Shul Crawl: Lubavitch World Headquarters, New York

Two Oxford University students have set out on an ambitious project to review every synagogue in Britain. Danny Kessler and Joshua Felberg will make light-hearted assessments of hundreds of communities, based on the standard of the kiddush, the rabbi's sermon, decorum, and "peculiar customs".

By Danny Kessler a..., January 19, 2012

The USA may be a bit beyond our remit of "every synagogue in the UK" but we thought we'd go and see what all the fuss was about.

We visited the Lubavitch (Chabad) Headquarters, situated at 770 Eastern Parkway, in a borough of New York City.

Since the death of its leader/'Rebbe' in 1994, Chabad has been sharply divided. On the one side are the "Messianists", who believe that the late Chabad Rebbe Schneerson is, in some respect, the Messiah.

They can be identified as the ones wearing bright yellow pins and sporting kippot with the slogan "long live our leader, teacher, rabbi, king messiah for ever".

In the synagogue they stand packed into the corners closest to where the late Schneerson sat. Their theology roughly states that when the Rebbe returns, the Temple will be rebuilt in NYC, and then be transported straight to the Old City in Jerusalem.

On the other side are the more conservative Chabadniks, who choose not to proclaim the Rebbe as the messiah. They make up most of the attendees, with traditional black hats and adorned in their long black coats. The central synagogue is covered with messianic slogans, and large posters continue to hang from the wall proclaiming the long deceased Rebbe as Messiah – despite numerous legal battles.

The posters cover much of the architecture, but the walls are still lined with oak bookshelves. At the front of the synagogue is the foundation stone set by the previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak, which some Lubavitchers will kiss before they enter on Friday night.

The majority of those present on the night were members of Chabad on Campus, an outreach movement aimed specifically at Jewish students on campuses throughout the world. The atmosphere was electric.

One thousand students were packed into the synagogue and despite a large Texan Rabbi with a voice like an organ leading the service it was impossible to keep track of what was going on. Upon reaching "lecha dodi" the room exploded, singing, dancing and clapping pulled everybody in.

By the fourth verse people were hurling themselves off of tables into the throng, with numerous Rabbis crowd-surfing across the room. The community is utterly unique: nowhere else can one find so much politics, so much passion and so much informality in a synagogue service. This isn't a quiet, dignified synagogue where the Chazzan wears a silly hat and the bridge club meets on Tuesdays. The Chabad movement has changed the face of Judaism, and this is its epicentre.

Last updated: 5:23pm, January 19 2012