The Instagram Influencers of Crown Heights
Many Hasidic sects of Orthodox Judaism effectively shut out the secular world. They speak mostly Yiddish, sons do not learn a trade but are encouraged to study the Torah full-time, secular literature is banned, and people do not allow the internet into their homes for fear of it leading their children astray.
But in the mid-20th century, the Lubavitcher community initiated a different approach. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has been the base of the Chabad, or Lubavitch, movement since the group escaped Europe in the 1940s. (The terms “Chabad” and “Lubavitch” are interchangeable; Chabad refers to the name of the philosophy, while Lubavitch is the town in Russia where the movement was based for more than a century.) In 1950, after the passing of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, his son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was chosen to lead the movement as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. Part of his legacy includes thousands of hours of video and audio of his lectures, meetings with followers and admirers, and performance of rituals on Jewish holidays. Rebbe Schneerson taught his followers that the Chabad movement can grow in numbers if they use technology to reach out to non–Orthodox Jews.
Today the Chabad community in Crown Heights is estimated to number between 11,000 and 12,000. They hew closely to tradition—men are typically bearded and wear black fedoras, and women wear modest clothing and cover their hair once married—but like the Rebbe, they also embrace a changing world. In keeping with his discourse, many Lubavitcher use smartphones and the internet with the understanding that it must be utilized for a greater purpose—to bring about a new era of God consciousness by posting positive messages about the Chabad community. To put it another way, the internet, too, can help bring the Messiah.
Like most Orthodox Jewish communities, Lubavitchers live fairly gender-segregated lives. At synagogues, schools, and community events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, men and women are always separate. Chabad women usually get married in their early 20s and often go on to raise several children. Many women work within their communities as educators, or for local businesses, but there are no restrictions on what jobs women may have; many local businesses are run by women from within the community.
Chabad women are also more publicly visible than women of other Hasidic sects, and social media allows such visibility to be even more self-directed. Seen through the prism of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Chabad womanhood is dynamic, devout, and creative, and women’s empowerment is seen as a celebration of the role women play in the community and in their home. “You have to enjoy life, you have to enjoy what you do,” says Zohar Sasson, a special-education teacher who uses social media with her organization, Jewish Women Empowered. Across the Chabad community, young women photograph each other for Instagram, modeling the latest fashions in modest clothing; kosher foodies share their Shabbat menus; and others broadcast holiday rituals like the lighting of the menorah on Hanukkah.
Mrs. Shana Tiechtel
Principal of Beth Rivkah High School
Three years ago, educators and parents at Beth Rivkah High School decided to create a policy for the private Lubavitcher girls’ school: the second the students go into the school, they have to deposit their phones in a box, and the devices stay there until they leave.
Mrs. Shana Tiechtel, who has been the principal of the school for nearly 40 years, says the policy isn’t only in effect during school hours—students are also required to have filters on their phones at all times. Some filters are optional and some are mandatory. The girls can use certain educational, shopping, travel, and music apps, and they can choose just one social media platform to join. “Social media has such a good purpose—to connect people,” says Mrs. Tiechtel. “However, teenagers are not yet ready to utilize social media in the proper way ... The moment the girls come out of that building, they take their phones. You see groups of girls walking next to each other, and it’s utter silence. Nobody is talking—they're checking their phones or texting, or they're sharing social media posts.”
“Our message to the students is to use your common sense ... you have to control the phone, you can’t have it control you.”
Tiechtel added that social media can do “good things in this world.” But she warned of the risks of cyber bullying and added that “misuse of social media can be very destructive emotionally to a teenager.”
Bina Eckhaus, 20
Fashion blogger and employee at Lamplighters, a Lubavitch Montessori school
On her Instagram, Eckhaus documents her outfits, which are informed by the Torah’s laws around tznius, or modesty. A willowy blonde, Eckhaus favors a feminine, 1990s throwback style, with soft sweaters and denim dresses, and the photos in her feed, in which Eckhaus poses around Brooklyn, have the soft-focus look of an Anthropologie catalog.
She began posting on Instagram on October 11, 2018, with a photograph of herself in a pink striped dress against a white brick wall, and she now has 345 followers. Her handle, @bina_yesaira, is a pun; Bina is her name, but bina yesaira is also a Hasidic term that refers to a unique kind of intellect women possess.
Eckhaus works at Lamplighters, a local Lubavitch Montessori school, and like other Chabad women her age, she is slightly world-weary about social media; she deleted a previous Instagram account after high school and only joined Facebook last year. Prior to her current Instagram project, she was never entirely comfortable sharing her life online. But when she realized that she could showcase her outfits, collaborate with friends, and also celebrate her religious beliefs, social media suddenly seemed meaningful.
Eckhaus’s mother, Malkie, whom she credits with teaching her to express herself through fashion, is a sheitel macher, one of the women in the Chabad community who sell, cut, and style the wigs all married women wear over their natural hair. Lubavitch women have a distinct pride in their wigs, which, in the Orthodox world, are of a particularly high quality. When Hollywood hair trends trickle down to Orthodox wig styles, sheitel machers, often glamorous figures themselves, make sure they can provide them. (Hasidic wigmakers have also carved out followings on Instagram, showcasing their latest styles to followers in the tens of thousands.) “The Rebbe was so passionate about women feeling beautiful,” Eckhaus says. “I feel good when I can wear something fashionable, put it out there, and feel like there’s no contradiction between fashion and modesty.”
Sarah Encaoua-Guigue, 24
Aspiring actor, employed at a film-production studio
Sarah Encaoua-Guigue always wanted to be an actor, but attending auditions and casting calls as an Orthodox married woman was stressful for her. “Should I tell them that I’m religious? Should I tell them I’m married?” she’d think, taking care to wear modest outfits to her auditions. She knew she didn’t want any work that might cause her to violate any of her rules, which include avoiding using coarse language and touching men other than her husband. Instagram, she found, helped alleviate that tension by allowing her to create content herself, for a niche audience, most of whom are also Orthodox.
Today she has more than 12 thousand people following her on Instagram under the handle @hassidic.hipster.girl. (“I came to Crown Heights from Toronto, looked around, and saw that everyone was either Hasidic or hipster,” she says, “and I thought, wow, that’s a good idea.”) Her feed is a blend of well-produced funny videos, sponsored content, and lots of commentary on her life as a practicing Lubavitcher, the details of which she broadcasts every day. “Thank God that we have digital media, which allows us to create our own path to artistic expression,” she says. “The Rebbe said if you have a talent, use it. That’s what you’re here for.”
The platform is part of her morning routine. “I start with the daily weather … and then I pray. Prayer is a priority for me. If I can stop at 770”—the main synagogue in Crown Heights, at 770 Eastern Parkway—“I do, otherwise I’ll pray in the Uber to work.” She always makes a point to photograph her prayer book and says that sharing her practice helps keep her motivated.
Zohar Sasson, 47
Special-education teacher, cofounder of Jewish Women Empowered
This past summer, Zohar Sasson realized that this was a huge year for women’s movements, and with organizations like the Women’s March and #MeToo in the headlines, she began to wonder how Lubavitcher women could join forces on a project that could inspire and empower those in their own community. She called her friend Esther Rosen, 37, an artist, and the two discussed filming interviews with other women in their community. Neither had filmmaking experience, but between them they knew many who lead rich spiritual lives, or who had overcome great obstacles, or were community activists or beloved mentors. They named the project j.we, for Jewish Women Empowered.
During one of their conversations, Rosen recommended using Facebook or Instagram to share the interviews, but Sasson worried that it might be “too young or trendy” an approach, and might not be religiously acceptable. She was still new to social media and did not feel comfortable endorsing it through her project. Meanwhile, the High Holidays—an especially busy time of year for Orthodox women—were approaching. The day before Rosh Hashanah, Sasson’s husband decided to go to the Ohel, the cemetery where the Rebbe and his predecessor are both buried, to pray for a good year, a customary practice. “Normally, I wouldn’t go with him, because it’s a very challenging time to go, but I put everything on hold and went with him.”
At the Ohel, she prayed about the project, and on her way out she stopped to watch one of the Rebbe’s videotaped lectures, which are always playing in one of the rooms. In the footage, possibly recorded in the 1960s, he spoke about using technology to spread the messages of the Torah. “The Rebbe said to use all technological tools available at our disposal to reveal the true purpose of its creation—to bring unity, joy, and light to this world,” she says. The video felt like an answer to her prayer, and she left feeling emboldened to experiment with any platform that might help her reach her goal. The project launches in late January 2019 and will utilize Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
Chanie Apfelbaum, 38
Cookbook author and kosher-food blogger
For the past eight years, Chanie Apfelbaum has been writing seriously about kosher food. Her blog, Busy in Brooklyn, remains her home base, but Instagram has become a necessary tool to direct followers to her site. Today she’s an Orthodox equivalent of a Food Network star; food writing, recipe developing, and food photography constitute her full-time job. She’s become hugely popular: her Instagram, @busyinbrooklyn, which she started in 2013, has more than 54 thousand followers, and she is currently on tour to promote her new cookbook, Millennial Kosher.
In a community where women are expected to raise a large family—Apfelbaum has five children—while maintaining a meaningful spiritual life and hosting meals every Shabbat and Jewish holiday, cooking can become something to resent. “I’m really passionate about taking the fear out of the kitchen, because I feel like cooking is a form of creative expression,” she says of her brand. And indeed, her content is extremely inviting. She regularly posts stories showing step-by-step breakdowns of recipes, peppered with interactions with her children and the minutiae of daily life. Her followers, mostly women between the ages of 20 and 40, notice everything, she says. She receives a steady stream of comments and feedback, very often positive but not always. “It took me time to find enough confidence to share,” she says. “What I do has really helped open my eyes to all different types of Jews. Food is a common denominator; it unites us all.”