The Hasids of Southampton

Rabbi Rafe Konikov, his wife, Chani, and their children outside their Hill Street home.Photo: Marc Asnin

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?”

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

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.

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

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.”

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.

“You can’t even call her a neighbor,” says Chani. “Do you even know who’s a mile away from you? Okay, so they’re not a neighbor.”

With that, they return to their place, where a large, shabby metal contraption—an eyesore—is blocking their neighbor’s driveway.

Radiators for sale?” the rabbi says, reading a handwritten sign. The Konikovs can’t contain their laughter.

“They’ve been out here for days already!” Chani says.

“Want a radiator?” Konikov says with a roll of the eyes. “I feel like buying them just to get rid of them.”

The Hasids of Southampton