(New York Jewish Week) — For eight years now, vlogger Drew Binsky has made a living traveling the world, creating content that aims to lift the curtains on remote communities for his 3.6 million YouTube subscribers.
He’s visited places as hard to reach as North Korea and South Sudan. But in his most recent video, Binsky, who is Jewish, doesn’t even leave the country. Instead, he takes his camera to Brooklyn to explore the different Hasidic movements, members of what he describes as “the most religious and closed-off community in America.”
“I’m really interested in different belief systems of every religion,” Binsky, whose real last name is Goldberg, told the New York Jewish Week via phone from his home base in Arizona. “Micro-communities and people that take anything to the extreme are fascinating to me.”
The 43-minute video, twice as long as a typical Binsky production, has garnered nearly 800,000 views since it was posted on YouTube on Monday. In it, Binsky, who grew up Reform, explains the history of Hasidism in New York and the customs and traditions of the insular community.
The video took six months and a team of five to film and produce, Binsky, 31, said. It begins in Washington Heights, with Binsky on camera talking to Yeshiva University students about how Hasidic Judaism is different from their brand of Modern Orthodoxy — and featuring some seriously delicious-looking shawarma from an Amsterdam Avenue eatery called Golan Heights — before heading to the Hasidic enclaves of South Williamsburg and Borough Park.
In Brooklyn, Binsky is accompanied by ex-Hasidic community member and transgender activist Abby Stein. Together they eat matzah ball soup, sesame chicken and stuffed cabbage at Gottlieb’s Deli, visit Eichlers Judaica shop and drop by both a newsstand and synagogue to learn more about worship and local customs. At the close of the video, Binsky celebrates Shabbat with the family of Shloime Zionce, a Hasidic Jew and fellow travel vlogger, who lends him a bekishe (a traditional black overcoat) and shtreimel (a fur hat) to help him look the part of a Hasidic man.
“As a Jew and someone who has celebrated Shabbat in many countries around the world, I must say that this one was the most special,” Binsky says in the video.
The idea for a video about Hasidic Brooklyn stemmed from the years-long online friendship between Binsky and Stein. After connecting on social media, the pair began to plan an excursion to Williamsburg to learn more about Stein’s life and childhood: Stein had grown up in the community, became a rabbi, married a woman and had a son before leaving the community when she came out as transgender in 2012.
“I think it’s helpful to see Williamsburg and the Hasidic community to really get a better sense of things and the work I’m doing to support LGBTQ people,” Stein, 31, told the New York Jewish Week. “As we were doing that, I think that’s when Drew basically realized, there’s a larger story about the community as a whole.” That, in turn, led the pair to explore Borough Park and its environs as well. Stein explains that Borough Park is slightly more open to outsiders than Williamsburg, and so Binsky may have better luck with interviews.
Famous for having visited every country in the world, it’s rare for Binsky to make videos about life in the United States — he estimated only 1% of his 1,000-plus videos are about American communities. “It’s nothing against the U.S. As an American, I’m more fascinated with other places because this is my own country. But if I can find these insular pockets, that’s really interesting,” Binsky said. “The most extreme Jews are Hasidic but it wasn’t until I actually went to South Williamsburg and to Lee Avenue, deep into the community, that I really got to learn about it.”
Haredi Orthodox communities have been bristling under the attention they’ve received of late, starting with criticism for the way many members flouted COVID-19 rules early in the pandemic and lately after a series of New York Times investigations said Hasidic yeshivas were failing to provide adequate education in secular subjects.
Orthodox activists say such coverage fosters stereotypes that have led to an uptick in street attacks on visibly Orthodox Jews. In January, Agudath Israel of America pushed back with a billboard and website campaign, called KnowUs.org, meant to “dispel stereotypes” about the community. Most of its content defends the yeshiva system.
Stein understands why Americans are fascinated with Hasidim. “Americans and American TV have been obsessed with cults and fundamentalist communities for a long time,” she said. “In some ways, [the fascination] is an opportunity — to lean in, to raise awareness, to help people who have left or people who want to leave, and also to affect potential positive change within the community for people who are happy being there.”
In the video, in which Binsky talks to both members and ex-members of the community of all ages (though aside from Stein, Binsky briefly talks to only one other woman). He’s rebuffed by some passersby but is embraced by others who are eager to share their stories.
“They really didn’t want to talk to me, they didn’t want to be interviewed,” Binsky said, adding it was one of the more challenging videos he’s made in a first-world country. “To not be welcomed by my own community is really frustrating.”
Still, he said, “I thought I told a well-balanced story. Non-Jewish and secular Jewish viewers have told me it’s the best video I’ve ever made.”
The only backlash he’s received, Binsky said, has been from a handful of Hasidic community members who criticized his friendship with Stein and his decision to center her narrative in the video. In some emails he’s received, Binsky said she was referred to as “Abe” and misgendered by her ex-community.
“I knew that shooting with Abby would be controversial, but I did it because I wanted to have that story about the community,” Binsky said. “But I also want to be like, look, she’s a real person, and you guys have to deal with it.
The top comments on the YouTube video are indeed positive. “This was absolutely beautiful,” wrote one user. “As a semi hasidic Jew myself I was touched by your coverage. I was moved to tears watching Shlomo bless his children on Friday night.”
“I have loved every single one of your travel videos — but this may honestly be your best work yet,” another viewer wrote. “To get this level of insight is incredible and brings a human element to the mystery!”
While the pair acknowledged that the video could be seen as exploiting a community that Americans are already obsessed with, neither Stein nor Binsky felt it was done in bad taste. “I would say when you’re working with people in the community, it’s not that it’s OK for us to tell our stories, it’s important for us to be able to,” Stein said.
In the past, Binsky has made videos about Jews in Ethiopia, Turkmenistan and Yemen, and in 2019 he visited Zebulon Simontov, who was famous for being the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan. He is currently planning a trip and to create a video about the Igbo Jews in Nigeria.
“I have a very global audience, so I try to educate people about the world and make high-quality content that can be viewed by any age and any nationality,” Binsky said. “My shtick is to have a lot of courage and go to places and just share the real story from my perspective.”
“Am I ‘exploiting’ them? Yes, to some degree,” he added. “But I still feel like I have to do that as part of my mission to tell the story. Otherwise, the story won’t get told.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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