Center For Jewish Life Seeks A Home Of Its Own

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Ezra Gallery Curator Kimberly Goff, Chabad Rabbi Berel Lerman, his wife Brocha and 4-month-old son Benjamin in the Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor. MICHAEL HELLER

The closing of Sag Harbor’s 7-Eleven store a month ago set off much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as regular customers wondered where they’d get their morning coffee or a bottle of children’s aspirin in the middle of the night when their baby had a fever.

But on the other side of the Water Street Shops, the Center For Jewish Life Chabad, which has served as a spiritual home for a growing number of the Jewish faithful, is facing an uncertain future of a more serious magnitude, now that the building has been sold and is slated to become the new home of Bay Street Theater.

Rabbi Berel Lerman, who founded the Chabad in his home in Bay Point in 2013 before moving it first to North Haven and then into Sag Harbor in 2017, when the John Jermain Memorial Library moved back to its renovated building on Main Street, said the center has launched a capital campaign to fund the purchase of a new building.

That won’t come cheaply — he estimates that it will cost between $5 million and $7 million — nor easily. There is little in the way of vacant real estate in or near Sag Harbor these days. And near means walking distance from home because like other Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Lerman and his family and many congregants walk to and from the synagogue on the sabbath.

The rabbi points to the center’s mission statement, which reads in part: “We strive to be a beacon of light, spirituality, education and Jewish culture that radiates brightly in the Hamptons and beyond!”

“I think we have really lived up to that task,” said Rabbi Lerman, “and we are just scratching a surface.”

Old books written in Hebrew – some over 100 years old – in the office of Rabbi Berel Lerman in the Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor. MICHAEL HELLER

A network of Chabads are found around the world and offer outreach to Jews of all persuasions as well as religious, cultural and educational activities.

To continue on its course, Rabbi Lerman said the center needs about 3,500 square feet that it can call its own. Renting space or sharing it with another organization are not really options, and he pointed to Bay Street, which had leased space in the Malloy property on Long Wharf for years, as an example of an organization needing is own home to truly thrive.

“What guarantees longevity for a nonprofit is the ability for the nonprofit to own the place they are in,” he said. “We see this challenge as an opportunity to find something suitable for the community and as an endeavor that should last, please God, centuries to come.”

In Sag Harbor, the Chabad has grown from a handful of people to about 150 families today, some of whom are seasonal, others year-round, Rabbi Lerman said. And true to its mission, it provides space for a variety of seasonal and year-round classes and cultural activities for adults and children alike, including providing space for the Ezra Gallery of the Hamptons.

One might wonder about the presence of an art gallery in an orthodox synagogue, but Rabbi Lerman said it simply is one more aspect of the center’s effort to reach out to a broader segment of the community.

The Ezra Gallery’s curator is Kimberly Goff, well known on the East End as the former owner of the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton.

“It’s another way to get the community in,” she said, “and Berel is very welcoming.” The gallery presents four different shows a year, and those attract a broader spectrum of the community beyond simply Jewish members.

Joann Schwartz, who is a neighbor of Rabbi Lerman and his wife, Bracha, was raised a Catholic before marrying a Jew.

“It’s like a little seed, and you want to see it flourish because it is there for you,” she said of the center, adding, “What I like about it is you don’t have to be Jewish to go there. They really don’t care. It is inclusive.”

Ken Fishel, a part-time resident of Bridgehampton, said he met Rabbi Lerman when his son was honored as a Future Jewish Leader at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.

“We are not overly religious by any means,” he said of his family, but he was drawn to the center because “it is just a really giving and caring community.”

Mr. Fishel is in the commercial real estate business in the city, and said he worries about the prospects of the Chabad finding a new home in Sag Harbor.

“All religious leaders have a vision of expanding their congregation” he said of Rabbi Lerman, “and to his credit, he wants to do the same. But without a facility, it’s going to be very problematic.”

Stephen Wald of North Haven said his wife is not Jewish, but they are raising their children in the Jewish faith. He said he met Rabbi Lerman when he replied to a postcard he received offering information about the Chabad.

They met for coffee, and “without him asking, I took out my checkbook,” Mr. Wald joked.

Like Mr. Fishel, Mr. Wald said he did not think of himself as very religious.

“We went to services at his house in North Haven and it was a great experience,” he said. “The doors are open to everyone and it’s a way to blend a little Jewish culture into your life.”

Mr. Wald said some who attend wear shorts and flip flops; others are well dressed. He admitted that he personally drove to services and parked his car down the street from the rabbi’s home. “But he told me, ‘As long as you walked in the front door, you walked,’” Mr. Wald said.

Denise Wohl, who spends summers on the East End, said she met Rabbi Lerman at the Chabad of Southampton years ago. “He was a very special, enlightened young man,” she said, “who is definitely connected to a higher, spiritual realm.”

Ms. Wohl said she encouraged Rabbi Lerman to move his Chabad from North Haven to Sag Harbor. “I told him, ‘Sag Harbor is where you are needed and people can find you,’” she said.

She said it was a shame that he had built up a congregation only to lose his lease. “It’s horrendous,” she said.

The rabbi doesn’t see it that way. “I’m optimistic, and at the same time I am humbly asking for anyone and everybody’s support on behalf of what we are building here,” he said.

Information about how to donate to the center’s capital campaign can be found at its website, cfjewishlife.com.

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