Friday, July 11, 2008

Hamptons Diary

So what exactly am I doing in the Hamptons for a long holiday Shabbos weekend? I mean, I have never tied a light summer sweater over my shoulders or sat for a full day at a pool drinking a tequila sunrise or an apple martini. But still, there is something gravitational and intriguing about summer in these Hampton enclaves that is worth exploring.

First, it’s important to note that we were at a friend’s house very close to the Hampton Synagogue, which was founded 18 years ago by Rabbi Marc Schneier and is thriving in a place and a situation where such success was considered extremely unlikely. If you want to gain some insight into what an eclectic mix of modern Jewish men and women from very diverse backgrounds are doing these days, it’s worthwhile taking a look inside what Rabbi Schneier has built and developed here in the Hamptons.

Today there is definitely a hunger and a thirst in the world, and, as the prophet said, the hunger is not just for delicious challah and the thirst is not exclusively for just one more drink. That profound 21st-century desire is for much more than those mundane things. Out here you can clearly begin to see and feel that the hunger and the thirst transcends the obvious and is rather a desire to reach out and get involved in something greater, something that lives inside us all.

But it took some vision and a great deal of initiative—not to mention courage—to make what has happened here in Westhampton, New York, possible. There’s a lot going on here, and most of those activities in this Suffolk County community now revolve around the Hampton Shul. People are drawn out here for a variety of reasons. For many, it’s the change of pace from the usual daily routine that makes this place so interesting and attractive. It’s a summer getaway in a pristine and countrified setting.

Those involved in significant ways in Jewish life populate some areas of the Hamptons. Perhaps it has been like that for many, many years but only more recently—over the last ten years or so—has Jewish life made an imprint of sorts with a spirited and organized focus. This past Shabbos, the shul in Westhampton was jam-packed with an overflow crowd. Doors at both sides of the shul—leading from the men’s section and the women’s section—had to be opened and hundreds of chairs added to accommodate shul-goers who streamed in throughout the morning.

Earlier that Friday morning, I made stops to visit and survey the progress elsewhere in the Hamptons. Though cut out of what seems to be a small swatch of land at the other end of Long Island, Westhampton covers a rather large area—so much so that a second shul is presently on the rise. And that is the Chabad shul at the beach, currently run by Rabbi and Mrs. Eli Popack. The shul is located in a rather nondescript structure that resembles a bungalow. Speaking with the young rabbi, one gets the sense that the present setup is temporary, as the momentum and energy behind the shul is very much on the rise.

Needless to say, with the large crowds congregating in this part of the Hamptons every weekend, a second shul is exactly what is required. I stopped by the shul at the beach on Friday morning to drop off some copies of the Five Towns Jewish Times and to chat with the rabbi. Of course, he has come up through the Chabad system, but he did not come out here to be the rabbi of a shul. He is originally from Toronto and his wife from Brooklyn; they used to come out, like so many others, for an uncomplicated weekend away. Over a relatively brief period, Rabbi Popack emerged as a leader of the minyan in many ways, to the point where he is now the spiritual leader as well. This week, on Friday afternoon, the shul at the beach plans to host its first sefer Torah dedication ceremony.

About 15 miles further east, we rang the bell at the home and shul of Chabad of Southampton, where we’ve spent some wonderful Shabbos weekends together with fascinating people from far-flung directions of the world, weekends full of intense inspiration. The source of all this Hampton excitement is Rabbi Rafe Konikov, who, along with his wife and children, split their time between Southampton and Crown Heights.

The shul was quiet on this early Friday afternoon, but Mrs. Konikov appeared to be setting up for about 30 guests for Friday-night dinner following the services. What I have always found additionally interesting about Southampton in particular was that this was the only Jewish house of worship in town. If there were no Chabad here, there would be no shul, no synagogue, no temple, no nothing. Of course there are plenty of Jews who spend summers or summer weekends here, as well as many who live out here year-round. Where most of us come from, it would be unthinkable to live in a place where there was no shul for 20 or so miles. I suppose no one really gave it much thought until Rafe Konikov arrived.

We finally ended up in East Hampton, where we also spent a Shabbos last summer. I don’t know who is doing better in the Yiddishkeit department or who is cultivating more important and generous donors for Chabad, but there is definitely something extra-special happening out here in East Hampton. The rabbi, Label Baumgarten (who we wrote about last year), used to commute out here regularly from his home in Coram, where he was setting up a Chabad House. It quickly became clear to him that there was a great deal of work to be done in the Jewish community in East Hampton. When we were there last Friday, Mrs. Baumgarten and her children who were not in summer camp were setting up for about 50 Shabbos dinner guests.

There’s always something interesting and exciting happening on weekends in all of these shuls. Each in its own right is a hub of Jewish activity, which makes Shabbos something extra special for those who live here or visit. All have one thing in common—bringing Jews closer to Torah study and what it means to be a Jew in a way one can relate to and understand.

For those who have spent their lives in yeshiva or in Torah academies, some of what goes on out here might seem simplistic or even sometimes superficial. But it’s not. The effort and sacrifice involved in motivating and inspiring a Jew who has been distant or simply has no background in Torah study or even simple prayer is no minor matter. The point is that in all the shuls, they are here, and they are here to daven—to the extent they know how—and they are here to learn.

Which brings us back to Westhampton and the Hampton Synagogue, which is busy with interesting and innovative programs almost every day of the week. This year, Rabbi Schneier, with the assistance of Yeshiva University, has instituted a kollel-type program where people can gather once a week, on Tuesday evening, and partake in a Torah study program. There’s probably nothing like this nor has there been anything like it for tens of miles in any direction.

On Thursday night, when we arrived in Westhampton, we immediately put our bags down and went to the shul to hear a lecture from Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont and ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton administration. On Friday night at the seudah we heard stirring words from Rabbi Charles Klein of the New York Board of Rabbis. At seudah shelishis on late Shabbos afternoon, the guest speaker was former Hadassah president and now chairperson of the Conference of Presidents, June Walker.

There are wonderful, informative, and inspiring things happening out here in all corners of the Hamptons. In the near future, they are hoping to build impressive synagogue structures in both Southampton and East Hampton. Both Chabad organizations have purchased properties adjacent to their existing buildings and are ready to build. Of course there is resistance from the locals about what they are going to build, what the restrictions will be, and so on. In Westhampton—quite a few years ahead of the others—there is talk of an eruv in town. Local residents don’t like it, because—as the New York Times reported a few weeks ago—they are afraid the eruv will turn the Hamptons into another Five Towns.

I don’t see anything specifically wrong with that, but then again that’s just my opinion. The Hamptons are alive with the sounds of morning minyan, Minchah, Maariv, and a kol Torah that was once just an echo that originated from some other distant location. Now everything you can ask for is right here, and it’s a moving, important, and wonderful thing.

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