A full three page spread in the local Jewish newspaper of Long Island proudly reported on the work of Chabad in the area and expressed their deep admiration for the team of shluchim led by Rabbi Tuviah Teldon. Read the full article here on Anash.org.
By Stewart Ain – Long Island Jewish World
A visitor entering the building through the front door could mistakenly believe that unknowingly, he was in a five-star hotel.
In the middle of the room two plush chairs face each other, a four-seat couch between them. To the right is a serve-yourself hot coffee station with a number of brews to choose from, including latte and cappuccino.
But instead of a reception desk, to the right of the lobby is a library filled with Jewish books.
Welcome to the Village Chabad, located on Nicolls Rd. in East Setauket, L.I., a short distance from the State University at Stony Brook. More than 500 people came to celebrate its opening in 2019, and 300 attended Rosh Hashanah services. This year, COVID restrictions are preventing a communal Passover seder. Instead, the rabbis and their wives are preparing “seders to go” packages consisting of seder plates and delicious foods. And there will be pre-Passover classes on Zoom to help prepare seder leaders get ready for the two nights.
These Passover activities will be taking place at Chabad houses all over Long Island.
“We’re not a shul,” said Rabbi Chaim Grossbaum, spiritual leader of the East Setauket Village Chabad. “We’re a community center. … [that doesn’t] just see religious needs but community needs and relations with the Jewish community. We want people to feel safe at home here when they drop off their kids for class. When they come back for their kids after school, they can come early, grab a coffee and sit. And they can hang out after class and schmooze or bring their laptops and work. It’s made for that.”
The Village Chabad is one of 38 Chabad Houses on Long Island that annually attract a total of 11,500 area Jews to their High Holy Day services, not including all the unaffiliated people who attend holiday events, classes, youth activities, and other programs.
When Chabad first moved to Long Island in the late 1970s and ‘80s, it was met with suspicion by much of the Jewish community, a fact readily acknowledged by Chabad leaders.
“[Back then], people were paranoid about Chabad, which had brought a new approach [to Judaism],” said Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, who moved to Long Island in 1977 and is now executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island. “It took time for people to understand that this was not just a couple of guys coming in from Brooklyn. Once they realized we had an intelligent brand and were doing amazing work, they changed their approach to us.”
But it didn’t happen overnight, and initially things were difficult for the rabbi and his wife Chaya.
“We came out with $20,000 in pledges and no money,” he recalled. “It took years to stabilize our own financial situation. People might think Chabad headquarters financed this operation, but it has all been grassroots Long Island support.”
Irking other synagogues was the fact that the new Chabad Houses did not charge membership fees, while others charged for membership or High Holy Day tickets.
“People were angry with us,” Rabbi Teldon acknowledged, “but that is now a model many synagogues are using. These synagogues realized that to reach larger numbers [of Jews], they had to be service-oriented, esp-ecially for the millennials who don’t want to pay dues.”
The Village Chabad is one of the newest on Long Island. Built on 8.8 acres that was bought in 2008 for $425,000 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, the one-story, 12,300 square-foot complex includes a freestanding storage building large enough to hold four cars. The entire complex cost $4.6 million. A mikveh (ritual pool) under construction in the rear of the building is one of three that Chabad is currently installing; it already operates mikvehs at Chabad houses in East Hampton, Patchogue, Coram, Port Washington, Merrick and Dix Hills.
Rabbi Grossbaum said 170 people at Village Chabad attend adult education classes, led by his son-in-law Rabbi Shalom Ber Cohen.
“There are so many Jews here, and there is so much we are doing as we try to give them what they are looking for,” Rabbi Grossbaum added.
The rabbi said he built the Village Chabad because he’d outgrown the building he used since 1989, the former Lake Grove Jewish Center. “It had only 7,000 square feet and the largest room could hold only 120 people,” he recalled.
In addition, most of his members had to travel some distance to get to Lake Grove because they lived in communities to the north, including Port Jefferson, Southampton, St. James, Stony Brook, Centereach and Setauket. By the time he re-located, he had a membership of 350 families.
Rabbi Grossbaum’s son Rabbi Motti Grossbaum pointed out that the construction of the Village Chabad comes at a time when “some other shuls are closing or merging. We are building here because we know there is a future here.”
Sometimes finding Jews on Long Island is as easy as it was when Chabad set up Centers in such Jewish communities as Great Neck and the Five Towns (in Cedarhurst). The latter Chabad features the freestanding Levi Yitzchak Family Center and Library, named in memory of Levi Yitzchak Wolowik, the 9-year-old son of Lubavitch shluchim (emissaries) to the Five Towns who died suddenly of a rare disease in 2009. Now a multimedia resource center with more than 9,000 Jewish books, it has managed in three years to become an integral part of the Jewish community.
But for other Chabad emissaries on Long Island, just finding Jewish families has been a challenge. Rabbi Shaya Hurwitz began looking to put down roots on Long Island’s North Fork at the suggestion of Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten, the Chabad emissary for the East End of Long Island and the Hamp-tons.
It was May 2014, and Rabbi Hurwitz, now 33, had been working in Crown Heights. He got in his car and drove to Orient Point, the tip of the North Fork, a more than 120-mile ride from Brooklyn. “I went, as Moses said, to see the land,” recalling that he made that trip twice a week throughout that summer to determine the size of the Jewish community.
“I would drive around and knock on doors and ask, ‘Are you Jewish? My name is Rabbi Shaya and I am a Chabad emissary of the Rebbe and I am here to grow the Jewish community and bring out the Jewish awareness here.’ I also went to every store in Mattituck, Greenport, Southold and Orient. I found out that the grocery store in Orient, next to the post office, is Jewish-owned. Every time I went out, I found more Jewish people. … In general, most people were happy about it. I was not pushy and wasn’t forcing anyone to affiliate.”
In November 2019, the rabbi and his wife, Mushky, bought a house in Mattituck and moved in with their two young children early last year. Because of the pandemic, they have been only able to hold religious services in a tent outside their home. But they have held a number of community events, including the lighting of a 9-foot Chanukah menorah at Mattituck Plaza. In 2019, it attracted 10 people. Last year, because of COVID, 25 at-tended, staying in or beside their cars. It was the largest number of participants since he began the Plaza menorah lighting five years ago, when only a young Jewish girl and her father attended.
Every week, said Rabbi Hurwitz, he and his wife distribute Shabbat packages containing challah, grape juice, chicken soup with matzo balls, gefilte fish, horseradish and some dips she prepares. In addition, his wife holds kosher cooking classes on Zoom, called “Mushky’s Corner,” that “people love.”
He added, “My wife loves this place. It’s nice and quiet, relaxing compared with busy New York City. We had lived in Crown Heights all our lives.”
Rabbi Mendel Teldon, Tuvia’s son, established a Center in Commack in 2004 and has held services there ever since. He, too, has been distributing Shabbat boxes — a total of 750 — that contain two candles, challah, grape juice, a Kiddush cup, challah cover, inspirational readings, a card game for children, and a guide on how to hold a Shabbat dinner. He emails recipes to congregants.
“So many people responded and said they had never done a Friday night Shabbat, and that because we gave them all the tools to do it, they did it and found it amazing,” he said. “That’s such a beautiful thing, and we did it again for Purim. We made a script of the Purim story and two Purim baskets for every family filled with candy — one to keep and the other to give their neighbor.”
He said that on many Fridays his wife Brocha, and their daughter Chanchie, 16, bake between five and 30 challahs they distribute to homebound seniors, people sick with COVID and frontline workers.
“Sometimes they add some chicken soup,” he said.
About 20 men attend his weekly Shabbat morning services, and on the High Holy Days he rents a room in the Hyatt Hotel in Hauppauge for their 550 congregants. Mushky Hurwitz and Brocha Teldon are just two of the many rebbetzins involved in outreach.
“My husband and I opened up Chabad of Montauk three years ago to reach out to the many Jewish singles and others who visit there every summer. We work together as a team, just like in all the Chabad Centers around Long Island,” says Mrs. Musia Baumgarten, daughter-in-law of Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten.
The diversity of Chabad activities is exemplified by 29-year-old Rabbi Chaim Vaisfiche, son of Rabbi and Mrs. Asher Vaisfiche of Chabad of Melville, who about five years ago created the Jewish Business Network to bring together Jew-ish business leaders to share ideas and network.
‘This is an opportunity to get together with other Jews and streng-then the Jewish connection,” he said. “Before the pandemic, we had about 150 people coming to our bimonthly breakfast meetings” in a Melville office building. “We had guest speakers and some of the most influential executives on Long Island, including chief officers of Cannon USA and Henry Schein [a worldwide distributor of medical and dental supplies].”
In addition, Rabbi Vaisfiche started a summer day camp in 2019 in the Melville area that attracted 80 youngsters that year and 70 even in 2020. He is now planning a pre-school for the children of parents who work along Melville’s Route 110.
One of the longest-serving Chabad rabbis on Long Island is Anchelle Perl, who started as a teacher at a day camp in the Oceanside-Long Beach area in 1976. In 1990, he acquired the synagogue building of Congregation Beth Sholom in Mineola, a relatively short distance from what was then Winthrop Hospital.
“The hospital has grown and is now called NYU Langone Long Island,” he said. “They have now established a birthing center, and recently an important doctor associated with the hospital began bringing observant families there. So on Shabbat, [the new parents] can walk to the shul and name their babies. There is a wonderful symbiotic relationship with the hospital and the shul. And I continue to keep in touch with the hospital. I do presentations there and am the resident rabbi.”
In addition, Rabbi Perl is a chaplain at the Nassau County Jail, the faith counselor to the Nassau County District Attor- ney, and serves on a number of domestic violence task forces in Nassau County. And for the past 27 years, he has bestowed more than 1,000 Good Deed Awards to high school students.
Before COVID hit, his synagogue had 90 members and held services on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Dur- ing the pandemic, he conducts classes on Zoom that have attracted even more students than before, including people in Florida and as far away as Kenya.
Among one of Chabad’s staunchest supporters is Arthur Katz, a former president of Temple Or Elo-him, a Reform congregation in Jericho and owner of Knockout Pest Control.
“I don’t believe there is any other Jewish organization that is building Jewish community on Long Island right now,” he explained. “There are many good philanthropic organizations that do good work, but no one is committed to building the Jewish community, and that is Chabad’s mission.”
Katz said he works closely with Rabbi Tuvia Teldon to “bring in regional resources and programming to all of Long Island. … We developed a regional program with a text that students study and we have a competition like Jeopardy. The winners are rewarded with prizes. This competition has been repeated in many communities throughout the world. We also have a singles program for post-college young people on both the North Shore and South Shore. There are socials, meet-and-greets and charity work.”
Katz said he has been involved in another regional activity in which Chabad dispenses free mezuzahs to any family that wants one. Hundreds have been distributed in the last two years.
In response to COVID, Katz said he has been working with Chabad to help the Mid-Island Y in Plain-view and the Suffolk Y in Commack to enhance their food distribution programs.
“We wanted to do something to help feed people. With funding from UJA-Federation and other donations we have helped give away canned food, make home deliveries to seniors who can’t get out, and had a marketing effort to raise money, collect food and identify people who may not want to come forward to say they are hungry.”
Rick Lewis, CEO of the Suffolk Y and the Mid-Island Y, said Chabad has been very helpful in its outreach campaign on be-half of the food pantry “so we can find out where there are people in need. In the last three months, we have restarted our food pantry at the Suffolk Y and are packaging bags of food for the homebound and de-livering it to them.”
In addition, Lewis said that from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8-5 on weekends, the Suffolk Y has a food-sharing table at the back of the building, “where anybody can donate food and anybody can come and take anything they need. We have received a lot of donations and a lot of people, unfortunately, are hungry.
“With Chabad’s help, we want to take the pantry to all of Nassau and Suffolk,” Lewis added. “We are lucky to have such an active Chabad on Long Island.”
Another longtime supporter of Chabad, Erika Witover of Oyster Bay Cove, said she found Rabbi Tuvia and Chaya Teldon to be “terrific people who have been very helpful and kind. They are very special people who care about the Jewish world. Whenever you call — whatever you need — they are there to help.
“For example, [one year] our daughter, while on a semester abroad, was going to be in Prague during Pesach. I called Rabbi Teldon and within a half-hour he had made arrangements for her to attend a communal Chabad seder at which she met someone she knew from Syosset High School. … The last thing I gave him money for was to provide subsidies for children to attend a summer camp he was organizing, and we all know that camp is a very engaging Jewish experience for children.”
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon pointed out that Chabad also runs 19 Hebrew schools on Long Island that serve about 900 students. In addition, it operates the Silverstein Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, an accredited day school that has about 250 students.
“There are Long Islanders who enjoy being Jewish and enjoy being exposed to something that makes them proud to be Jewish,” he said. “We have [among our members] quite a few intermarried couples and some gay couples and multi-racial couples. We welcome everybody. Our focus is to educate Jews about Judaism.” He emphasized that everything Chabad does is “according to halacha, [which mandates that] a Jew is someone who has a Jewish mother, and all the things we do are in the realm of Jewish law.”
Rabbi Teldon said he regards all the Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins on Long Island as “spiritual entrepreneurs. They have tremendous dedication, focus and creativity. They put their talent into it and are not into making mo-ney. They are very inspired by the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe’s teachings.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week and has reported for The New York Times and New York Daily News.