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The Hasids of Southampton

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From left, Bill Hattrick, who opposes the Chabad, and Martin White, who supports it.  

In April, seven neighbors filed suit against the Chabad as well as the village’s zoning board of appeals—an attempt to persuade the village to reject an application the Chabad has recently made for an exception to the zoning laws. Now the Konikovs and their supporters are fighting to save their synagogue, issuing proclamations about freedom of religion. And the villagers who are suing are scrambling for a little peace and quiet on Hill Street without being branded as you-know-what.

“I am sure we will be hearing complaints about anti-Semitism,” Southamptonite Nicola Amey wrote the village zoning board last fall, “but I would feel the same way about Holy Rollers.”

Rafe Konikov is about as cosmopolitan a Hasid as you can find, never without his combination PDA–cell phone. At 36, he’s on the young side to lead a Chabad, but like many Lubavitchers, he’s remarkably well traveled. After he was ordained in 1992, he worked for the movement in La Jolla, Austin, Orlando, Venice, and Saskatchewan, before settling in Brooklyn. His grandfather, he says proudly, studied with the fifth Lubavitch rebbe in the famed yeshiva in the Russian town of Lubavitch in the 1890s. “Chabad is an acronym for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge,” the rabbi tells me. “And Lubavitch in Russian means ‘village of love.’ ”

We’re sitting at a banquet table in the house on Hill Street. Chani, petite with a Lubavitch-mandated brown wig so fashionable you can barely tell it’s not her real hair, serves me a slice of cheesecake. She grew up in Miami Beach and, before meeting her husband when she was 20, worked with Lubavitch organizations in Melbourne and the former Soviet Union. The two were set up by a friend in New York, married quickly, and wasted little time starting a family. Chani now runs a Hebrew school at the Chabad, and she is especially proud of organizing a kosher cooking class to be held at a member’s house in July.

“We want to promote kosher cooking,” says the rabbi. “So if they see such a nice house where people keep kosher . . . ” “ . . . Then they’ll think, If I keep kosher, maybe I can get a house like this!” Chani says, exploding with laughter.

The Konikovs were first invited to Southampton in 1994 by a Belgian diamond dealer named Jacqui Ekstein, who, though he is a conservative Jew, was tired of schlepping out to East Hampton or West Hampton for Saturday services. After a few rabbis fell through, Ekstein consulted with the Lubavitch rabbi in East Hampton, who gave him Konikov’s number. It was a daunting assignment for Konikov: The first English settlement in New York State, Southampton had been without a synagogue for its entire 350 years of existence. “This is historic—big-time,” says Chani.

At first, the Konikovs rented a few rooms at the Southampton Inn on weekends, praying there throughout the Sabbath. It could be hard to find ten men for the minyan, but not as hard as the rabbi had expected. People came—some wearing swim trunks, others driving on the Sabbath, but the rabbi didn’t quibble. A Jew’s a Jew. When TWA 800 crashed over Long Island in 1996, Konikov led an ecumenical service at Cooper’s Beach. When the artist Larry Rivers called looking for someone to chat with in Yiddish, the rabbi complied and later performed his son’s bar mitzvah. “It was so authentic in its simplicity, really,” says Rivers’s companion, Daria Deshuk. “I think it was the first bar mitzvah in Southampton.” When Rivers died in 2002, Konikov performed the service.

In time, the rabbi moved the operation from the inn to a series of rentals. Every summer, the Konikovs rented a home in the village, careering down the L.I.E. every Thursday night from their home in Crown Heights, The Lion King blasting on video in the back. And every summer, they invariably provoked curiosity from neighbors.

One August day in 1997, the rabbi had a pointed conversation with the village building inspector. “Are you going to keep having services?” the inspector asked, the owner of the rental property standing warily beside him.

“No,” the rabbi replied. It was, after all, almost Labor Day. They were leaving in two weeks. His answer was true, of course, only in a narrow sense. He planned to return the next summer.

In 1999, the Konikovs closed on their historic $432,500, nine-bedroom cottage at 214 Hill Street. Jacqui Ekstein guaranteed the mortgage. The down payment and renovation budgets were donated by, among others, Alan Wilzig from the Trust Company of New Jersey, Dallas BBQ mogul Herb Wetanson, and Gym Source CEO Richard Miller. Their new home had seen better days—“The walls, they were literally crumbling,” Chani says—but the rabbi started services at once. In time, the entire ground level would be retrofitted as a synagogue, with recessed lighting, fire-exit signs, and built-in bookshelves stocked with prayer books. “We didn’t really do anything,” Konikov says. “We got rid of a fireplace, and we eliminated two bedrooms.” They also made a small addition with French doors behind their pulpit, overlooking the pool.


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