Irwin Simon, CEO and chairman of Hain Celestial Group, is a member at four New York City synagogues. But it’s the Chabad shul in Southampton that he favors above them all. “At Chabad it really doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars, or one dollar, if you’re Jewish, you belong,” he says. It’s an attitude that has won Chabad the hearts of hundreds of Southampton’s Jews, many of whom never expected to attend services, or participate in anything Jewish, for that matter, out here.
With its endless stretch of beaches, tree-lined streets dotted with antique shops and charming cafes, thousands are drawn to the idyllic summer escape of Southampton. One of the most affluent communities in the United States, New York’s oldest village welcomed its first substantial influx of Jewish residents as recently as the late 1980s, causing an almost non-existent Jewish population to swell well past the 2,500 mark, with thousands more living here during the summer season and on weekends. But despite the growing number of Jewish residents, Southampton remained without a single synagogue or Jewish community center, and without any real sense of community for years. Jewish involvement, it seemed, simply wasn’t a priority here.
That’s all changed in recent years, and at a dinner last week at a private estate in Southampton, 300 residents turned out to celebrate the vitality of Jewish life on this oasis. It was the second annual dinner for Chabad of Southampton, and the enthusiasm for the work of Chabad representatives Rabbi Rafi and Chanie Konikov, was unmistakable. Honored at the dinner were Chabad of Southampton’s supporters, among them, Herb Wetamson, Gloria Gelfand, and Jeremy and Geraldine Axelrod.
“People living in Southampton really lack for nothing, materially,” explains Rabbi Konikov, “and it’s easy to forget that there’s another dimension to existence.” Chabad, he says, has come to show people the beauty of Jewish observances, in a warm, welcoming environment that is conducive to spiritual growth.
Arriving to Southampton in 1995, the Konikovs initially began serving the community during the summer season only, when the Jewish population typically maxes out to 35,000. Back then Chabad organized Southampton’s first-ever minyan, setting a record in a town where previous such efforts had failed. Gradually, Chabad began expanding programs and in 1999 the Konikovs purchased a permanent Chabad facility and moved to Southampton full-time.
Today, Chabad reaches out to people across the Jewish spectrum here with a full range of activities. In the highly popular Hampton Kosher Cooking Course, participants get to watch gourmet chefs Levana Kirschenbaum, Jerome Alexander, and Martine Abitbol create culinary masterpieces in a strictly kosher kitchen. Additional programs include a Hebrew language crash course, Mommy and Me music classes, and a Hebrew school.
Most importantly, Chabad provides a meeting ground for hundreds of Jews who have lived as neighbors for years without any contact, creating a cohesive Jewish community in this New Yorker’s paradise.
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