The Square was as crowded as any other day. Tourists milled about, taking photos, and in one snapshot claiming New York City for their own. When trucks rolled in at quarter to six, just two minutes after sundown, with big performance speakers and a video stanchion, excitement buzzed among the passerbys. What was going on? A rock concert? A street performance of a Broadway musical? Police action? This was New York; it could be anything. “Get your cameras out” was the sentiment.
Working slowly in the crowded space, security personnel in bright yellow reflecting jackets closed off a triangular plaza with metal dividers and retractable stanchions by 7:26 pm. Some sort of mascot was propped up in the southernmost corner. A light blue puppet with an orange Muppet nose and cartoon eyes was gaping at the goers by with a big toothless smile. It wore suspenders, a baseball cap and a matching jersey, with “C Teen” emblazoned on the front. A small stage, close to the ground, was assembled on the western side.
Passerbys clung close to the perimeter of the closed-off area, craning their necks to see what action was happening in the center.
Two kids on the sideline took turns guessing what the insignia on the back of the mascot meant: “Sh-b-tn.” Maybe, it’s a rap star, they hoped. The boy pulled out his cell phone to look it up and turned to the girl with eyebrows raised. It’s something Jewish, he shrugged. The girl’s hope was not swayed. A Jewish rap star, maybe?
A man asked one of the security captains what was about to happen. The guard, racking his brain for the Yiddish term that he knew was in there somewhere, finally declared, “There’s going to be a sukkot held right here!”
No, not a Sukkot -- a little late for that autumn Jewish festival -- but a Havdalah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat, in English the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship for religious Jews.
This was the work of CTeen, the teenage network of the Orthodox Hassidic branch Chabad-Lubavitcher, at their seventh annual International CTeen Shabbaton. This weekend that ended on March 1st, 1,500 teenagers from all over the world stayed in Crown Heights near the Chabad headquarters to celebrate a traditional Orthodox Shabbat. Nearly 200 more were not able to register due to shortage of housing.
Hassidic Judaism began in the eighteenth century among Eastern European Jews who felt that, surrounded by an increasingly secular, intellectual society, Judaism was becoming less observant. They also sensed that the singular emphasis by other Orthodox Jews on Torah studies was creating a dry life-style without the infusion of God’s presence. The Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov sought to reignite an emotional connection to God in Jewish communities. He proposed the revolutionary idea that a Jew could be mindful of God in every action, thereby making spiritual vitality accessible to laypeople as well as those who devoted their life to Torah study. In Hassidic life, every quotidian action has spiritual meaning, which is why tradition is so closely followed
The Teens arrive
At a quarter to eight, the teens began arriving from the northwest side street, squeezing in single file through construction rampways. Clusters of five, eight, twelve, coalesced around the plaza. As the different groups caught sight of each other, they hollered greetings and chants across the street.
“I see Al-oh-BAM-ah!” one high school girl called out to an approaching group. She began a rallying cry.
“When I say ‘C,’ you say ‘teen’!” she directed. And she began:
A volley of voices hurled back the chant from all corners of the Square.
Teens from 143 cities in eleven countries were building a global group identity.
In orthodox Jewish homes, Shabbat is observed every Friday evening till about one hour after sundown the next day. It is the Jewish holy day of the week. Families observing Shabbat arrive home before sundown to prepare for the day of rest. At evening, the family has a dinner together, and they recite prayers.
For the next 24 hours, until sundown the next day, Jews who observe the Sabbath refrain from doing anything that counts as “work.” This includes anything using electricity or power such as kitchen appliances, automobiles, or cell phones, as well as any manual work such as pushing buttons or carrying items.
After sundown on Saturday, the Shabbat is closed with the Havdalah celebration, which means separating the Shabbat, the day of rest, from the beginning of the work week.
In Crown Heights, which houses the Chabad headquarters and by some estimates has as high a concentration of Jews as many cities in Israel, teenagers observe the Sabbath every week with their families. For many of the international teens, however, who may be visiting from communities where the Jewish presence is not as strong, this may be the first Shabbat that they have ever experienced.
The weekend began on Friday with tours of the city and sightseeing. Some went to Ripley’s Believe it or Not in the Times Square area. Others went downtown to absorb the lessons at the 911 Memorial and the Statue of Liberty. Some threw seriousness to the wind with rides on the Cyclone at Coney Island.
Friday evening, the teenagers returned to Crown Heights inspired and excited. There they were treated to a traditional Shabbat service in the homes of various shluchim, “emissaries” of the Chabad community.
Though the teens were encouraged to experience the Orthodox Shabbat fully, with rabbis suggesting that the teens go so far as to turn off their cell phones, the teenagers could participate as much or little as they chose.
After spending Saturday resting and reflecting with their host families, the teens congregated in Manhattan for the Havdalah. Afterwards, the group heard an exclusive performance by Israeli folk singer Gad Elbaz, who has put out popular albums like “Walk in a Straight Path,” “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” and, most recently, “Ze Hayom,” meaning “This is the Day.” Here is Gad's and his father Benny Elbaz's duet "The Fire of the Messiah" (in Hebrew, Esh Shel Mashiach). He visits various sites in NYC including the Chabad worldwide headquarters in Crown Heights, singing the refrain, "I have the fire of the Messiah, the fire of the Messiah in my heart."
Past celebrities at the Shabbaton have included former NBC News producer Molly Resnick, basketball player Tamir Goodman (called by Sports Illustrated “the Jewish Jordan”) and football star Alan Veingrad, who played for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. Veingrad created a stir in 2007 when he and Chabad Rabbi Shais Taub hosted a “kosher tailgate party” outside of Lambeau Field. These professionals encourage the teens that it is possible to be both observant Jews and successful in their fields.
Around them, the Square remained the Square for streams of incredibly diverse peoples. Jewish Chabad ushers positioned around the periphery of their triangle in the Square answered any questions posed by passerbys. Some tourists took photos of the gathering and moved on. One woman, wearing gold leggings and nothing on top but gold pasties paused to take a selfie on her cell phone with the crowd of Jewish youth behind her.
“Very contagious,” one woman commented about the energy, pushing her stroller past.
Another European gentleman, not Jewish himself, admired the way the Jewish community is able to draw people together.
But it was also possible for people shopping in the Express outlet on the corner to remain completely oblivious to what was taking place ten feet away. To an extent, this was just another event happening in midtown New York City.
The set-up of the ceremony encouraged this. The stage was so arranged that the speakers and performers were blocked from the line of sight of anyone not within the blockade. The show was focused upon the crowd of teenagers.
This event claimed New York for the Jewish youth more than any other aspect of their visit. Here standing in the middle of the great Square, they were the VIPs in an event at which everyone else were onlookers.
The havdalah ended with videos of the late Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson speaking about the gift that the Torah is for Jews.
Early Sunday morning around 6 am, the Shabbaton staff started preparations for the CTeen closing banquet.
Meanwhile, the teens visited the gravesite of The Rebbe and other recent leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch before returning to Oholei Torah, the community’s primary Torah school. Presentations included the CTeen Leadership awards.
The UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon recorded a message for the banquet which encouraged the teens to continue with their Jewish pride.
“When you speak up,” he told them, “we all benefit.”
The message of the day was that traditional identities can have worldwide repercussions in the modern world.
Wednesday: Part 2 "The Big Messages"
Thursday: Part 3: "The beginnings of Shabbaton"