City of Refuge
AT 10 on a blustery night a few weeks ago, a slightly built 44-year-old Orthodox Jew named Isaac Schonfeld trudged to the top floor of the Millinery Center Synagogue.
Between Two Worlds
The synagogue, a three-story building on the Avenue of the Americas in the garment district, was opened in 1948 by a congregation of dressmakers and hatters. Their names, an assortment that is heavy on Sadies, Irvings, Berthas and Bernards, are recalled on memorial plaques inside the sanctuary.
Although the synagogue still operates as a house of worship, the sanctuary these days is in disarray. Shabby books are piled on worn wooden benches, and stains dot the faded burgundy carpet. A Con Ed bill from November for $1,309.39 is taped forlornly to a wall.
But this evening the place would not lack life.
As Mr. Schonfeld climbed the stairs, he was carrying a steaming 18-quart pot containing the traditional Sabbath stew known as chulent. Chulent is also the name given to the informal weekly gatherings for Orthodox Jews on the margins of their close-knit society that Mr. Schonfeld, a business consultant from Borough Park, Brooklyn, has been holding in the synagogue for the past year. Setting down his homemade bean stew, he adjusted a little electric heater and began greeting the first of the hundred or so people who would soon stream through the door.
A great majority of rigorously Orthodox Jews would have no interest in such a gathering. But for the small percentage who question aspects of their religion, and yearn to form a community of their own, events like Chulent are increasingly common in New York. As the secular world exerts an ever more powerful pull, a growing array of tools — including Web sites and under-the-radar gatherings like this one — are springing up to serve their needs and ease their way.
Among the early arrivals this evening was Sholom Keller, a 24-year-old with black glasses and an overgrown mohawk. Mr. Keller grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a Lubavitch Hasidic family, the seventh of 10 children, but became disillusioned with that life early on. To escape, Mr. Keller enlisted in the Army at age 18, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He returned home two years ago with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, newly radicalized political beliefs and a new name — Sholom Anarchy.
Also present this evening was Berri Halpern, an 18-year-old from a family of Satmar Hasidim. Although Mr. Halpern still lives in Williamsburg with his parents, he left his religious studies two years ago and recently cut off his ear locks. In place of the traditional black and white garb, he has acquired a wardrobe of jeans, T-shirts and shiny hip-hop medallions that he wears when he explores downtown clubs. He attends Chulent nearly every week.
By midnight, the room was full. In one corner of the room, a knot of men engaged in intense, freewheeling conversations on topics as varied as Wittgenstein and the nation's immigration policy, as if intellects honed during years of studying Talmud were suddenly being flexed on worldly subjects. In another corner, adults spoke about their families, their relationships and their existential dilemmas with an emotional nakedness that for most people disappears after adolescence.
"These people aren't one person," Mr. Schonfeld said of those who attend the gathering. "They're 10 people. Some people keep God but throw out the culture. Some people keep the culture but throw out God.
"One guy leaves because of challenges to the veracity of the religion. Another guy will leave because he wants to go off and listen to Madonna. Each person has his own story."
Outside, the streets were dark and empty except for a few taxis hurtling uptown. Inside, people beat on African drums, chain-smoked cigarettes, spoke Yiddish, drank beer, played electric guitars and sang old Hasidic songs at the top of their lungs, creating a mutant yet richly textured variation of the culture they grew up with. Young men wearing yarmulkes clutched one another's shoulders and danced. A man and woman sat in a corner studying a volume of ancient text. Sholom Anarchy and his friends scrawled graffiti on a wall.
The energy was almost palpable. It was as if, inside a packed space in the middle of the night, this motley crowd had found a stop on their own private underground railroad.
No Trumpets Blaring
Accounts of Jews straying from Orthodoxy can be found throughout the history of modern American Jewry.