Orthodox Jews in the West Village Pitch Shabbat Observance as Salve for Modernity
‘This is an opportunity for those that may not have an experience with anything religious to come experience a taste of this incredible treasure in your arsenal, this incredible gift that’s available to you and is part of your heritage.’
The young couple at the helm of the West Village Chabad House is hosting Friday and Saturday an event at the trendy Standard Hotel to introduce the young, largely secular neighborhood to observing Shabbat.
True observance of the sabbath, as a day of rest, includes abstaining from work and the use of technology, among other things, from sundown on Friday to Saturday evening when three stars emerge in the sky.
The Standard Hotel event is designed to give participants a taste of the beauty of that process, the hosts, Rabbi Berel Gurevitch and his wife, Chana Gurevitch, say.
“This is an opportunity,” Mrs. Gurevitch says, “for those who may not have an experience with anything religious to come experience a taste of this incredible treasure in your arsenal, this incredible gift that’s available to you and is part of your heritage.
“We’re not asking you to make any major commitments — just come and taste, turn off your phones, be present, and see for yourself. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.”
The best part, she adds, is that participants will be doing it together, as part of a community. Shabbat, she says, can be “very difficult to do without community, because when you are shut off from everything else and you’re alone, that can be lonely … but when you do it as part of a community, that’s where the magic happens.”
In addition to what amounts to a technology detox, there will be food, Grammy-nominated musicians, well-known speakers, and a few celebrities, including a cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York City.”
The event is part of the couple’s broader pitch to the neighborhood that religious observance is more needed than ever in an era in which switching off feels nearly impossible and community can be hard to find.
“This is about unplugging, switching off, quieting the corporate treadmill, and the nonstop headlines,” Mrs. Gurevitch says.
Instead of becoming dated, the couple argues, the need for Shabbat is only becoming more evident.
“I feel like someone living in 2022 somewhere like New York City can truly appreciate Shabbat more than the nomadic Jewish wanderers in the desert could 3,000 years ago,” Mrs. Gurevitch said.
Asked what they love about Shabbat, Rabbi Gurevitch answered that what is most precious to him is “the break from routine and technology and the ability to spend more time in study and prayer with the people who I care for and love.”
During the week, he says, “you never know what’s gonna come at you, there’s all these unknowns — but on Shabbat, I know what the next 25 hours are going to look like. There are no unknowns and there is a serenity and a peace that comes along with that that I look forward to each week. I feel incredibly rested afterward, and recharged for the week ahead.”
For Mrs. Gurevitch, Shabbat is also “a reminder from God that you don’t have to produce to be important. It’s one day a week where you can forget about being productive and realize that just being is good enough — a day to remember that I, as a human being, am good and important and enough.”
Another angle, the Rabbi adds, is the idea that “more than the Jews have kept the sabbath, the sabbath has kept the Jews.”
It’s the idea, he says, that “as we’ve held onto this institution for thousands of years, it’s held onto us. It’s allowed us to maintain our identity, our traditions, and our connection to each other. If there was time travel and we were able to go back in time 2,000 years ago and meet our great-great-great-grandparents, we wouldn’t look the same, we wouldn’t be speaking the same language, but if it was Shabbat, I would know exactly what they’re doing. And they would know exactly what I’m doing. It’s an incredible thing to have something that reaches from the Jews in the desert all the way to 2022 in the West Village.”
The young rabbi and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the West Village — a popular young, largely secular neighborhood — in the months before Covid with the mission to build Jewish community. The circumstances were challenging, they say, but ultimately more fruitful than they could have imagined.
As Mrs. Gurevitch describes it, “We didn’t know what would come next, but we were happy to discover that not only did activity not diminish nor did our goals of creating and fostering community die out, but the community has actually grown exponentially. In an age where everything is so digitized and so fast-paced, this sense of community and slowing down is much more needed and necessary. And we found people truly want to be part of it.”
Rabbi Gurevitch and his wife are chabad chasidim, and one of the more than “5,000 full-time emissary families (2,000 in the United States)” that have spread out across the globe. As Rabbi Berel describes it, the emissary program “is the brainchild of the Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He dispatched emissaries globally “to reach out to every single Jew with love and care and create Jewish community and education and the ability to connect with each other and with their heritage, wherever they may be.”
“The responsibility of a chabad couple,” Rabbi Gurevitch explained, “is to look out for the physical and spiritual well-being of their neighbors, their community, and their friends.”
It is also, Mrs. Gurevitch chimed in, “to share with them the wealth and the beauty and the richness of Judaism, because most of us aren’t gifted with that access and exposure. Shabbat is, in our humble opinion, this gift that was bequeathed to human beings over 3,000 years ago, but it’s almost like only now in recent times has the need for it become so evident. The sold-out event this Shabbat is proof positive of that.”