By Annette Hinkle
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but world-wide pandemics have a way of altering the normal flow of things. For example, while usual air traffic may be down somewhat these days at Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, the tried and true drive-in has popped up in its place.
Since early July, Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach has been using a portion of the airfield to host its annual Jewish Film Festival. Films are shown every Sunday evening on the big screen to an audience comprised of 75 or so carloads of movie fans, all of whom abide by social distancing rules while enjoying some of the newest flicks that fit the bill.
Hampton Synagogue’s Jewish Film Festival has been a community staple every summer for nearly 20 years and in that time, has developed a reputation for screening the latest Jewish and Israeli films before they make their way to other cities around the country. Last Sunday, the synagogue screened the new Matt Ratner directed film, “Standing Up Falling Down,” starring Billy Crystal as a struggling stand-up comedian forced to move back home. Coming up on August 9 will be “Extra Innings,” Albert Dabah and Brian Drillinger’s film set in 1960s Brooklyn that tells the story of a boy who dreams of playing professional baseball against his conservative family’s wishes.
Though Hampton Synagogue had never considered a drive-in option for its festival before, as Rabbi Marc Schneier notes, plans to transform it into just that began several months ago, when he realized this summer season would be like none experienced in years past.
“I came to this realization at the beginning of April — I knew we had to think out of the box,” said Rabbi Schneier, who worked closely with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to make the drive-in happen. “It’s been fabulous, it’s a real phenomenon. To my knowledge, it’s the only airport drive-in the state. You watch the sunset and you see some of the private jets taking off and landing. We have a beautiful spot and I’m really thankful to Steve Bellone — he came up with the idea of using the airport.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership and it’s just a phenomenal weekly activity,” he added.
Rabbi Schneier has also been working closely with the state in recent months — specifically Governor Andrew Cuomo and his staff — after he was appointed by the governor as an advisor for the reopening of religious institutions and houses of workshop across New York State.
“Because of that, the [drive-in] standards and protocols go above and beyond New York State itself,” he said. “Cars are physically distanced by six feet, outside the car people have to wear masks. On one hand we have led the way as a synagogue in asking how we can continue to celebrate as a community during the pandemic, but also remain steadfast to our commitment to the necessary protocols and procedures.”
Though the elbow room at the airport is ample, the number of cars admitted to the drive-in each week is limited to 75 or so cars in order to ensure that everyone will have a good view of the screen. Admission, by the way, is free of charge.
“People can call in Monday to Thursday to reserve a spot for that week’s film,” Rabbi Schneier explained “We welcome all members of the community.”
The film line-up for Hampton Synagogue’s Jewish Film Festival is curated by Isaac Zablocki, the film director at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.
“He’s a very well-known personality within the Jewish film festival space,” explained Rabbi Schneier. “In order to qualify for our film festival, you have to have been an independent film shown in a Jewish film festival across the country between last fall and present day.”
The films are drawn from festivals held around the country, including those held in New Jersey, California and Florida.
“The feather in our cap this summer is that we’ve been endorsed by the Tribeca Film Festival, which is quite a commendation and testament to what we’re doing,” added Rabbi Schneier. “I will tell you, of the films I’ve seen this summer, the one that really touched me — and I still feel the residue of that film — is ‘The Keeper,’ about a German POW who ends up being the goal keeper in 1948 for Manchester soccer team.
“It’s a true story and absolutely amazing — it was one of the best films I’ve seen in my life.”
But the drive-in at Gabreski Airport isn’t just about movies, every Sunday, Hampton Synagogue also brings in food trucks or local restauranteurs — including The Humble Toast from Teaneck, New Jersey and Beach Bakery & Grand Café in Westhampton Beach — to sell kosher offerings to drive-in patrons.
“The Beach Bakery Café is the only restaurant with kosher supervision of Hampton Synagogue — they have wraps, pizza, popcorn, cotton candy,” he said. “With The Humble Toast, they have sandwiches named after personalities in the congregation, including ‘The Schneier.’ I looked at the ingredients, it said it had ‘kosher bacon,’ I said, ‘Why does mine have kosher bacon?’ They said, ‘Because you’re the big ham.’”
Rabbi Schneier adds that in mid-July, the food truck offered “The Diplomat,” a sandwich named for ambassador Dani Dayan, a friend of the congregation who recently served as the Consul General of Israel in New York before returning to Israel.
“He’s from Argentina, so the sandwich was grilled streak and smothered onions,” said Rabbi Schneier. “We have all these different sandwiches. We’re looking to have a lot of fun, with some light and hope in the midst of a very challenging time.”
Fortunately, life is slowly getting better on the East End and Rabbi Schneier said Hampton Synagogue was the first synagogue in New York to reopen after the pandemic shut downs. Sabbath services on Saturday morning are limited to 125, and people need to preregister to attend. But he notes that in these quickly changing times, the synagogue has made a significant impact in that it now has a TV platform. Its services have been broadcast around the country via the JBS (Jewish Broadcasting Service) television station, which is available in 49 million homes and can be seen locally on Optimum cable channel 138
“Our services are watched Friday night and Saturday morning by 200,000 homes, that’s unprecedented,” he said.
But on Sunday night, it’s all about the movies, and when asked if he grew up with drive-ins himself, Rabbi Schneier said, “I’m 61 and I had never been to a drive-in. I grew up on the Upper East Side and you were lucky if you’re family even had a car, so I only saw them on Happy Days.”
Given the success of this year’s festival, is it possible that even post pandemic the synagogue might continue to offer it in a drive-in format?
“It’s a lot of fun,” Rabbi Schneier said. “In terms of what will be the new norm, let’s see what happens.”
All Hampton Synagogue films are screened Sunday evenings at 8:30 p.m. at Francis Gabreski Airport. The films run through Labor Day.
Here’s the schedule:
August 9 — Set against the enchanting backdrop of 1960’s Brooklyn, Albert Dabah and Brian Drillinger’s “Extra Innings” tell the story of a young man who is caught between pursuing his dream of playing baseball and staying devoted to his Syrian Jewish family that is afflicted with mental illness.
August 16 — Dani Menkin’s film “Aulcie” tells the inspiring story of Aulcie Perry, a basketball legend who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to an upset win in the European Championship in the 1970s.
August 23 — Oscar Tod Lending’s documentary “Saul & Ruby, To Life!” is full of comedy and tragedy as it follows 94-year-old Saul and 90-year-old Ruby, Holocaust survivors and musicians with an insatiable lust for life, as they pursue their ultimate goal of paying tribute to their loved ones.
August 30 — Directed by Chris Weitz, “Operation Finale” is a historical thriller based on the story of how 15 years after WWII, a group of Israeli secret agents arrested notorious SS officer Adolf Eichmann — the man who masterminded the “Final Solution” — in Argentina.
September 6 — “Spider in the Web,” a 2019 spy thriller directed by Eran Riklis and starring Ben Kingsley, focuses on a young operative who is sent on a mission to follow an older agent, whose behavior has come into question.
Admission is free, but reservations should be made by calling the synagogue at 631-288-0534. For more information visit thehamptonsynagogue.org.