It all started with a fight over bike lanes.
Rabbi Yoni Katz, 40, almost 10 years ago noticed “tension” between “hipsters” and Hasidic people in Williamsburg centered around them.
“They had their bike lanes running through Bedford Avenue, and when they used to drive their bikes through the heart of the Hasidic neighborhood, it was a big cultural shock for them,” Katz, who was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, explained in a small library on Kingston Ave. where he begins his tours of Hasidic Crown Heights.
“I said, ‘Let me do something about it,’ and I tweeted about an open forum in Williamsburg where the tension was really bad,” Katz, who was working at the Lubavitch Youth Organization and blogging at 11213.org, went on.
A few years later, as some of the similar “hipster” types involved in the bike lane controversy started moving to Crown Heights, Katz,— along with friend Zalman Kohn, Rabbi Manis Friedman and a few others—launched a “Unite The Beards” campaign.
“I said, ‘We’ll invite any hipster or artist who lives in the neighborhood and welcome them,’” he told Bklyner.
In Crown Heights, where he lives next to a “building full of hipsters,” Katz says though no open animosity is on display, seldom did people from the two groups converse with one another. “It’s just not neighborly love,” he said.
In 2016, when Beryl Epstein, who gave the Lubavitch Youth Organization-sponsored tour before him, became ill, Katz began to fill in as a substitute guide. And when Epstein died in the spring of 2017, Katz took over.
“I was just left holding the bag,” he said. “I never intended to give tours.”
But the Unite the Beards effort, Katz says, prepared him for giving tours to people from all walks of life.
“I had the interest, because of the campaign that I was doing, reaching out to non-Jewish people and totally non-affiliated people,” Katz explained.
During the Hasidic Brooklyn tour, a three-hour, $69-a-person Airbnb experience, Katz interacts with a broader demographic than just Brooklyn gentrifiers. (Katz says the revenue goes straight to funding the library and his salary comes from the Lubavitch Youth Organization, which is headed by his father-in-law, Shlomo Friedman). On any given day, 12 to 15 people from all over the world—Italy, Germany, United Arab Emirates, England, Palestine, Utah along with some people who live in Crown Heights or adjacent neighborhoods—join him to pick his brain and walk around Crown Heights.
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