never really fit into the yeshiva world. The lanky 18-year-old, who grew up in the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was a hyperactive child, and he was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
He bounced around from yeshiva to yeshiva — six in all in Brooklyn, Pennsylvania and as far away as Montreal. But no direction was home.
“Getting kicked out and not having rabbis take care of me, it sort of pushed me off a little bit. It was a turnoff,” said Weiss, who is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, a far cry from the typical Lubavitch dress code.
For him, what started as a hyperactivity issue (which he no longer suffers from) evolved into a rejection of the haredi lifestyle. Weiss doesn’t pray with tefillin every day and refuses to meet his future wife through matchmakers. “I’m modern,” he said.
But in spite of his rebellious attitude, Weiss still feels the pull of the Lubavitch community. What’s keeping him in the fold — growing numbers of chasidic teens and young adults have cut their ties altogether — is a center for yeshiva dropouts now located in a former matzah warehouse.
Weiss, along with about 50 other chasidic rebels, has made “Aliya,” so to speak. And he has found a home, untraditional as it is.
Part synagogue, part gym and part pool lounge, the Alternative Learning Institute for Young Adults (Aliya) welcomes teenagers in what its founder, Rabbi Moshe Feiglin, calls “a relaxed atmosphere with a chasidic twist.”
After four years spent in temporary locations, Aliya, whose regulars listen to hip-hop and pray in jeans, now has a permanent headquarters in a small, funky, blue house at the corner of East New York Avenue and Brooklyn Avenue in Caribbean Crown Heights. Rabbi Feiglin started renting the house in December 2005; he is now buying and renovating it.
“When Aliya wasn’t there, kids would sneak on the train and go to a movie,” said Weiss, taking a long drag of his cigarette in the center’s synagogue. “Now, kids come spend Shabbat here.”
Much has been written recently about haredi Jews who chafe against the religious constraints and worldview of their insulated communities, ultimately distancing themselves from their life they knew. A doctoral student at the City University of New York, Hella Winston has devoted an entire book, “Chasidic Rebels,” to the subject.
But for Rabbi Feiglin, a 30-year-old from Australia, these so-called rebels are more than a sociological oddity. Retaining those kids still on the fence is both a full-time job and a personal mission. Through Aliya, the soft-spoken rabbi wants to keep insubordination under control. He has attracted approximately 50 regular members and twice as many casual members.
“We try to hold them in, connect them to their roots,” he said.
The latest study on these teens dates to 1999 when the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty revealed that 1,500 students in the 23,000-student yeshiva system in Brooklyn were known to engage in at-risk behaviors, such as using drugs and running away from home. The report estimated that another 2,000 young people also engaged in these behaviors but had not yet been caught.
The organization Footsteps, which helps chasidic Jews find their way in the secular world, has been in contact with approximately 200 people between 2003 and 2005, according to its director Malkie Schwartz, who refused to give an estimate for the past two years.
To connect teens to their roots, Rabbi Feiglin is striving to build an education system with the right balance between modernity and tradition. Boys 18 to 25 come to the center to learn Torah and pray, but they can show up late for Shabbat services and whisper to a friend during prayers. Aliya also helps those who want to re-enter the secular education system with GED classes and computer training. Rabbi Feiglin works with one other full-time teacher and five occasional volunteers.
Pressed for money, most Lubavitcher yeshivas don’t offer these services and traditional educators don’t know what to do with students who are disobedient, or have learning disabilities. “In yeshivas, they are happy that we exist. They don’t want to deal with this,” Feiglin said.
Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, a popular author who along with other respected rabbis is part of Aliya’s advisory board, has given several lectures at the youth center. Connecting with these teens requires the courage to look beyond the surface, Rabbi Jacobson said.
“The problem is not with them, but with us, with the establishment that doesn’t possess the proper lens, the proper methodology to connect with them,” he said.
Dressing And Feeling Different
Levi Weiss’ friend and fellow Aliya regular, Zalman Lefkowitz, also didn’t thrive in the mainstream system.
“When I came to Lubavitcher yeshiva, they were making fun of me,” said Lefkowitz, 22, who had a speech disorder when he was younger. He attended several special-education classes and then went to Bais Menachem, an alternative yeshiva in Pennsylvania, which he describes as a place “for kids who don’t want to learn all day.” Founded in 1999, Bais Menachem is similar to Aliya and welcomes 20 “alienated and disaffected teenage boys” each year, according to its Web site.
Lefkowitz keeps kosher, puts on tefillin and has a beard, but he dresses, and feels, different than most Lubavitchers. “I walk differently,” he said. “I don’t sneak away from the non-Jews.”
The two friends now work in construction and hang out at Aliya, where they are helping out with the house’s renovation plans.
Although Rabbi Feiglin mostly works with boys at Aliya, some girls also needed an alternative to yeshiva. Two years ago, the Ohr Chana high school was created for them.
Like Rabbi Feiglin, Vice Principal Dena Posner understands the advantage of flexibility and compromise. Each school day is supposed to start with prayers, but some girls refuse to follow the rules. “Instead of praying, they can either write to God or about God, or whatever their feelings are,” said Posner. “We don’t demand perfection.”
This unorthodox outreach effort directed at teens is not unlike what Lubavitchers are famous for worldwide: namely promoting Orthodox traditions among secular Jews. Indeed, Rabbi Feiglin says his job is similar to that of emissaries and calls Aliya the “Chabad House that reaches in.”
But although emissaries are trained to welcome unaffiliated Jews in their Chabad houses, loss of faith within the Lubavitcher community is often overlooked. Rabbi Feiglin is an exception: he is a registered emissary, but unlike most of his colleagues, his target group is young Lubavitchers. “The irony of it is that we are reaching out to unaffiliated Jews in Crown Heights,” he said.
For the first time last November, the annual emissaries’ convention, which draws thousands of Chabad shluchim from around the world to Crown Heights, mentioned the need for outreach within the community, Rabbi Feiglin said.
Aliya is stigmatized as a center for “wayward kids” among local parents, according to the rabbi. “There’s a lot of gossip about people who come to Aliya,” said Lefkowitz. Still, families are aware of the need for such a place.
Three years ago, when a renowned psychologist came to the neighborhood to talk about rebellious teens, 700 parents showed up and listened to his recommendations. “Why are we losing so many of our teens?” was the title of his talk.
A few other programs were set up to answer the special needs of this new generation. Since 1998, a city-funded program called Youth Action Movement (YAM) offers trips, arts classes and GED programs to chasidic at-risk boys under 18.
In 2003, the local Jewish Community Council received a city grant to launch a counseling and therapy program for Lubavitcher fathers. It is meant to help fathers connect with their children and has attracted approximately 200 men in four years, according to its director, Richard Gins.
Youth centers such as YAM, Ohr Chana and Aliya have made Jewish Crown Heights more welcoming to kids who need a different type of education, say their leaders.
Teenagers like Weiss and Lefkowitz don’t wear the chasidic uniform and say they get stares from yeshiva boys with black hats. “They consider me an outcast,” Weiss said. Still, however disappointed they were in the religious school system, they still believe in the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and strongly feel part of this community.
At Aliya, they have the opportunity to reconcile their contradictory aspirations, between modernity and tradition. “Kids come on Shabbat to pray with jeans and T-shirts or whatever. The whole point of Aliya is to show them that you can have freedom,” said Lefkowitz.
Often, this ability to be free within their community is the reason they stay connected to their faith. With a bar in the basement, a shul on the first floor and weightlifting machines upstairs, the Aliya house reflects this openness. Recently, kids decorated the computer room with a piece of “chasidic pop art” reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe, except with a bearded chasidic man instead of the movie star.
To keep this atmosphere alive and take members on ski and camping trips, Rabbi Feiglin has been fundraising in the neighborhood. His main benefactors are David and Malkie Smetana, a Lubavitch couple who own a building maintenance supply company. But their financial help only covers part of Aliya’s $200,000 yearly budget.
So Rabbi Feiglin began leaving small charity boxes in local stores and mailing countless glossy brochures. However, he quickly realized that Lubavitchers were more likely to spend money on regular Chabad Houses and yeshivas than on their alternative version.
To spread the message, he posted a video on YouTube, in which members pray, sing and play music together. At the end of the short film, chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu starts talking about Aliya.
“Someone has to reach inwards to the youth in Crown Heights,” he says.
For its regulars, Aliya is a refuge, a place to get away from the community. It is also a place of warmth and openness.
“We have sit-downs and get-togethers over Shabbat,” Levi Weiss said. “We have a meal, we sing, we dance. When you have nothing to do, Aliya gives the opportunity of doing something useful, something better.”