Most New York tour guides will show you the holy trinity: Ellis Island, Empire State Building, Planet Hollywood. But Rabbi Beryl Epstein will show you a different kind of holy: Hasidic Crown Heights. Just as on any other tour, you pay your money ($15) and wear comfortable shoes. But instead of being herded through New York’s biggest landmarks, you end up in some of its smallest, including the living room of a bearded scribe calligraphing a Torah scroll. “I wish I could offer everybody a bit more comfortable accommodations,” apologizes Rabbi Yehuda Clapman, taking a break from his painstaking task. About 25 people are peering at his handiwork: a perfect column of the Old Testament, inked with a feather quill on parchment he cured himself. Aside from guests, the rabbi’s small parlor is crammed with hundreds of religious books and a fax. Talk about melding the old and the new! Well, yes, let’s, says Epstein, our tour guide. That’s what today’s tour is a ll about. Most people assume Hasidim are sort of like the Amish but Jewish he says. Nothing could be further from the truth. While his subgroup, the Lubavitcher Hasidim, do wear black hats, learn Yiddish and have as many children as God grants (10 is not uncommon), “We have one of the most frequented sites on the Internet,” boasts Epstein. A free 800-number provides Jewish lectures daily. And the tours he’s been giving for the last 14 years are just another way the community is reaching out to anyone who’s interested. Today, a class of 18 NYU students from all over the world is gathered in a subterranean library of Jewish books to start the tour, just a couple of doors down from the Kingston St. stop of the No. 3 train. First, Epstein, a cheery Tennessee native who grew up Jewish but not very religious, gives a brief history of Hasidism: The sect was born about 200 years ago in Poland, when a holy man called by his followers the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) feared the Jews were becoming a people divided. “You had almost a class system developing, of the scholarly Jews looking down on the average man,” says Epstein. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized the joy of prayer, and how the humble man’s supplications were every bit as legit as the sage’s. Which is not to say the movement shuns study. Hasidic kids in Crown Heights begin their formal schooling at age 3, and by age 5 are studying seven hours a day. With a spring in his step, the rabbi rouses the group and leads them half a block down to the the main synagogue. Congregation Lubavitch was led by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the group’s spiritual leader, until his death three years ago. A plain rectangular building with benches the color of Band-Aids, the architecture is anything but impressive. No stained-glass windows, no fancy drapes. But peering down from the balcony, we see a room buzzing with dozens of men in big, black hats bent over their books, talking, arguing, waving their arms. Little boys dash through. Voices rise. While these men are fervently debating the holy books, it sounds for all the world like a poker game. “I’m stunned,” says Irene Annus, 33, a student from Hungary. “Very amazing,” agrees Ayako Uchida, 30, an English teacher from Japan. The tour moves next door to the visitors center at the Rebbe’s headquarters, which is filled with mementos of his worldwide crusade: Russian posters explaining how to light Sabbath candles, collection boxes inscribed in Spanish. While the movement does not seek to convert non-Jews, it is eager to get all Jews practicing their religion. From here we walk a couple of blocks to the scribe’s home, and then it’s back to a gift shop on the main drag. Baseball cards of the great rabbis, anyone? “It’s not Colonial Williamsburg,” Epstein concludes. His community may look quaint, but it’s very much alive, as his tour (and all the baby carriages) prove. “A few years ago, we had a group from West Point here. I told them this is the West Point of Judaism” where Jews are expected to go the extra mile. Fall in! The two-hour tours are conducted on Wednesday and Sunday at 10:30 a.
Adults, $15; students and seniors, $10; kids under 12, $8. Reservations required. Groups welcome. Call (718) 953-5244 or 1-800-838-TOUR.