Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries are nothing if not adaptable. Scattered the world over, from Japan to India to Vietnam, Russia to South Africa, and throughout big American cities and small towns, they often do their work in foreign surroundings.

That can be the case even if their Chabad House is eight miles from a childhood home.

Such is the story with Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Moscowitz, or “Rabbi Yosef” as his constituents call him. Moscowitz, 32, was born into an environment like many children of rabbis and social servants – in his case, a modest brick home in the anything but stylish Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park. The enclave is dotted with synagogues and Jewish institutions on the city’s northern edge and derives its appeal through spiritual as opposed to material attachment.

He now hangs his Borsalino some 60 blocks south in the trendy locale of Bucktown-Wicker Park, where his and his wife’s Chabad House is situated in the heart of what Forbes magazine recently named the fourth-most attractive neighborhood for hipsters.

“All we knew is that we wanted to move to some – any – neighborhood in Chicago,” says Moscowitz, who after consultation with Lubavitch of Illinois, planned the move with wife Sara while still living in the Brooklyn, N.Y., community that serves as home to the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement. “So we sat on our laptop in our Crown Heights apartment, opened a map of Chicago and spotted an area that had nothing Jewish at all, with no synagogue of any denomination – and that was it! We hadn’t realized that we hit a really cool, hip, young, fun neighborhood!”

In a September online spread entitled: “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods,” Forbes lauds Moscowitz’s jurisdiction for its booming artist’s community, galleries, music venues, boutiques and chic eateries. But upon their arrival in March 2006, the couple, knowing nary a soul in the neighborhood or the difference between a hipster and a hippie, hastily threw together their first Purim event as the springtime holiday was fast approaching. About 10 people came. It was a start.

They would soon make fast friends with the locals and get a feel for their clientele. They began hosting quaint, Sabbath rooftop gatherings featuring a great view of the Chicago skyline atop the small townhouse that doubled as their residence and Chabad House.

In their second year of operation, they deployed a young graphic artist and early congregant, Loren Wells, to produce a strikingly hip postcard inviting people to their second “Story of Esther” bash, titled “Wicker Purim” and held at a popular local venue. The party drew a crowd of more than 200.

“We saw the RSVPs coming, but we had no clue that we would get a crowd in the hundreds,” says Moscowitz. “We drew the hip and the cool. The energy was incredible. It came as a real pleasant surprise for us and the neighborhood, and young Jewish Chicago.”

According to Wells, the graphic artist who hit pay dirt with the Purim invitation and others, the key to the Moscowitzes success lies in their “always being so natural and comfortable in the neighborhood, despite being outside of their element.”

Congregants enjoy a Chabad House event in Bucktown-Wicker Park.
Congregants enjoy a Chabad House event in Bucktown-Wicker Park.

The annual “Wicker Purim” remains a popular holiday event for hundreds each year, and a Chanukah party featuring a menorah fashioned out of glass bottles has followed suit. Wells remembers one tattoo-laden and ring-pierced local looking “so happy and having a blast” at one of the Purim gatherings and reeling in the experience of having listened to the megillah for the first time since Hebrew school.

But the Moscowitzes don’t just plan parties. They see them as a funnel for increased involvement in more traditional Jewish activities, such as weekly services and their “Bucktown Yeshiva” program for men every Monday night offering one-on-one study sessions with local rabbinical students. A similar program for women takes place on Tuesday nights with Sara Moscowitz, while a Wednesday night examination of the weekly Torah reading dubbed “Torah on Tap” is another favorite of congregants.

It got to the point where the 1,900-square-foot townhouse was nowhere near big enough, leading to the March 2010 acquisition of a $1.05 million, 15,000-square-foot property they called “The Living Room.”

“Inasmuch as we needed the bigger venue, we equally did not want to lose the feeling, energy and vibe that we had created in our small townhouse,” says the rabbi. “We were adamant in keeping the small-group feeling alive. Hence the name. It connotes a warm, homey atmosphere.”

The couple, who hold most of their activities in the partially renovated space, now find themselves in the same position many successful emissaries face as they take on costly capital improvements in a tough economy to meet the needs of growing constituencies.

In their case, on top of the purchase price, the three-story warehouse building – which will eventually house their residence, a children’s program, an expanded learning center and sanctuary, and a coffee shop-art gallery combo – needed a total interior rehab and exterior facelift. They are still shy some $1.75 million to finish the job, but their continually growing community of mostly hipsters and other young professionals is all for the campaign.

“Chabad really makes me want to participate, so we’ll definitely be back,” wrote one satisfied High Holiday worshipper on the online forum Yelp. “The place is under construction, but has awesome potential.”