Reverence and Reconstruction

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: By Frances Halsband, FAIA, and Eli Meltzer, AIA with photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher

How a relatively undistinguished building in Brooklyn, New York, has become an oft-copied symbol for a rapidly growing Jewish movement around the world.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a philosophy, a movement, and an organization. Begun 250 years ago in Russia as a reinterpretation and renewal of Jewish life and practice, it found new meaning and success beginning in 1940, when the Sixth Rebbe (Grand Rabbi) Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson fled from Europe to New York. The Chabad group purchased a small building at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to serve as its new world headquarters and a home for the rebbe. The building itself—a three-story red brick Gothic-inspired structure—had been built in the 1920s as a residence and doctor’s office in the growing neighborhood of Crown Heights.

Relocated in a secure New York base, the organization began a period of aggressive growth. In 1951, under the leadership of the new Seventh Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the organization aspired to reach everyone of Jewish origins around the globe, and invite them to engage in a deeper study of their religion and its promise. The rebbe was incredibly successful, in his lifetime a commanding figure, active in political and cultural circles as well as a spiritual leader. He established new Chabad centers on college and university campuses throughout the US and in cities around the world. The rebbe died in 1994, but movement has continued to grow without an apparent leader. Today there are 4,500 schluchim (emissaries) in over 3,500 Chabad institutions in 55 countries around the world, representing outreach to hundreds of thousands of people. Some believe that the charismatic seventh rebbe is the Moshiach (the messiah) who will eventually return to lead the movement once again.

The basic Chabad houses, on campuses and in cities, are run by schluchim (typically a rabbi and his wife). As emissaries, they welcome Jews and others in the area to participate in shabbat (Friday Night) dinners, classes, and lectures to deepen their faith and understanding of their religion. Typically the Chabad group begins in a house—a home for the schluchim and a place of welcoming. As each community grows, these houses are rapidly outgrown, and larger buildings are purchased or constructed to meet specific needs. While there is a long tradition of Jewish synagogues built in regional styles that reflect their immediate location, increasing numbers of Chabad houses are looking back to 770 Eastern Parkway for design inspiration.

Religious Significance

There are several goals behind the choice to replicate. Serendipitously, the number 770 has special significance. In Hebrew, letters are assigned numerical values. The letters of the word parazta, a Hebrew term meaning “burst forth” (as in the biblical verse, “You shall burst forth (u’faratza) westward, eastward, northward, and southward.”) add up to 770. The concept is that light emanates from 770 to the four directions of the world. It also turns out that the numerical value of Beis Moshiach (The House of the Messiah) is 770. Visiting the Beis Moshiach brings worshippers closer to the presence of a holy figure, into a place where his memory is alive as a continuing inspiration. Photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, who have documented Chabad houses around the world, note that the buildings also serve as a landmark and meeting place for insular international travelers. Images of 770 have started to appear on yarmulkas, party favors, and stationary, establishing a brand identity.

Theme and Variations

Comparing the first dozen 770s from around the world provides not only a study in religious form but a look at transformations. When does the copy stray so far from the original as to be unrecognizable? The Brooklyn 770 (shown in the photo above) is primarily visible as a front façade, the side and rear walls largely hidden from view. The plan, almost unchanged since 1940, includes the rabbi’s study, some meeting rooms on the ground floor, and apartments above. Copies vary in the degree to which they reproduce the front façade, but every architect must start anew in creating a plan specific to the needs of the client.

Measured drawings of 770 are the basis for the buildings in Kfar Chabad, Melbourne, and Jerusalem. The front is reproduced as a three-story, variegated red brick façade crowned with three unequal pediments, a symmetrical arrangement of Gothic-inspired windows with patterned mullions and keyed limestone frames, and an oriel projected over the central front door.

The first known copy of 770, in 1980, came about when the world’s first Chabad house at UCLA burned down claiming the lives of three students. In planning to rebuild, the rabbi had the idea that three “points” on the roof would honor the three students who had perished. It was an easy step to imagine that the three peaks would be those of 770, but there was concern that such a thing might be considered inappropriate. Through various emissaries the rebbe was approached, and eventually word was received that the rebbe and his wife would be very happy to have a copy of the house in Los Angeles. The building is brownish brick with a first floor devoted to a parking garage.

The first authorized and carefully planned copy is in Israel. In 1985, during a period of turmoil and uncertainty concerning the fate of the Chabad library of 40,000 volumes housed in 770, the rebbe instructed that another study center and library be constructed in the Israeli town of Kfar Chabad, near Tel Aviv, and that the building should be a replica of 770 (a photo is shown on the cover). Architects were dispatched to Brooklyn to measure and photograph every element of the original, drawings were created, contracts were signed, and miraculously, the building was completed in less than a year, on time and under budget. That building is today both a study center and a pilgrimage site for visitors who wish to imagine themselves in the presence of the rebbe.

There is a story that the Mosaich might return to Earth by way of Milan or Melbourne. The Chabad rabbi in Milan, aware of this tale, concluded that it would be be fitting to have a house that would be suitable to receive him. Thus a somewhat similar building was constructed in 1994 (photo above). This was the first replica to encounter the requirements of a local design review board, which perhaps accounts for the changes in proportion and the transformation of the oriel window into a balcony over the front door.

In Melbourne, precise replication was the goal. Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks, speaking at the dedication in 1997, said:

“Every house of prayer is an extension of Jerusalem, except that in the meanwhile it is found here…This special synagogue built here, in fact, is not only a part of Jerusalem but also a part of an additional place unique in kind—770 Eastern Parkway, the home of the greatest Jewish leader of our generation…For so many of us—770 was the Jerusalem of our generation!”

For the cornerstone, a stone from the original 770 and a stone from the holy city of Hebron in Israel were used, and they were laid with the shovel that the rebbe had used to lay the cornerstone for the expansion of 770 in 1988.

The next known precise copy of 770 was constructed in Jerusalem in 2000-2002. The iconic presence of this red brick building in a sea of white stone buildings is startling to behold (shown on page 20, middle). It is clear that contextual design plays no part in this story. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Havlin (Chabad emissary to Ramat Shlomo, Jerusalem) spoke at the dedication:

“A building like this reminds one instinctively of the rebbe and all that is connected to him—it arouses his memory—and creates a strong urge for Torah and Chassidism.”

The decision to construct “a 770” is not an easy one. Sometimes the urge to create something new, the difficulties of reproduction, local zoning, and the very real programmatic requirements of the plan stretch the rules. In Sao Paulo, the Chabad House sits on a garage plinth, with a second floor door to nowhere floating above (page 20, bottom). Here the proportions are made more vertical by the demands of the site, but the small scale is in marked contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers. The architects of the Rutgers Chabad house relegated the copy of the principal façade to the side of their building, with a random collection of windows and doors and an off-center oriel. This copy has drifted far from the source.

The building in Kiryat Ata Haifa pushes further, with a free-form interpretation of Gothic on all four sides, a random door, and dramatic color breaks. Another Chabad on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles solves the problem of increased size by starting with a close rendering of the original three bays, and then repeating a pedimented larger bay around the block (page 20, top). A recently completed Chabad house in Tacoma, Washington, is only two stories, perhaps in deference to residential zoning or the limitations of budget and program. The rendition of details is quite accurate and overall proportions are well done. However, illustrating that proportion and detail may well play a greater role in recognition than mere massing, it maintains its identity though only two stories tall.

We are perhaps observing the first 30 years of a movement that will gain intensity and sophistication as replicas of replicas start to appear, and architects and clients learn from each other. However different their settings, all of these buildings seek to create the feeling and spirit of the original, a place to sing.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yes we wept, when
we remembered Zion…
For there our captors required
from us a song…
How shall we sing the Lord’s
song in a strange land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy.


This essay would not have been possible without the extraordinary photographs of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. Their research and careful documentation revealed a world of places that are out of place, and yet belong to a larger place. We are greatly indebted to them for generously sharing their work with us. We also would like to thank Rabbi Motti Seligson, Director of Media Relations for, who welcomed us to 770 Eastern Parkway and provided insight into the history and current operations of the Chabad Centers.

Frances Halsband, FAIA, is a founding partner of Kliment Halsband Architects in New York. Eli Meltzer, AIA, is an architect with the firm and a member of the Chabad Chassidim.

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