Shabbat in the Heights
May 26, 2023
As a new member with the North Orlando Chabad in Florida with Rabbi Yanky Majesky and his wife Chanshy, I was elated to be invited to attend Shabbat in the Heights that takes place in Crown Heights, New York City, New York for the Hakhel: Year of Gathering. I had no idea what to expect. I have never been to New York City or in a fully Jewish environment. With the months of Shabbos, Women's Studies and JLI courses at Rabbi Majesky's Chabad you would think that it would prepare you for this experience. I can now honestly say, it is a completely different experience but similar at the same time. Not knowing anyone other than those from my Chabad, I admit that I was a bit nervous since I'm used to living in the country, with a small population. However, once you arrive in Crown Heights not only does your environment change, so does your world perspective. By the end of this experience, I realized that the real change wasn't as much as on the outside, but on the inside that was noticed the most.
Roughly two weeks prior to arriving, you could hear the nervous talk during kiddish in our Chabad. The common questions were: "Where are we going? What should we take?" And for us ladies, "What should we wear?" While trying to pair up with others who have been there before. My understanding is that the phone lines must have been ringing off the hook with similar questions based on nervousness. The volunteers who answered our questions were very patient and comforting as they did their best to accommodate our concerns.
The day before arriving, no one slept. I had the fortunate experience to travel with another person who also had never been to Crown Heights but was raised for a bit in New York City and was assigned the same hostess. We were both eager to arrive at our destination and learn all that we could from this experience. As our ride from the airport made its way towards the drop off point, you could see the change in the buildings as well as the care of the surroundings the closer we got. We also saw the difference in the way that people walked and looked. We knew we were getting close when the words on the side of the buildings began to change from American English to Hebrew. Once we arrived, you could tell from the moment you stepped onto the sidewalk that not only were we in a different environment, but a different world.
At our first stop to check in, you could feel the excited energy as a group of ladies pulled bags and brochures out of their baskets. I looked over the program guide, I noticed that they took the time to put my full name and where I was from on the outside. I realized in that moment that no detail was going to be lost in this adventure. We also noticed that for the next two nights we would be lucky to close our eyes before midnight. Following a brief introduction, sweets and water we headed over to a residence where we were being hosted. Our host was a very intelligent and younger woman who could hold her own seminar for women. Her knowledge of Crown Heights as well as Judaism was insurmountable. She was very passionate and understanding of the lack of knowledge that I and my travel partner had. She would literally put her things on hold to answer in wonderful detail every question and even made us chicken soup at one point - Amazing. One of the most consistent statements that our host stated was, "don't worry. We have been doing this our whole lives and you are new. It is understandable if you do not do everything this weekend." With that, we were off to the Rebbe's Shul and Personal Study.
When you walk up on the Rebbe's shul and study, you feel like you are going back into the 1940s. You can feel and see the history of the Chabad in the worn book spines that were held together with clear tape and worn edges as they sat on the shelves. As the masses filed into the main room, I begun to put into perspective where I was sitting near the front. I found myself comparing the current place to the previous videos that we watched back in Rabbi Majesky's shul. As we sat there in silence waiting for the program to begin, I couldn't help but see and smell the history in the air, beams, floor, seats, podium, just everything. When the program began, you could almost imagine Rebbe becoming alive as people spoke about their experiences with him. That's when I told myself, "Wow, this is real."
Following the introductions and talks, we ladies were asked to head up to the Rebbe's Study. While we walked through winding hallways, doorways and stairs, it felt like we were going further back in time. Nothing was updated or changed. As we approached the room, I noticed a rabbi davening just outside and we were handed a card with Psalms 20 to read and then told to "just pray or let it happen." My thought was, "What's going to happen exactly?" We were told to stay quite as we filtered into this small room. Then it happened - tears. I found myself having this strange experience that while I was praying for my children, family and future, tears just began to flow and I found myself covering my face and just allowed it to happen. Wow and powerful. I made a vow to myself to surrender to the rest of the weekend and let it happen. Following the study, we were led down to the outside to learn about where the Rebbe and his wife stayed during Shabbos to be close to the shul and then off to the candle lighting.
At the candle lighting, we were led into a huge formal ballroom that was decorated from an earlier time that our current technology age has forgotten. Even the chandeliers seem to come from an earlier time. As the candles were being lit and songs were being sung, you could feel Shabbat beginning. I thought of my son back at home lighting our candles alone and realized, he has got to come next year and share this experience! Following the lighting of the candles, we heard from Rabbi Yosef Vogel and the insights of Jewish unity. Then services.
Oh, the service. As both sides of the veil began to fill with people and praying, our outer world was being left behind again. Hearing the all-familiar prayers that one would hear back at home in our shul was comforting and relaxing. Until singing broke out and hands were being grabbed. We ladies could hear the loud voices of the men on the other side in unity. It was such a beautiful sound that here I was, crying again. (I told myself that I can't keep doing this, this whole weekend.) As the prayers were being sung, both sides of the veil broke out dancing and singing; I realized that we just kept saying the same prayers over and over while continuing the circle of dancing around the chairs in this huge meeting room. To feel the connection, being connected to everyone else in that room and beyond. I have to say another, Wow! There just weren't any words to describe this experience and it was only Friday night. When I was asked later by my hostess how things went, all I could get out was, "It was beautiful."
Now it was time for the last event for the night to begin - dinner. After a service like this you do not feel hungry or as if you could even eat because I had a lot of energy! However, as soon as the smell of food hit my nose, I was starving!
The food was amazing as was the company. This was all just the first four to five hours of the experience, with tomorrow starting at 8 a.m. only to end after midnight. How much more is there to experience?
Shabbos morning, there was a continental breakfast prepared in the lobby of the ballroom area of 667. There was so much to eat, but most importantly coffee. I felt like one of the kids in the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory in the chocolate garden. Following the continental breakfast, we headed into the ballroom for the Tanya study with Rabbi Naftali Silberberg. Following this was our Shabbat Morning Services. As the service proceeded, prayers were sung and the power from the previous night could be felt again. Kiddush was another buffet in the courtyard, that the rabbi described would be "filled with trees and grass." Towards the end of his descriptions he added, "Imagine the basketball hoops as your trees and the asphalt as your grass." But the buffet was abounding. I was grateful that my Rabbi Majesky warned us to take it easy with the food. Lunch was going to be served in an hour following Mrs. Flikshtein's Happiness verses Pleasure talk. Lunch was filled with both wonderful presentations as well as food that challenge the show Iron Chief.
As the day began to slow down, we arrived at the Rebbe's house for a tour. Entering the foyer, you noticed that nothing was touched. What an era. Following this tour, I was fortunate to attend Rabbi Moshe Katlarsky's home during the 'Visit with local personalities.'
Sunday arrived too quickly as we discussed over breakfast how our weekend was going. I chose to visit the Women's Mikvah with Mrs. Naomi Heber as our guide. She was very inspiring while explaining and showing the process that married women go through during this time. The attention to detail was second to none as you could feel the safety, privacy and calmness throughout the facility.
It was now time for the Rebbe's Ohel.
As we rode in the busses to the Rebbe's Ohel, the present began to set in as the buildings changed back to the current inner-city state. It was a bit depressing to feel the sense of leaving all of this behind. If this is how Crown Heights is, I can't imagine how Israel will be next year. The Rebbe's Ohel appeared to be situated in a large cemetery area. As I walked down the steps from the building onto the wooden dock that leads you towards the Rebbe's mausoleum, you notice the air changing. I still can not describe it as of this writing. As people kept their voices to a whisper while lighting candles, you can't help but notice the grand reverence for the Rebbe and his wife.
While on the bus ride back to the airport from the Rebbe's Ohel, I began to process the two days that seemed like a month with all that we did. There were a lot of things that I would have loved to have done and other things that I will do again. Between the people who opened their homes and the Chabad as well as JLI for this amazing opportunity, I still do not have words to explain in full my experience. All that I can say is Thank you. I know I left as a different person than when I came. I tried my best with what I could explain in this writing, but words do not do justice to this experience. So, I guess I'll have to come back in 2024 to do better with my verbiage.
Experience Shabbat in the Heights next year!
"If you were unable to join this year, you are welcome to join in May 2024!" said Rabbi Majesky. For more information, visit: http://www.ShabbatInTheHeights.com.
Rabbi Majesky added: "Two other great inspiring/fun getaways with your Chabad to keep in mind include:" The National Jewish Retreat this August in California! http://www.JRetreat.com and Land and Spirit – trip to Israel – April 2024! http://www.LandAndSpirit.com.