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Mall Menorah Smackdown

Dueling rabbis struggle over who gets to spread the faith to newcomers in the gentrifying area around Atlantic Yards.

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Just in time for the Atlantic Yards project to break ground, a turf war has erupted between two Lubavitch rabbis claiming dibs on the rapidly gentrifying brownstone neighborhoods that surround it. In one corner is Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum, who showed up in Prospect Heights three years ago to revive a decrepit Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood, and recently opened what he has dubbed the Brooklyn Jewish Community Center in a donated space over a former laundromat. His rival is Rabbi Tali Frankel, who is backed by his wife’s powerful uncle, Rabbi Shimon Hecht of Park Slope. After arriving eighteen months ago, he began holding events advertised as being sponsored by “Chabad of Prospect Heights”—though Kirschenbaum is the neighborhood’s sole officially recognized shaliach, or emissary, of the Hasidic sect, which sends married couples all over the world to spread the faith to less-observant Jews. Lubavitchers usually do not invade each other’s area, but now both Kirschenbaum and Frankel are hosting Torah study sessions, holiday parties in bars, and low-key services in people’s homes trying to connect the nabe’s mostly young Jewish population with traditional texts and observance. Frankel seems to be trying to appeal to singles especially, with event listings in Hecht’s Brownstone Jewish Review touting “stories, food and booze!”

Hecht has controlled the Park Slope fiefdom for twenty years, and has helped seed Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo, Cobble Hill, and Williamsburg with colleagues. Tensions flared over Hanukkah, when Hecht commandeered Kirschenbaum’s nine-foot-tall menorah in the Atlantic Terminal Mall. Kirschenbaum dealt with the mall and set up the menorah, holding a party (paid for by Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner) on the Sunday of Hanukkah that attracted a few hundred people. But Hecht’s group sponsored festivities at Kirschenbaum’s menorah on Saturday. (Hecht declined to comment on Prospect Heights.)

The Lubavitch powers that be have had enough. Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, who supervises the New York–area Lubavitch emissaries, filed a lawsuit against Hecht in rabbinical court alleging that he has overstepped his boundaries by bringing his nephew into an area where another Lubavitch rabbi was already holding officially sanctioned activities. Kastel says the problem is that there aren’t enough up-and-coming areas to go around. “There are maybe 100 or 200 guys who trained their whole lives, and are looking for an opportunity to go. Smaller communities which would never be considered before are getting people,” and conflicts between rabbis are increasing, he says. “It comes with growth and gentrification.”

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