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The Hasids of Southampton

The deeper problem, perhaps, is the sense of being rooked—of the Chabad blatantly violating the zoning code that so many people in the Hamptons hold sacred, like a faith of its own. “They have purposely deceived the village,” says Ron Grimaldi, who is also a plaintiff despite having moved elsewhere in Southampton in January. “They should be living there, period, and not doing anything more.” Still other residents cite a simple NIMBY logic. “We’re for protecting the rights of the residents. You can understand the argument,” says Bill Hattrick, a longtime Southampton elder statesman, a former mayor, and current president of the Southampton Association, a political-advocacy group started mainly by summer residents.

Is there any place in the village that might be more suitable for the Chabad? Hattrick thinks for a moment before answering. “To be honest, you’d probably end up outside the village,” he says. “Even then, you’d almost certainly be in a residential neighborhood.”

To the rabbi, the gatherings hardly seem like anything to make a fuss about. “People have friends and family over at Jewish homes on Friday night all over the country,” Konikov says. “To call it a restaurant is ridiculous. We’re not just sitting around having buffalo wings. It’s a religious experience. To complain about a synagogue is not popular, so they’re coming up with things that just aren’t true.” Konikov denies using a PA system and notes that Hill Street, with a gas station, a moving company, and the Catholic church, was plenty busy before they moved in.

“This is basically a Christian town,” adds Martin White, the Jewish proprietor of the Village Latch Inn nearby on Hill Street, who has owned property in the village for 35 years and supports the Chabad. “I don’t think you can use local zoning to delegate where people can pray. It’s a little weird to see somebody walking around in black garb down Job’s Lane. But hey, that’s the way it goes.”

“It’s about change in Southampton,” Chani says with a flip of the hand. “I mean, change is hard for some people to deal with. There’s never been a synagogue for 350 years. I guess Kim White is having a hard time adjusting.”

Realizing they were at an impasse, the Konikovs hired a new lawyer at the start of this year: Jeffrey Bragman, who is more seasoned in the ways of Hamptons zoning politics. His past clients have included Jerry Seinfeld—he helped him build that ball field on his property. Bragman’s strategy: Speak softly, and gently remind the village that New York State has historically given preferential treatment to religious institutions. As long as no health or safety codes are being violated—and the place checks out on that score—Bragman contends it will be hard for the village not to grant the exception. “I told the board that this is not the landing of Martians who want to take over the village,” he says.

Bragman has submitted a new application for a special zoning exception, promising to limit the occupancy of the Chabad to 35 people in the off-season and 65 people in the summer, with three special events per year of 80 people (a judge is reviewing a motion by Bragman to have the suit dismissed). The Konikovs now say they’ll adhere to those limits, but Kim White and company aren’t having it; they’re still fighting.

The Rabbi and Chani are in their black Chevy Suburban, giving me a tour of the estate area. We pass Dragon’s Head—the enormous turreted mansion on the beach built by a Du Pont and owned by Calvin Klein—and the immaculate Cooper’s Beach, where the rabbi held services after TWA 800 crashed. It’s a brilliant, 80-degree June day.

“Now you have everything,” says Chani. “The sun, the sand, the horses, and you have your synagogue.”

“But we give them a sense of awareness of who made the beach,” Konikov says. “God made the beach.”

They’re locals now, showing off their hometown. They talk about the pond they like to take their kids to, the streets they like to stroll on Saturdays. We pass Howard Lorber’s home on Halsey Neck Lane. “There’s Ox Pasture Road!” Chani says. “I loooove Ox Pasture Road. I think it’s one of the most beauuuutiful streets.”

And they’re not above checking out the neighbors’ places. The rabbi steers the SUV to the new home of plaintiff Ron Grimaldi, not far from the Southampton Long Island Rail Road stop. “He must hear the train a lot,” the rabbi says pointedly.

They keep driving, back to Hill Street, past Kim White’s house, and they giggle as they count the houses between White’s place and the Mobil station: “One, two, three, four, five!” They can’t understand how she could be bothered by their Chabad, a full mile away.