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The Hasids of Southampton

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A sign in front of the Chabad house informs neighborhoods that an application has been made for an exception to Southampton's zoning laws.  

As early as 2000, when the Konikovs applied for building permits, the village warned them not to use the house for public gatherings. The rabbi, meanwhile, built a small following. “I felt like I had transferred myself almost 500 years backwards,” says attorney Mark Heller, who in 1985 bought a prime property at 396 Meadow Lane. Heller, whose most famous client is the Son of Sam, wasn’t terribly observant until his daughter’s boyfriend introduced him to the Chabad last summer. “As we started to go,” he says, “I realized if this young man married my daughter, my grandchildren are gonna be doing this. And I thought, ‘How wonderful.’ ” Konikov also befriended CEO Irwin Simon, whose Hain Celestial Group is the world’s largest natural-foods company. Simon now calls Konikov for advice, even on business matters. “I’m superstitious, and I do things on certain days,” Simon says. “If I buy a company, the day I close on it—stuff like that.”

In the summer of 2003, the Chabad’s Website posted a story from the Jewish press noting that 100 people had attended a Chabad event. While the rabbi insists the event was held somewhere else, the building inspector fielded complaints, and by February 2004, the Konikovs were told in writing they were in violation of local zoning restrictions. When the Konikovs applied for an exception last year, that just made their neighbors madder.

It’s October 28, 2004, at the latest in a series of angry monthly zoning meetings. When the Konikovs’ attorney, Amand Kolodny, finishes his spiel—lecturing about prejudice and freedom like a latter-day Atticus Finch—up stands Kim White, a partner in an investment-management firm in Manhattan who has a place on Hill Street and who has led the opposition to the Chabad. Trim and blonde, wearing a caramel blouse and black pants, White speaks haltingly, with barely contained fury, using the phrase these people three times.

“For him to say that it’s a small religious institution is erroneous, and it’s a fallacy,” White says. “If I want to have a small religious gathering in my home, that would be fine. It would be small. These people advertise. Someone comes into a house, buys a house, and says this is a residence, and it’s not a residence?! I can’t build a damn barbecue because they are afraid that my built-in barbecue is too close to a neighbor. I can’t do it! I’m a resident! I pay taxes! I spent a lot of money on my property! And yet these people—I don’t care who they are, what religion it is, whatever it is, it’s a residence—they come in and just will it into an illegal existence!”

White sits down to a round of applause. She is not alone.

“Organized religion is a great thing. Freedom of speech is a great thing,” says the next speaker, Richard Taglianetti, whose mother-in-law until this year lived next door to the Chabad at 200 Hill Street. “But it’s got to have its place.”

An elderly man stands: “We’re fighting a war right now to protect the rule of law,” he says.

“We are following the rule of law,” Kolodny says, “as set forth by the highest court of this country.”

Finally, neighbor Kristi Witker perks up, refined in a Kelly-green sweater: “Well, why not stop advertising? Why are you working so hard to get more people when you’re having difficulty in growth? And it’s your growth that’s driving everybody nuts.”

“I’m sure we’ll be hearing complaints about anti-Semitism,” says a Southamptonite. “But I’d feel the same way about Holy Rollers.”

On April 28, a few weeks after the lawsuit was filed, another zoning-board meeting draws more than 100 people—most invited by the Konikovs and wearing buttons reading I AM CHABAD. Howard Lorber, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate and a Chabad regular, speaks in favor of the shul. He says his company’s data show property values continue to skyrocket on Hill Street, and notes that the house occupied by Taglianetti’s mother-in-law just sold for $2.45 million after having been offered a year and a half earlier for less than $2 million.

One lawyer for the plaintiffs mentions “restaurant service” that took place at the Chabad in April.

“A seder?!” Chani Konikov yelps, incensed. The opposition is also exasperated. “The [Jewish] community is a very affluent and a very powerful community,” says a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Christine Triant. “Why did they select this tiny little property where they knew that they would be in violation?”

“The answer is very simple,” says Mark Heller. “We did not choose it. God chose it.”

“Oh, give us a break!” Triant snaps.

So is this about zoning or xenophobia? Opponents of the Chabad insist their concerns are strictly about traffic and noise. Before she moved, Lorraine Cavolina remembers seeing from across the street gatherings of “at least 100 people, on a weekly basis,” at the Chabad. “It’s very, very loud,” she says. “I’d say 10:30 at night I’d hear people outside. They’re very close to the street. They have PA systems. And on Saturday, the cars are all over the place.”


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