May 18, 2024
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Traveling Chassidim Visit Springfield for Shabbos

Springfield–At Congregation Israel of Springfield, Shabbos is always a rather special event: Heartfelt, melodic services; Mazal Tov announcements; friendships renewed at the shul’s generous weekly kiddush. One recent Shabbos was exceptional; the community hosted an unusual group of visitors, the Traveling Chassidim, and it’s safe to say everyone found the experience enlightening and joyful.

From the first notes of Kabbalas Shabbos, led by Rabbi Loker, teflilot soared even higher than usual with the Chassidim adding their distinctive, layered harmonies and the unfettered emotionalism that is the hallmark of Chassidic song (call it Jewish Soul). The sense of welcoming a holy day of peace and serenity was palpable. After Maariv services, anticipation ran high as the congregants found their seats for the first Seudas Shabbos.

Catered with personal care by Dalia Barness (of The Orchid Restaurant & Catering), the Friday night seudah was enjoyed by a crowd of well over 200, comprising men, women, and children of all ages from Congregation Israel, along with participants from the surrounding communities of Springfield, West Orange, East Brunswick, Passaic, etc. Sharing a delicious meal, punctuated by wonderful, lively zemirot Shabbos (traditional Sabbath songs), we were also able to get better acquainted with Rabbis Loker, Royde, Berger, Herz, and Rubinfeld and their wives and children. (One hesitates to keep referring to them as “the Chassidim”–this is not a troupe of performers. They’re simply a group of individuals who see every Jew, anywhere, as a potential friend, one with whom they can share the joyous elements of the Chassidic lifestyle.) At the conclusion of the seudah, the Chassidim led everyone in a Tish–a sort of extended vocal jam (accompanied by tempting desserts) that ended the evening on an even more festive note.

For the midday Shabbos meal, the Chassidim were hosted by various families from Congregation Israel, who thoroughly enjoyed the company of their new friends. The evening Seudah Shlishis, with its rather more elegiac songs befitting the waning of the Shabbos, was as stirring as ever, with the added voices of the Traveling Chassidim in the mix.

A short while after maariv Saturday evening, participants reconvened in the shul’s social hall, where Motzei Shabbos commenced with a beautiful and dramatic Havdalah service. The Havdalah ritual marks the end of Shabbos, but Chassidic philosophy reminds us that Shabbos is a time to be treasured, and thus not let go of easily. Hence, the Motzei Shabbis Kumzitz. Striking table centerpieces and ambient lighting by Anya and Eyal Bitansky of DAEN Entertainment set the mood, and delicious, light fare highlighted by local foodie favorite Tokyo Hibachi was enjoyed by all. Meanwhile, accompanied by one of their group playing keyboard, the Chassidim began with soul-stirring renditions of post-Shabbos prayers, then led the crowd of more than 100 in a rousing session of upbeat traditional singing and jubilant circle dancing. The Chassidim allow no wallflowers, the women’s circle competing with the men’s across the mechitza, and the children outdoing everyone with typical enthusiasm.

When it was time to go, people said goodbye to the Chassidim as to old friends: not really goodbye, but see you soon. The whole Shabbos was one big joyous spiritual workout. If the Chassidim’s genuine, open warmth toward all mark them as special, it was no doubt illuminating for many people to see how ordinary they are. This is another one of their objectives: to remind us–including many who have never met a Chassid up close–of a simple truth, that we’re all just people, fellow Jews, young and old, children who like to run around and parents who run after them, people who now and then deserve a spiritual break from the mundane demands of the daily grind. To this end, the Traveling Chassidim undoubtedly succeeded, and all were the richer for it.

The Traveling Chassidim are a group of families and friends–mostly (though not exclusively) members of the Belzer Chassidic community–who have made it their mission to build bridges, to bring to as many Jews as possible a taste of the essence of Chassidus, that Jewish life is about spiritual joy. And Shabbos is one of the best platforms by which to share classic Chassidic joie-de-vivre. Our everyday lives may be filled with practical demands, professional pressures, all the stresses of modern living, but on Shabbos we can shut it all down and just sing and dance, trade words of Torah, and share friendship–a deceptively simple formula, yes, but one that is amazingly effective. Not for nothing did Chassidus, when it emerged in the 1700s, inspire and revitalize many thousands of Jews then living under horrible oppression in Europe and elsewhere, enabling them to carry on with their heads held high and their values intact. Today, thankfully, few of us know those particular challenges. But life in America, even at its best, can be hectic, distracting, and not always conducive to an inner Jewish life. The Chassidic emphasis on spiritual elevation via the soul is, more than ever, suited to our times. It cuts through the layers of professional stress, political concerns, dogmatic differences, and general apathy. Thank God we can sing and dance!

By Josh Stern

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