Aug 28, 2009
"Too Cool for Shul"
Philadelphia's famed South Street. Inset: Rabbi Menachem Schmidt

Shliach/Rabbi/band leader Menachem Schmidt has seen Philly's Lubavitch community grow to new heights, writes Philadelphia City Paper.

Andrew Thompson - Philadelphia City Paper

An Orthodox synagogue sits across the street from an abandoned lot on Poplar and North American streets, and on a cool May night, the members of that synagogue use it to throw what is undoubtedly the biggest party in Northern Liberties. The occasion is Lag B'Omer, one of the more obscure Jewish holidays, and the Philadelphia leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Judaism had decided to celebrate by lighting an enormous bonfire, serving Miller High Life and cooking kosher barbecue. Next to the bonfire, a bongo line forms, the drums beat by casually dressed youth while Hasidic Jews, dressed in traditional black suits and fedoras with long scraggly beards, drink and chat around them while children throw detritus into the fire.

Rabbi Menachem Schmidt picks up his guitar. Hours before, he had been in the hospital recovering from a heart attack earlier in the week, but "it was nothing," he tells me. He checked out, changed out of his hospital gown and into a black suit and yarmulke and set out to Northern Liberties. He spends a few minutes tuning his 1968 Les Paul before his band, The Baal Shem Tov, launches into a jam that's part Philadelphia Experiment, part Phish, part classic rock. Schmidt is fond of the wah-wah pedal, and its oscillations sound throughout his quick, adept, bluesy solos. All the while, the hipsters and the Hasidim and the parents eat and drink and amble about the lot. The music and the fire elicit the curiosity of passers-by. "What's going on here?" a woman asks. The girl at the front table explains that it's Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day between Passover and the Feast of Weeks, and that they should come on in.

By midnight, the music has died and the fire is down to embers, but the crowd is still strong and the beer still flows. A few people carry the keg across the street and into the shul (Yiddish for synagogue), which occupies a spot in the old Ortlieb's brewery, for the after-party. A young man drags the keg behind the bar stand and fills plastic cups for whoever asks. Another band picks up guitars and continues to jam.

Chabad-Lubavitch isn't new, neither in Philly nor in the rest of the world. The sect now boasts hundreds of thousands of members, and it has made a reputation for itself as the one sect in Orthodox Judaism that actually missionizes, sending its shluchim, or emissaries, out to distant parts of the world to ignite what Lubavitchers believe is a spark of Jewishness in every Jew. Aside from Chabad's headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Philadelphia became one of the first major U.S. cities with an outpost when Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov began his mission here in 1961, out in the far Northeast on Castor Avenue, where he still resides.

But the extent of its growth in Philadelphia and the shape it's taken is unprecedented. While there's no census of just how much the sect has grown here, there are now more than 25 Lubavitcher rabbis in the Delaware Valley, and about 10 in Philly alone — still far fewer than Crown Heights, but significantly more than the handful that comprised Philly Lubavitch a few years ago.

The Lag B'Omer event began in 2005 and Rabbi Gedaliah Lowenstein, who leads the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties across the street — which opened that same year — estimates that what began with a 200-person attendance has grown to about 600. Temple University now has its own Chabad House — college outposts similar to Hillel — and Old City has a Chabad art gallery, the Old City Jewish Art Center, which hosts regular dinners and sees hundreds of people come through its doors every month.

To enter the world of Chabad-Lubavitch in Philadelphia is to enter a world of paradox, where orthodoxy holds hands with progressivism, traditionalism with liberalism, rock music with Hebrew hymns.

No one in Philly Lubavitch embodies this more, or has done more to make the paradox more paradoxical, than Schmidt, 55, who has spearheaded various Lubavitch operations in Philadelphia since 1980 and been at the heart of its takeoff in recent years. We're sitting in a Starbucks at Ninth and South streets, a few blocks away from Vilna Congregation on Fifth and Pine, where Schmidt is the chief rabbi. Schmidt is dressed in traditional Hasidic garb — fedora (which covers a yarmulke beneath), white shirt, black coat with the strings from his shawl barely peeking out underneath, black pants. His beard, uncut for decades because of Jewish law, descends to his chest, rogue hairs darting in all directions; it covers his mouth to an extent that his eyes, hooded under bushy eyebrows, are usually the best indicator of his expression.

Before there was Menachem Schmidt, there was Matty Schmidt, a kid from Highland Park, N.J., raised in a home that acknowledged its Judaism but didn't keep kosher or go to Shabbos (Yiddish for shabbat, or the Jewish day of rest). He had a vague interest in Judaism, and "looking back now, I think I always believed it," he says. But during those vaguer times, Schmidt was more interested in playing in his band, partying, and making post-modern video art with friends at Syracuse University.

In the scope of Jewish history, Chabad-Lubavitch is relatively young. Hasidism came about in Poland in the 18th century with a belief that mysticism and mitzvahs, or good deeds, should trump the academicism its adherents felt was too predominant. Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement, sprang up in Lyubavichi, Russia, in the same century, espousing the importance of intellect over the heart.

In Schmidt's sophomore year at Syracuse, where he majored in TV production, a friend from back in Jersey invited him to go to Crown Heights, Brooklyn— Chabad's world headquarters and the post of Chabad's spiritual leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known simply as the Rebbe. Schneerson was the movement's seventh leader, but he was by far the most influential, turning an obscure Hasidic community into a global network with thousands of emissaries and hundreds of thousands of adherents. His death in 1994 prompted claims of his messianism from some adherents, and his grave site is still a destination of pilgrimage for thousands.

The Rebbe was famous for his farbrengen, large gatherings of Jews listening to his musings, and it was a farbrengen that Schmidt's friend brought him to. "There was no moment when I was blissed out and decided to go to the holy mountain," says Schmidt. But what struck him was the dissonance between these Jews, unconditionally accepting him for being Jewish, and the Orthodox he knew as a child who spurned his friendly advances and refused to acknowledge anyone who didn't literally practice Judaism by the book. These Jews here welcomed him and made him feel like family. They sang, they laughed — and they drank lots of vodka.

"And I was like, 'Now this is Judaism!'"

At the Lag B'Omer celebration in Northern Liberties, while the fire burns and Schmidt wails on his guitar, a girl behind me says, "This is like a field party." The feeling of festive liberation and the unconditional acceptance that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew — that they will always have a place for Shabbos dinner and have a spark of holiness in them — is the central hook for newcomers to Lubavitch. Here, Judaism isn't just rote recitation of archaic prayers and standing and sitting toward an ark while a rabbi drones on in Hebrew — well, it is during prayer services, but it's also a party. Chabad offers a one-size-fits-all approach to Judaism, and you're no less Jewish for drinking vodka once a month with other Jews than the guy who goes to synagogue every week. You're welcome here, and you can do however much or however little you want.

"For the longest time, young people assumed Judaism was dull and boring," says Lowenstein. "Our job is to show them that it's also exciting."

Lowenstein began the Jewish Center of Northern Liberties in 2005 after hosting weekly services in his warren living room for a year. The space hosted a handful of people, but the new shul in the second floor of the old Ortlieb's Brewing Co. warehouse is big enough for the 100-plus people who attend festivities every month, he says — a crowd that continues to grow.

On a Saturday morning Shabbos service at Vilna, Schmidt is at the altar whispering prayers, and a handful of Hasidic-dressed young men are in the pews. They accost me with assistance and friendliness: Welcome, welcome, here's a prayer book, if you don't speak Hebrew just follow in English ... this is where we are right now, see, right there ... the Rabbi is reciting this prayer right now ... OK, next page, this is where we are now ... if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask ... are you following? We're right here.

Schmidt stops his prayer and walks over to me to shake my hand. I say hello and ask him what he's doing. He grunts and points to his son, Benny. "He's at the part in the prayer where he can't speak," says Benny.

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The more he learned, the more he liked what he heard. Schmidt returned to Syracuse University with the seed planted firmly in his mind, but it took a little while longer to sprout. Bit by bit, he became more interested in the world of Torah than of living the life of an aspiring rock star. He began hosting Shabbos dinners to fill the void of Jewish life on campus. He grew out his beard. He went to synagogue regularly.

Everyone was shocked, including his girlfriend, "who didn't really fit into the picture too well," he says. Summers were filled with classes at the yeshiva (an Orthodox seminary) in Morristown, and when he graduated from Syracuse, he enrolled at the yeshiva full time and was ordained a rabbi.

There is no milestone Schmidt can point to, but he stopped being Matt and became Menachem. And while Matt belonged in New Jersey, Menachem would go wherever the Rebbe told him.

During his life, Schneerson spent much of his time making executive orders, deciding which emissary, or sliach, would go where and start what institution, and the framework for Chabad today — if not most of its synagogues and outreach centers — are fulfillments of direct dictation.

Schmidt traveled to the University of San Diego to run the school's Chabad house there for a few months to act as a substitute director. When the time came to move, Schmidt sent Schneerson a letter asking where to go.

"He said, 'Interest yourself in Philadelphia,'" says Schmidt.

"Do you know why he said that?" I ask.

"Because he's the Rebbe."

His first task was to create the Chabad House at the University of Pennsylvania, which he still runs. He needed a place to live within walking distance of Penn because he couldn't drive there on Shabbos, so he picked a row home around Ninth and Catharine — about a one-and-a-half-hour walk away.

"And then I found South Street and fell in love," he says.

When he moved to South Street, he started a new band — The Baal Shem Tov (named after the father of Hasidism) — which has gone through countless members since its inception in the '80s. Schmidt started playing at Penn and found that the students there liked it. The band played outside matzah bakeries and other places to entice people to perform mitzvahs. "In terms of outreach and in terms of a common language, you can't beat this," he says. (The Baal Shem Tov will perform at the Fringe Festival on Sun., Sept. 13, 3 p.m., at Liberty Lands Park.)

But Chabad isn't all guitars and High Life. Schmidt's boss is Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov. He was the first to light a gigantic menorah in a public space (another Lubavitcher calling card), one of the Rebbe's right-hand men.

Shemtov has worked to forge the relationship between Washington and Lubavitch, and his activity is split between overseeing programs in Philly and those in Washington. In The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (a book generally praised by the Lubavitchers I spoke to), Sue Fishkoff writes, "Through the Shemtovs, Chabad has maintained personal relationships with every U.S. president since Gerald Ford," adding that Chabad's strongest presidential relationship was with Ronald Reagan.

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Schmidt sits at his desk at the Chabad House of the University of Pennsylvania, on 40th and Spruce. It's temporary housing: Their new $5 million facility is under construction a few blocks away and should be finished next year.

We're at a point in the conversation we've reached almost every time we've talked: If all seems to be permitted after people leave the synagogue, if Chabad here is throwing parties and then allowing people to go on their ways of vice, and if his own idea of following Judaism is to follow every last word of Jewish law, or Halakha, what exactly is he trying to do? Schmidt has repeatedly told me that his goal is not to recruit the nonobservant and turn them ultra-Orthodox, but he's equivocal. "I'm helping Jews create a stronger bond to Judaism, and I think that looks really different for different people," he says. "Torah system is the right way, but getting there ... "


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1
toronto
go benny go your such a giutarist!!!
(8/28/2009 11:09:03 AM)
2
benny!
(8/30/2009 12:51:40 PM)
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