Yiddishkeit in Middle Class Suburbia: It's Good for the Kids


by S. Olidort - PORT WASHINGTON, NY

January 9, 2003

An upscale suburban peninsula situated on the North Shore of Long Island, Port Washington is home to a Jewish community that, by the early 90’s, was fast becoming a commanding presence in the area, totaling some 40% of the general population. With easy access to the amenities of Jewish living available in the neighboring observant communities and no shortage of Jewish friends, few people here were looking for more.

Now, shortly over a decade into its founding, Chabad of Port Washington is in the midst of a major building project. A recent dedication ceremony marked the completion of the second phase and the unveiling of its third and final phase. Directed at celebrating the generosity of some of its staunchest supporters, the event, themed “A Time for Thanks,” drew close to 200 supporters strong.

That’s not to say that things went smoothly from the start, or that the Chabad couple fit right in. Quite the contrary: when Rabbi Shalom and Sara Paltiel initially arrived here, Port Washington’s residents were cordial and friendly to their new neighbors, but somewhat confounded, and Rabbi Paltiel recalls being asked by a well-intentioned fellow if, perhaps, he was lost.

Like many of its kind, Port Washington’s Chabad was initially launched from the Paltiel family room, which played host to everything from services to holiday programs and youth activities. It wasn’t long before attendance swelled, compelling the center to be moved into it own rented facilities where, at Doctor Martin Bronstein’s initiative, the Chabad Preschool was born, with a class of six.

As activities expanded and word of the center spread, the school experienced phenomenal growth matched only by its staff’s dedication. By ’97 things were running in high gear, and the center seemed once again to be bursting at the seams. This time it was community member Henry Schwartz who came to the rescue, suggesting that the preschool expand into a full-fledged Hebrew Day School. With Rabbi Paltiel’s go-ahead Henry set out looking for new, roomier facilities and soon hit on a 22,000 square foot piece of property, right on the waterfront, setting an enormous building campaign in motion.

The first phase of the project, completed in ’98, included a 150-seat sanctuary, a large social hall, seven classrooms, an office suite and a teachers’ lounge. The Center began drawing a daily minyan—a first for Port Washington—and about 100 for Shabbat services, with holidays often attracting as many as 500 people at a time. As education gained priority in community life, a Hebrew School was founded and over one hundred children are currently enrolled. An exciting teen club and popular Gan Israel Day Camp were soon added to the array of youth programs available to the community children, directed by Rabbi Mendy Lewis.

With the second phase just completed, the Chabad center now houses an additional six classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a gym, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, and an outdoor swimming pool, making Chabad Academy a truly top-notch, state of the art school, with Rabbi Nato Glogauer as its principal.

But it’s more than the government accreditation and the inviting facilities that makes parents proud to have their children go to school here, says Jamie Fabbi, whose son Dillan attends the Hebrew Academy. “My son loves it,” she says. “The teachers are extremely dedicated and absolutely love the students, and the kids are just mesmerized by everything the school has to offer.” And as the school expands at a terrific pace from year to year, the third phase of the building project, scheduled to begin next year, will include facilities for a high school, with a full-size gym, a comprehensive school library, and additional classrooms.

“When I was introduced to Rabbi Paltiel fifteen years ago, I never imagined how things would unfold here,” says Mr. Bert Brodsky, an entrepreneur instrumental in purchasing the land and very much involved in the building project. Brodsky, who frequents the center, says coming here gives him the opportunity to “reconnect to my roots.”

With thirty-eight people currently employed at the Chabad center, and the building project nearing completion, the Paltiels are hoping to devote more of their time and resources to other aspects of community life. A Mikvah building is currently in progress at the center, and the community is looking forward to greater focus on adult education through weekly classes, Shabbatons, and evening lectures.

Notwithstanding all the dramatic, big developments on the communal level, the Paltiels have managed to retain a personal touch that keeps people coming back. As Sheryl Pinner, who avoided any traditional Jewish involvement until recently says, “the light was inside of me, but Rabbi Paltiel was the one to ignite it.” And if koshering her entire kitchen is any indication, Port Washington’s Jewish community has come a long way from the days when an orthodox rabbi was a peculiarity here.

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