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The Hasids of Southampton

And the Chabad moved to Hill Street. And the residents said, “Let there be a lawsuit.” And there was.


Rabbi Rafe Konikov, his wife, Chani, and their children outside their Hill Street home.  

In the pristine summer playground of the Hamptons, perhaps no place feels more thoroughly removed from the unpleasantries of everyday life than Southampton. The village itself is tucked safely away from the bumper-to-bumper weekend purgatory of the Montauk Highway. Oceanfront mansions are concealed behind looming hedgerows. Immaculate beachfronts are open free of charge only to those with Southampton Village identification. The stodgy stores of Main Street shut down at 7 P.M. There are no Jerry Della Femina restaurants, and the club scene is nonexistent, unless you count the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Lilly Pulitzer abounds. On any given summer weekend, the village doubles in size, flooded with blue-blood residents—Teddy Forstmann, Charlotte Ford, Carroll Petrie—who bring their yachts up Shinnecock Canal or swoop in, discreetly, on the helipad of Meadow Lane. At a glance, it can seem as if not much has changed since the days when Jacqueline Bouvier took some of her first breaths here.

So you can imagine the consternation when, in the summer of 1999, two doors down from the Catholic church on Hill Street—the widest, most conspicuous thoroughfare in Southampton, dividing the wildly expensive properties of Shinnecock Hills and North Sea from the stratospherically expensive beachfront estates of Meadow and Gin Lanes—a family arrived that clearly hadn’t seen the membership brochure. The man who bought the place had a bird’s nest of a beard and wore dark suits all summer long. He and his wife, who dressed demurely even by Southampton standards, were young but had a bevy of children—two at first, five before long. They invited guests on Saturday mornings—dozens of them—and the visitors parked their SUVs and sports cars on the edge of neighbors’ lawns. They sang songs. They cooked meals that produced strange odors. “The smells coming out of there!” says Ron Grimaldi, who until recently lived across the street. “I don’t know how people live next door.” It gets worse: They renovated—the ground level was gutted to make additional room for guests—and they took out ads in Dan’s Papers promoting the gatherings.

Almost immediately, Southamptonites began whispering, Who are these people? What do they want? What do we do about them? It’s not what you’re thinking, they would quickly point out. Jews, after all, had been a part of village life for several decades. They were welcome here. But that was Henry Kravis and Denise Rich and Aby Rosen. This was a family of Lubavitchers—ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews from the deepest precincts of Brooklyn with a spiritual mandate to proselytize to other Jews.

Soon enough, complaints were registered. Letters were sent. Shouting matches broke out at town meetings. Finally, the villagers did what generations of Hamptonites have done before them in the face of unwelcome change: They sued.

This summer’s major Hamptons dustup doesn’t involve Lizzie Grubman or Sean Combs—or even, though he could use the exposure, Alec Baldwin. It’s taking place miles away from the notorious, hulking 25-bedroom mansion of Ira Rennert and the infamously self-indulgent baseball diamond of Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a fight over the Chabad Jewish Center of Southampton, a Hasidic house of prayer whose leader has decided to set up shul in the middle of one of the world’s Waspiest and most exclusive summer hideaways.

That leader is Rabbi Rafe Konikov, a smiling, 36-year-old teddy-bear of a man who has slowly won over some of the village’s wealthiest Jewish residents. He and his wife, Chani, 32, insist they’ve come to Southampton invited and are now being unfairly attacked—particularly since their Chabad is so close to the Catholic church, which attracts more than 100 cars to Hill Street every Sunday. Chabads, they argue, exist all over the world, many as homes that double as synagogues—even in East Hampton, where a similar operation is reportedly financed by Ron Perelman. Besides, the Konikovs say, the Constitution allows them to pray wherever they want. “I was surprised,” the rabbi says of the lawsuit, “because I don’t think they understand what we represent. I mean, we’re not a commercial, we’re not a restaurant, we’re not a bed-and-breakfast, we’re not a hotel. We’re a synagogue.”

The Konikovs’ adversaries are a small but vocal group of neighbors who say it’s not just the cars, traffic, and noise that have spoiled their paradise. The Chabad, they say, has deceived the village: The rabbi and his wife bought and renovated their half-acre home fully intending to use it as a synagogue—which, if they’d bothered to ask, needs at least two acres of land to be legal. The zoning laws strictly prohibit public gatherings in single-family homes. In other words, it’s not that it’s a synagogue—it’s that it’s there. “Hill Street has been forever disturbed in a way that was completely underhanded,” says Lorraine Cavolina, who recently moved to another street. “Not because of religion. That has no bearing. They have done something that was not right. And they want to play the religion card?”

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