi Menachem Heller, 29, herein lies the problem.

As an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that emphasizes outreach to less observant Jews, Rabbi Heller wants good access to the hipster arrivistes. Unfortunately, his current spot is too far away from the few hangouts – a health food store, a coffee shop, an artists’ studio space, a bar or two – to get noticed.

Mr. Heller moved to the neighborhood three years ago, after hearing from a couple of relatives, Chabad emissaries in burgeoning North Williamsburg, that people were leaving their neighborhood for Bushwick, seeking cheaper rents. He’s currently scouting a more central Bushwick location, ideally akin to the Williamsburg Chabad center’s prime real estate on North 5th Street.

“I was trying to copy what they had in North Williamsburg, but it’s not working here,” Mr. Heller said recently, with a note of frustration. “People come and go a lot. Most people aren’t married, they don’t settle down. They come for a half-year, then they move out.”

With mixed results, a number of young Chabad emissaries like Mr. Heller have set up shop in recent years in Brooklyn’s gentrified (and gentrifying) neighborhoods: Dumbo, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Carroll Gardens and Prospect Heights. The Lubavitcher movement sends representatives to all corners of the globe — basically, wherever there’s a handful of Jews — but the transformation of many of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods has provided some rabbis with appealing outreach opportunities closer to their home base in Crown Heights.

“We don’t look at it like, ‘hey, there’s gentrification here.’ It’s where there’s a need,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, spokesman for Chabad.org, the movement’s extensive online apparatus. “But a lot of times, when there’s gentrification, there are Jews moving in as well.”

The rabbis insist they’re not pursuing a particular demographic, but acknowledge that secular people in their 20s and early 30s are a good crowd to woo, since they’re not usually affiliated with local Jewish organizations and are still open to a certain amount of self-redefinition.

Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, 30, who set up a Chabad center six years ago in Prospect Heights, moved in on a hunch that good housing stock would soon put the place on the up-and-up (he was also drawn by a lovely but dilapidated synagogue that called for fixing up).

“Then the real estate boom happened and people were coming in droves,” he said, “So we were kind of in the right place at the right time.”

The rabbi befriended a non-Jewish developer who gave him free space right near Grand Army Plaza. The Lubavitcher community center (slogan: “one of the city’s most unorthodox, Orthodox destinations”) has been temporarily displaced while a luxury tower goes up, but Mr. Kirschenbaum says the developer has promised him a reduced rate in the new space.

He also forged ties with Matt Roff, who owns Southpaw, a popular Park Slope music venue, and the Franklin Park beer gardens, which opened this year on the edge of Crown Heights. As Mr. Roff, a 33-year-old who describes himself as “pretty loose” in his Jewish observance, tells it, Rabbi Kirschenbaum first stopped by his office a couple years ago, took him out to the parking lot for a toast and a vodka shot, and returned a few days later with a mezuzah, a tiny replica of an important Hebrew prayer that religious Jews keep on their doorframes.

For the past two years, Mr. Roff has lent out Southpaw for the rabbi’s Purim party. Although last year featured Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jew whose mix of hip-hop, rock and reggae has earned him a mainstream following, the scene wasn’t Southpaw’s usual. “On a regular Saturday night, I have hipsters from Nebraska,” Mr. Roff said. “And on a Purim party I have a rabbi and women with wigs.”

Rabbi Kirschenbaum wasn’t the only Lubavitcher who seized on Prospect Heights. Rabbi Tali Frankel, 31, moved in three years ago and started hosting Friday night dinners and beer and religious discussion nights at Bar Sepia on Underhill Avenue. (His activities resulted in a brief dispute over who could claim the title of official Chabad representative in Prospect Heights. Both parties now say it belongs to Rabbi Kirschenbaum, who was there first.)

There are frustrations. It’s tough to meet people, concedes Rabbi Avrom Tov Chakoff, 27, of Dumbo. “It’s not a place where people are like, ‘Yes! We want a rabbi!” This, despite Dumbo being “six blocks by four blocks” and the rabbi having staked out a high-ceilinged, industrial-chic space down the hall from Rebar, a favored hangout. One solution, which he says has had some success, was to invite local Jewish artists to participate in art installations. Last year’s show, which took place close to Passover, was called “The Exodus Sessions.”

In Carroll Gardens, Rabbi DovBer Pinson, the neighborhood’s Chabad emissary and an eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, has elected to let residents take him as-is. No watered-down, Madonna-style Kaballah for him. “I’m, like, the anti-cool,” Rabbi Pinson, 36, said. “But I think sometimes the anti-cool is actually really cool. I believe in being authentic.”

The neighborhood’s large population of artists, musicians, models, actors and writers, “people whose time is in their own hands,” Mr. Pinson says, has helped with turnout for Kaballah classes. It probably also doesn’t hurt that his center is housed in a converted warehouse, lovingly restored for free by Akiva Reich, a 29-year-old developer who specializes in environmentally-friendly materials.

Mr. Reich, who grew up in a Lubavitcher family and went through a rebellious partying stage on the Lower East Side before settling on an ethos somewhere between the two, calls the aesthetic of the warehouse, which has a distressed cement floor, exposed brick, high ceilings and chandeliers, “rustic modern.”

Back in Bushwick, Rabbi Heller still dreams of such a space. He wants a storefront “library lounge,” where it’s easy to pop in and out. Something casual.

“I want one of them to design it,” he said of his hipster neighbors. “Something really artsy, something that they would like.” A Brooklyn Mitzvah: Converting the Hipsters