(Above: Sanctuary of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons)
Maxine Dovere’s dispatch from the Hamptons
For three months every summer, the towns and villages of the South Fork of Long Island multiply their populations manyfold.
Summer residents bring a lot more than beachwear and party dress to the gilded enclaves known collectively as “the Hamptons.” As the last decades of the 20th century marched across the calendar, Jewish life in the Hamptons grew exponentially. Floating homes hosted minyanim (prayer quorums) that grew into synagogues and community centers. Shabbat services led to rich Jewish-content programming, and year-round connections developed.
Jewish cultural programming—Jewish film festivals, concerts, exhibits of Israeli artists and community outreach events benefiting the wider Jewish community—became highly anticipated events on a summer weekend.
New York Jewish Life spoke to a few of the Jews making Jewish Life in the Hamptons rich, inviting and diverse. As the summer Shabbats of 2017 begin to descend at ever-earlier hours, these Jews are planning new centers, preparing new exhibitions and enriching Jewish Life.
Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten came to Long Island at the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Schneerson.
“I was sent to reach out, to help all kinds of people, Jews and non-Jews,” he said.
About 35 years ago, Baumgarten began leading Shabbat minyanim in private homes.
“It was difficult—hard to put together a minyan,” the rabbi told NYJL. “People needed to say kaddish (the memorial prayer) and have a warm feeling of Shabbat. Five years ago, the Chabad House was expanded to create a synagogue. It is important to have the setting of a synagogue.
“What’s so beautiful about our services is the diversity of the crowd. In the city, everybody belongs to a different synagogue; here everybody prays together….In my eyes, a Jew is a Jew,” said Baumgarten.
He described the nusach (prayer style) as a combination of traditions, leaning toward the Sephardic.
“Chabad is welcoming, not judgemental. But,” he emphasized, “we do not bend on Judaism.”
One of the synagogue’s most beloved programs is the “Challah Bake.”
“Kids come to have fun,” he said. “We give them a little spiritually, a Jewish story, and make challah! They learn the blessings in a fun way. My home is known for an open Friday night. My wife is a great cook; she bakes the best challah!”
NYJL asked Rabbi Baumgarten how the Chabad philosophy would be conveyed to future generations.
“I believe my children heed the Rebbe’s message. We don’t have him physically, but he is with us every moment.”
NYJL then asked the rabbi how his congregation was reacting to the crisis in Charlottesville.
“It was a terrible thing,” he responded. “We don’t feel it in East Hampton, but the world is in chaos with anti-Semitism on the rise. We have to be on the alert and be vigilant, be proud, know who we are and stick together…not only Jews but also the Gentiles. We’re all in this together.”
Rabbi Joshua Franklin is the new rabbi In town—he became rabbi of the 400-family Jewish Center of the Hamptons in the summer of 2017.
Asked about Hamptons Jewish life, Franklin said, “Judaism lives on the weekend. Every Friday, we celebrate Shabbat on Main Beach with about 300 people— a multigenerational experience with special focus on the children….We create great Jewish memories….There is a sense of great spirituality.”
The Jewish Center of the Hamptons programs enhance its religious services.
Franklin described the “Summer Institute at the Jewish Center” as being “modeled after the Aspen Institute: high-caliber speakers and high-level discussions about what Judaism looks like today; panel discussions addressing the questions surrounding the Middle East situation; and discussions of Jewish life and the Jewish future.”
NYJL asked him about his congregation’s response to Charlottesville.
“It’s very challenging,” he said.
He is planning a concert as a time to reflect, and asking local clergy to join him in celebrating the central value of unity.
The Jewish Center of the Hamptons is a Post-Denominational congregation.
“We have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox congregants using the Reform prayer book of London, which is more in line with Conservative Judaism. More and more,” he told NYJL, “Jews are defining themselves without labels. Just ‘Jews.’ The Millennials are more inclined to label themselves as they practice.”
Like Chabad’s challah baking, the Jewish Center of the Hamptons offers hands-on experiences to enhance the Jewish connection. Its full-time Sunday program integrates Jewish learning into Hamptons life using practical activities like gardening to learn Hebrew.
“It’s a biblical garden,” noted the rabbi. “We want to create immersive experiences.”
Jewish Life in the Hamptons is not limited to religious activity. Jewish culture is alive and very active.
Tina Silverman started the Hamptons Jewish Film Festival in 2014. She brought her idea to the Southampton Cultural Center and Rabbi Raphael Konikov of the Chabad Center of Southampton.
“My mission is to show Jewish history,” said Silverman. “The Jewish community in South Hampton had nothing in the way of Jewish film. The festival reflects history in film. It’s important for young people to know what happened. The comparatively secure environment of today does not reflect what happened in the Holocaust and Jewish life in prewar Europe.”
She noted that the response to the films is very positive. All the films shown are documentaries with historical significance.
She added that “it’s not just Jews who should watch these films. Jewish history is everybody’s history.”
Asked about growing anti-Semitism, Silverman said, “I don’t think there is a rise. It’s been there all along. Now it’s just more out in the open. This is nothing new—it’s been getting more bold.”
At the Janet Lehr Gallery, the exhibits of Jewish and Israel 1 artists are noteworthy. Within the East Hampton gallery, Artists 4 Israel recreated a Sderot bomb shelter, designed to help relieve some of the fright of the children. At the wail of a tzeva adom (a red siren signal)—the 15-second warning Israelis get before an incoming rocket explodes—Craig Dershowitz, Artists 4 Israel’s founder, instructed gallery visitors to run quickly to the “shelter.” Even his colorful paintings did little to relieve the frightening, confining atmosphere.
“When I came to East Hampton, I put mezuzot [several] on the gallery door,” Lehr said. “Eggs were thrown at the window the next night. The police guarded our door for two weeks. The police chief has my gratitude.”
The Lehr Gallery exhibited “A Stitch in Jewish Time,” a display using construction materials and creative reach from Laura Kruger’s exhibition at Hebrew Union College near Washington Square. The exhibit enhanced an understanding of Jewish ritual and links between the past and the present. The show explored responses to the Holocaust, war, patriotism, celebration, prayer and feminism in Biblical and traditional forms.
In upcoming months, the Janet Lehr Gallery will exhibit prize-winning Israeli nature photographs in cooperation with the Israel National Parks Authority. The show, which has previously been on display at the United Nations, comprises the work of 13 of Israel’s top nature photographers. It is anticipated to be at the gallery during Hanukkah 2017.
“Art is an important mean of creating awareness,” said Lehr. “Though few in number, we, and our art, have always been and will continue to be a light unto the world.”
While Saturday morning is the focus of the religious life of the Jewish community, Sunday morning in the Hamptons does not necessarily mean surf and sand. Organizational and educational programs are a summer Sunday highlight.
On the last Sunday in August, The Jewish Center of the Hamptons welcomed the chairmen—past and present—of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to a panel discussion on Israel and the Middle East. Past chairmen Kenneth Bialkin and Richard Stone joined the 29th and current chairman, Stephen M. Greenberg, in analyzing the prospects for peace; the position and provocations of Iran vis-à-vis Israel and its Arab neighbors; and the growing engagement of Israel and the moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia. The three chairmen noted the difference between the more moderate attitudes of the leaders and the “Arab Street,” which remains deeply hostile to Israel.
“There is an opportunity to progress towards a peace solution,” said Greenberg, “but I don’t know whether this administration is capable or will have the time.”
Throughout the summer season, gracious Hamptons homes become settings for gatherings to benefit Jewish community organizations. In Amagansett, a hundred people gathered for brunch and an update on the work of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in reaching out to the young generation of Jews in Europe and the former Soviet Union to educate them about Jewish life. The gala dinners of the Chabad centers of Southampton and East Hampton bring together hundreds of Jewish Hamptonians to “raise a glass” and salute Chabad’s Jewish outreach.
Jewish Life in the Hamptons is vibrant. Whether it’s a home-cooked Shabbat dinner enhanced by the sounds of the ocean waves breaking on the beach, a one-on-one study session with one of the several denominations’ resident rabbis, or the aroma of challah prepared at a Thursday afternoon baking class, Jewish life on Long Island’s East End is alive and well.
“Come for Shabbat!” Rabbi Baumgarten’s wife invited with warmth. “There’s always a place at the table.”