Two Trees (of Life) Grow in Brooklyn

Throughout the year, friends gather at the adjacent Chabad centers in the Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods of Brooklyn, as in the Purim celebration at Chabad of Bushwick.
Throughout the year, friends gather at the adjacent Chabad centers in the Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods of Brooklyn, as in the Purim celebration at Chabad of Bushwick.

Zachary Ruttenberg first connected with Chabad last year in Mumbai, India, where he was living at the time. Two young rabbinical students from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., showed up at the synagogue where he was praying—Magen David in Colaba—and said if he was ever in Brooklyn, he should look them up. A year and several countries later, Ruttenberg did just that; he reconnected with one of them.

Ruttenberg, 27 and originally from the Chicago area, wound up moving to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and working in New York City's diamond industry. These days, he says he considers himself lucky to call Chabad of North Brooklyn his hometown community.

He spends Friday nights and some Saturdays at the second floor space run by Rabbi Shmuel and Devora Leah Lein and Rabbi Yekutiel and Esther Feldman, and also attends holiday programs and big events there. He says he appreciates the chance to spend time with people who know each other’s names in a comfortable place where they can delve into Judaism, learn, socialize and unwind.

Chabad Centers
  Chabad of North Brooklyn
  Chabad of Bushwick

“It’s open; you can practice to your degree of comfort,” he says.

Ruttenberg adds that he especially enjoys when his Chabad and the neighboring Chabad of Bushwick come together, as they sometimes do, for events and celebrations: “You meet new people, see what kinds of folks are there—it’s bigger.”

Rabbi Menachem Heller, co-director of Chabad of Bushwick, helps make it all happen. He has lived in Bushwick since 2008, after growing up in a different part of Brooklyn; his wife, Chana, comes from Milan, Italy. He took to the area after hearing from relatives about a fleet of young people moving there.


Enjoying ‘The Loom’

“We grew with them,” Heller says of his Chabad center, in a mini-mall called “The Loom,” which has become home to a slew of independent artists and shops.

As the community expands and the area continues to become a destination for those looking for a more laid-back, less expensive living alternative within New York City proper, Heller, 34, says they’re seeking a bigger space and their own building to better accommodate regular attendees and guests. “When they come to us, this is like their home,” says Heller.

“The Loom” is home to independent artists, shops and Chabad's Bushwick center.

They host Friday-night meals, where people eat and sing and linger, and then return on Saturday to pray and enjoy a kiddush lunch that lasts the better part of the afternoon. Classes take place during the week, coupled with holiday events, women’s program and even monthly barbecues in a shared yard.

“We try to cater to all different types of people,” states the rabbi.

He and his wife also hope to build a mikvah. “It’s just turned around in such a short time,” Heller says of the neighborhood. “It’s an international neighborhood now; people from around the world come and they feel like this is their place; this is their neighborhood. And our shul is that kind of place.”


Similar Thing Happening Next Door

Lein has also watched the population evolve. His history with the area goes back to about 2001, when he was a student handing out Chanukah candles in local bars. The Chabad house itself—a second-story, modest-looking space with large windows overlooking well-trafficked North Fifth Street—has been there 10 years. Now 34, Lein has been there a little more than eight years since he joined Rabbi Feldman, 42, who started the location.

Over time, the Leins and Feldmans have developed a foundation to accommodate families with children, including a preschool, a Hebrew school, and Sabbath and holiday programs. They also host social events and holiday celebrations for adults without children—Williamsburg is filled with singles and young couples, many in the arts scene who found reasonably priced housing in the warehouse district that’s now being turned into trendy entertainment spots, restaurants and hotels.

In fact, a flurry of national media attention this spring—articles in The New York Times, USA Today and online travel sites—pushed Williamsburg as a place to see and be seen.

There are activities for kids in both communities all year long.

“I hope we will continue to do what we’re doing, and increase in quality and quantity,” Lein says, which also includes a concerted effort to bring the Jewish holidays into public spaces.


Home Away From Home

Brooklyn resident Mara Stephens hopes so, too. She first got involved with Chabad through a friend, and both of her children went to its preschool, which she plays an active role in.

“It’s my home away from home,” she said, noting that the co-directors—the rabbi and his wife—are “generous and real” in how they work with people and affect lives.

Chabad has inspired Stephens, 43, and her husband, Eli Chapman, to put up a mezuzah on the doorpost of their new home and to send her children to Jewish day school, instead of public school, she says. “They’re some of the most open-minded people I’ve ever known. I love the values and the skills they have given to my kids and our family.”

Residents say the rabbis in both areas have developed warm and welcoming communities that draw folks in and bring them back. Aleksandr Bodnar, 29, of Bushwick discovered Heller in his neighborhood when he was looking into Jewish learning—and got hooked on studying Tanya, the foundational text of Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy.

“Rabbi Heller is a great rabbi, and he’s very good with people—and people from all walks of life,” attests Bodnar. “If you’re a Jew and you’re in Bushwick, you know the rabbi and he knows you, and if this is not so, then you should come by and say hello.”

Heller has also become an anchor for the community, says Bodnar—someone who fields calls to address people’s needs and concerns. He adds that learning is just one piece of the equation: “Every time you sit down with the rabbi, you’re going to learn something.”

The professional guitarist says he has traded the band-touring lifestyle for a “kosher” one, a transition helped along by Heller. “No more playing on Shabbos, so I don’t do tours like I used to. I had to change my whole career approach in music,” he says.

The rabbi has been helpful as an advisor, Bodnar says, but never pushed him to make this kind of change. “He taught me Torah, and Hashem moved my feet in one direction.”

Welcoming a new Torah scroll at Chabad of North Brooklyn.

Both Chabad presences—in Williamsburg and in Bushwick—are booming as the neighborhoods continue to gentrify and attract urban dwellers who see promise and the expectation of longtime living in Brooklyn. As these areas become more family-friendly—with all kinds of amenities being built to accommodate them—people are considering permanency there.

Ruttenberg says he, for one, is excited to watch his Chabad welcome diverse residents and experience related growth. The rabbi, he says, has a way of “engaging the crowd.”

“I look forward to speaking with him and relaxing” in his presence, Ruttenberg says; it’s that kind of regularity that offers a rhythm to life.

“Nothing else is sure in the world, but Shabbos comes every week.”