This year, Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish year, began at sundown on September 8. The High Holidays, shifting as they do with the lunar calendar, always manage to come at an awkward moment ― the first week of school, fall crunch time at work. But this year, sprawled directly within the ten holiest days that are the Jewish New Year, was the New York Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Although I would not be one of the fabulous few directly affected by the conflict, as the holiday approached I was fascinated. Was this a test? Could God be some shlub who's so enraged at the likes of Proenza Schuler and Louis Vuitton that he created this explicit choice between the tenets of faith and the tents of fabulous spring collections? No, at least not according to Chabad of the West 60's. On August 31, New York's online fashion blog The Cut published a curious tidbit on how this institution would be holding free High Holiday services so that the fashion-forward could "pop over from Lincoln Centre to pray in their finest, for their finest."
Here's the thing ― Chabad is a sect of Hassidism. Hasids are some of the most extreme Jews around. Clothes-wise, they're the ones with the bushy beards and big black hats ― not exactly fashion forward. The codes of modesty for the women are so intense that many married ladies wear wigs to keep their hair from view. What possible interest could these folks have in the fates of the fashion elite? I didn't know, but I was damn sure ... darn sure I wanted to find out. And the best part of all? Wandering Jew that I am, I'd have a place to go come sundown that Wednesday night.
Having a temple to go to on the High Holidays is not actually an easy thing to come by, especially if you are what is known as a High Holiday Jew. For you non-Yids out there, a High holiday Jew is sort of like a Christian who just celebrates Christmas and Easter, only more self-flagellating. I was raised on occasional Reform services and holiday observances that were more about family and food than faith, so my descent into self admitted "High holiday Jew" was no big leap. Attendance numbers at synagogues swell for these services. Advanced planning is almost always required and the tickets rarely come cheap. The question of cost is a bit tricky ― turning away the poor is no good in any religion, but institutions need support to keep their doors open. However Chabad's services are free, and finding them felt a bit like coming across Valentino in a vintage store.
Since even for Reform temples the dress code is keep-your-shoulders-covered, the question of what to wear to a Chabad/Orthodox service advertising to the fashion industry had me more than a little lost. But in the end I left the strapless Betsey Johnson in my closet, risked a label-free flowered number that fell to my knees, and threw a sweater on top.
Chabad of the West 60's resides in a rented space on 65th street, a carpeted set of rooms five floors up. "We sublet on weekends," explained Rabbi Yehuda Lipsker, the very man quoted in the New York Magazine article, who agreed to speak with me before the services started at 7pm.
The synagogue was not the lavish, high fashion affair I had pictured. But stuff like that usually does cost money, and require reservations. And although Chabad of the West 60's has been holding services for six years, turns out this is only their second year as a full fledged synagogue.
As the other worshipers slowly trickled in, I took a moment to thank God I'd chosen the outfit I did. There was one girl in a skirt much shorter than anything my mother would have let me wear, and one women did have a killer pair of black ruffly heels, but overall no one was extreme in either direction. Only two women wore floor length skirts and only three men besides the Rabbi were wearing full Hasid garb.
As it turns out, though the small community of regular congregants -- 80 full time families -- does include members of the fashion industry, Rabbi Lipsker wasn't targeting them specifically. "If there had been a tech conference in town we would have invited them, too," said Rabbi Lipsker.
Despite the research I tried to do on Chabad, it had managed to retain a sense of mystery for me much the way Fashion week has. Though I pore over the pages of Vogue every month, and read the Style section of the Times every Thursday, at the end of the day I have no idea what it's like inside the Lincoln Center tents. But there I was inside the Temple. And still all I could see were the contradictions, not the heart they surrounded.
"We embrace every Jew," articulated Rabbi Lipsker. He explained that Chabad wants to make the world a better place, increase random acts of kindness, spread unconditional love. It is still part of the Orthodox movement, but these services would be forty-five minutes, not three hours. "We're strict to the law, but welcoming." His eyes behind the thin, rimless spectacles were very warm.
But as we walked back toward the room serving as the sanctuary, we passed a sign indicating strollers, coats, and women should go in one direction, men in the other. There, Rabbi Lipsker and I parted ways. That's the thing about Chabad: everyone's invited. But being invited is very far from feeling like you belong.
I have never been on board with the way women are segregated out in Orthodox religions. But though I'm not thrilled about the gold standard of six foot models weighing 100 pounds either, I still pour over fashion magazines for love of the clothes. Was participating in Chabad's stricture any different?
Because of the sublet situation, the men and women at this Chabad are not actually in separate spaces, just across the aisle from one another. But soon after I sat down, volunteer congregants began to set up screens. The fabric of the flimsy barricades gaped, and there were not enough of them to block our section from view. But as the seats filled, the volunteers made an effort to stretch their meager resources to capacity.
"It's because men are dirty creatures and can't look at women during the service," explained Michael, a Julliard student and one of guys helping set the place up. But it didn't feel like the men were being cut off. The Rabbi was standing directly in front of them. "Women can look at whoever they want," he added as he caught me eyeing the placement of the Rabbi, barely visible to the women.
Only then it hit me. Literally. One of the screens fell over and hit me on the head. I will probably still have a bruise under my bangs come the final sounding of the shofar. But in addition to being the most uncomfortable moment of the evening, it was also an instant of clarity. Women and Orthodoxy, women and the fashion industry -- the roles of both models and Mikvah takers have always been hot button topics. But though Chabad and the fashion industry both have an idealized vision of women that's confusing and often destructive for the average lady to try and live up to, one cuts deeper. Fashion is a form of entertainment, but religious institutions are places of refuge. The fashion industry is so entwined with our culture of corporations that bad values are to be expected. Religious institutions I have connected with have unanimously been places of acceptance, not exclusion. I felt as if I'd cheated myself out of one of the few spiritual experiences built into the year.
When I got home I called my parents. Our family left the Reform temple we belonged to after my Bat Mitzvah ― not an uncommon way to go ― and my parents have never found another temple they liked enough to join. Invariably, this lack of a community catches them, just as it does me, scrambling and lost at this time of year.
But when my mother picked up the phone, I could hear the TV in the background. More technically forward thinking than I am, my parents had found services streaming online. Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Manhattan, had a live feed going directly from the main sanctuary.
Although I know it was not their first choice of a way to spend the evening, my mother was audibly moved. "It's all so familiar ― the prayers, the music. It's just like at Temple Shalom." Temple Shalom is where I went to Hebrew School. "You should find a Reform Temple," said my mother.
"So should you," I said.
So much of tradition is repetition, reconnecting with something that is as important for being familiar as it is for being sacred. As ever-changing as the world is, here exists one thing that remains fixed. There is something almost magical about being able to go into nearly any Reform synagogue in the country and have the prayers ride through me on a wave of the melodies that are already in my bones. I don't even know what half the prayers mean.
"I'll send you the link," my mother said as she hung up the phone.
But as I sat alone in my bedroom, arriving online to watch the head rabbi's sermon in real time, it was quickly clear how much more there is to the experience than repetition. Although the music of the Reform temple stirs my heart, it's the words, the philosophy, that makes me wish I went more often. Rabbi Peter Rubenstein opened his sermon with a little of his own history. His father was Orthodox, but Rabbi Rubenstein has lived his whole life as a Reform Jew because his mother insisted "that there was no way, no how, she was ever going to sit behind a curtain by herself."
The Rabbi then outlined the differences he saw between Orthodoxy and the more liberal movements. "They were beholden to the details of Jewish law - halacha, a word I didn't know. We were committed to the equality, dignity and rights of all races and religions in this country, a principle which we would do well to reconfirm today."
But Rabbi Rubenstein went on to discuss how in postwar America the Reform Jewish population was "comfortably Jewish, searching for what it means to be an American. Now we are comfortably American searching for what it means to be Jewish." Given how many more thoughts I devote to shopping than to shul in an average week, I would personally agree. But I had hoped at least that the holiday would be different. Perhaps it still could be.
The next day I walked to the Hudson river to do Tashlich. Tashlich literally means "you will cast away." It's the practice, performed on the first day of Rosh Hashana, of throwing bread into the water to represent the casting away of sins. I knew there was about as much hope of finding a Reform temple to go to last minute as of sneaking into a Fashion week show, but this one thing I could do on my own. The wind, arctic for the end of summer, had the clouds whipped into a dark grey pudding. The sun slinking along the edge of the water was harsh. I had no sunglasses and my jacket was too thin. I thought of the cozier fall number hanging in the window at Intermix, but reasoned that minor suffering can be good for acts of contrition. I pulled my mind back to the water.
As I tore off scraps of crust and spongy wheat and tossed the year's indiscretions to the chopping waves, it occurred to me just how many had come out of love. Few acts in life are conscience-free. So often "sins" come from choosing the lesser of two evils, but an evil still. Most labors, especially those of love, involve some sort of compromise. Chabad's seeming contradictions are right out there on the surface, but my own, as the quickly disappearing bread made clear, were not too far below.
I wondered momentarily if there was anything living in the river to eat the bread I was throwing, and then if it would be bad to eat bread meant to represent sin. Was this just more junk left in the Hudson? Perhaps I could look that up. Next year. But for right then that was the best I could do. The final rays of sun slipped off the edge of the water. I threw the last piece and left for home.