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Port Washington: Jewish Life is Booming Here

By , Port Washington, NY

You don’t find many storefront houses of prayer in Port Washington, NY. A modest home carries a $1 million price tag, double that for a place on the water. Residents are not likely to be calling out to a Higher Power to fill the void left by economic insecurity.

Nevertheless, Chabad of Port Washington is experiencing nothing short of a boom. Its two-acre campus houses a 25,000 square foot preschool, school, mikvah and synagogue complex with water views. An expansion project is underway to add another 18,000 square feet that will house a prep school caliber library and gymnasium.

“Until Chabad came I never saw a Jewish presence in Port Washington,” said Dr. Martin Brownstein, whose medical lab served the area for three decades. “I never saw a mezuzah on a door. I never saw anyone wearing a yarmulke. The ethnic newspapers were Korean, nothing Jewish.”

Synagogues in the area had and continue to boast solid affiliation numbers, but being Jewish in Port Washington was a low profile affair. Now, 17 years into Chabad’s presence in the area, its Chabad Academy of Sciences and Humanities educates 200 children. Fifty-eight tots fill the Brownstein Preschool to capacity, and there’s a waiting list. 120 students are enrolled in Hebrew School. Another 150 attend post-bar and bat mitzvah teen clubs. 

Crossing through the double doors into Chabad’s mikvah, open since the summer, offers a window into Chabad’s growth. Custom upholstered Ethan Allen chairs flank a fireplace in the anteroom. Opposite the elegant credenza stands a hardwood desk burnished to a gleam. It holds a butter soft leather-bound schedule book. Entry into the exclusive mikvah, which is fed by a custom-built waterfall, is by appointment only. The only clue that this is not a spa waiting room is the Chabad volunteer who appears to answer related mikvah questions.

All the opulence has holy roots. “The best way to appreciate the physical world is by seeing it through the eyes of the Torah and the Creator,” Rabbi Sholom Paltiel, director of Chabad of Port Washington, told 
Nearly 100 women who had never observed the mikvah ritual, use the Port Washington mikvah on a monthly basis. Members and leaders of the Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues are among them. There are mikvahs aplenty in nearby Great Neck and other Long Island cities, but Port Washington women didn’t seek them out.

“Women here are used to a five-star experience. Our mikvah could not be anything less,” said Sara Paltiel, chief financial officer of the Port Washington Chabad.  “Right now mikvah is the easiest mitzvah to teach. Women love the idea of what it does for them as a woman, for their marriage, and when they see the exquisite mikvah, they cannot wait to start.”

Appealing to affluent tastes has gotten Chabad in the door of Port Washington’s Jewish community, but what convinces them to stay can be traced to Rabbi Paltiel’s warmth and Mrs. Paltiel’s baby carrier.

Tami Ruben, coordinator of Connections, a UJA young leadership program, decided to get involved with Chabad when she saw that “Rabbi Paltiel gave the same hello to everyone. Everyone gets the same attention.”

She also cannot recall a time when Mrs. Paltiel did not have one of her eight children with her. “Sara is a mother first,” said Mrs. Ruben, president of Chabad’s sisterhood.

Paltiel babies are strapped into Baby Bjorns to attend board meetings and sit in on staff interviews, because Mrs. Paltiel does not believe in leaving the care of her children to strangers. “I don’t know how she keeps it all together,” said Mrs. Rubin. “She runs the business side of Chabad, her home and looks good all the time. It’s amazing.”

Part of the secret is the large team of professionals responsible for the day to day running of Chabad’s programs. Hebrew school and youth director Rabbi Ilan Weinberg keeps Hebrew school graduates from slipping out of Jewish involvement with community service clubs and a thriving junior congregation. He’s about to add the Smile on Seniors program that pairs teen volunteers with senior citizes. Rabbi Yankel Wilchansky directs the school, and the new headmaster Robyn Mandor, a veteran educator and administrator, are readying the school for its projected growth to a student body of 360 once the new facilities are complete.  

Jewish pride has surfaced in a neighborhood that kept it behind closed doors. It’s evident when day school graduates win awards, and crowds turn out for Chabad’s monthly Shabbat dinners. On the main retail street, Chabad’s tastefully designed banners and billboards wish residents Happy Chanukah, Happy Rosh Hashanah. Other synagogues have followed suit, and Port Washington has changed.

“You now notice it’s a Jewish town,” said Rabbi Paltiel.


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