Summer in and summer out, the fabled sandy beaches and cocktail crowds of Long Island’s East End draw a reliable mix of celebrities, high flyers and city folk escaping the urban grind.
But in recent years, an increasing number of Jewish families — parents of young children, retirees and a growing crowd of dedicated weekenders of all ages — have been calling the Hamptons home for all four seasons.
“There are a lot more year-round people than there used to be,” said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, which is celebrating its 50th year as a Jewish linchpin of East Hampton. Since he arrived at the shul three years ago, the rabbi reports 20 percent growth in the religious school, which now has more than 100 children. Saturday morning services draw 70 to 100 people year-round, he added.
Whether weekenders or year-rounders, Hamptonites live here for the lingering illusion of quaint rural life in the metro area, in addition to a cultural and intellectual scene that is symbiotically connected to New York City, a two-hour drive to the west. Amid the area’s lush fields, pristine beaches and roadside farm stands, residents enjoy excellent public and private schools and first-class arts alongside an ever-growing Jewish lifestyle.
“There are a number of Jewish options for prayer, for people to study, where at one time there were very few,” said Rabbi Zimmerman. “Also, it’s a smaller community, where people can really get to know each other and care for each other — and people are really looking for caring communities at this point in time.”
Indeed, the Hamptons are in reality a collection of villages and hamlets, technically within the two easternmost towns of Suffolk County, that are small enough to invite frequent neighborly contact. Locals say they enjoy the daily social interaction at the country store, the bakery or the post office.
Traveling east from New York City, one can bypass East End traffic by exiting the highway at the Hamptons’ first outpost: Westhampton Beach, where a tight-knit Jewish enclave has grown up around the Orthodox and inclusive Hampton Synagogue. Next is Hampton Bays, an unpretentious hamlet that boasts some of the area’s best beaches and most affordable housing.
Route 27 narrows to the two-lane Montauk Highway in Southampton Village, a long-established summer resort that now bustles with activity year-round, including a Chabad center. Along with sophisticated, cosmopolitan East Hampton Village, Southampton is the most substantial of the Hamptons; both have sizable, pedestrian-friendly downtowns, with ample boutique shopping and upscale restaurants.
The quieter, more rustic hamlets of Water Mill, Sagaponack and Springs — and Montauk on the far eastern tip of the island — attract those seeking privacy. Beyond Southampton but still close to the highway are quaint Bridgehampton and windswept, culture-rich Sag Harbor. The latter, a former whaling town on Peconic Bay, boasts a rich Jewish heritage: Temple Adas Israel, a Reform congregation, is the island’s oldest synagogue, while the Conservative Synagogue holds services all summer through the High Holy Days.
This time of year, Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten runs from rental home to rental home, kashering kitchens and blessing mezuzot. In between, he oversees Chabad “from Coram on East” as director of Chabad Lubavitch of the East End, as well as the Maimonides Day School in Ronkonkoma (an hour’s drive west, it is the closest Jewish day school option, with education through sixth grade).
“We are the only daily minyan from Montauk to Westhampton,” the rabbi noted, referring to the full-time Chabad centers in Southampton and East Hampton — the latter hosts the Hamptons’ only mikveh — and a satellite location in Water Mill.
“People are constantly coming by and asking about rentals that are walking distance, and buying within walking distance, or even walking two and three miles to get to services,” said the rabbi’s wife, Goldie. For several years, she has operated an online kosher food-delivery service, KosherHamptons (www.kosherhamptons.com), to serve an area still limited in kosher dining options. This summer, Chabad of Southampton is holding a multi-part Kabbalah Sunday series through July 18 entitled “Kabbalah in the Hamptons,” while the East Hampton center will host a Jewish Learning Institute summer lecture series with the theme “Portraits in Leadership.”
In contrast to some other New York Jewish communities, the Hamptons “is very diverse, with a lot of visitors,” said Goldie Baumgarten. Rabbis speak of both a greater cooperation among synagogues — this year, for the first time, the Jewish Center and the Hampton Synagogue will jointly present a cantorial concert — as well as the growth of a socially active, hands-on interfaith community in recent years.
“It’s a coming together of a religious community that had really been fragmented for years,” according to Rabbi Zimmerman.
In summer, the Jewish Center moves prayer outdoors for its popular “Shabbat on the Beach,” part of its regular worship offerings. The “Summer Institute,” however, is the real draw for Jewish visitors: a program of concerts, lectures, movie nights and other cultural and intellectual events whose engaging diversity and stellar lineup wouldn’t be out of place at a major urban Y.
This summer, for instance, the Institute will offer concerts with Itzhak Perlman and the American String Quartet, talks by Mort Zuckerman and famed economist Nouriel Roubini, explorations of topics as distinct as the Sixth Commandment and cantorial melodies, and soccer star Ethan Zohn.
The financial crisis has taken its toll on the financiers whose largesse supports local arts, but the East End scene is entrenched enough to weather the proverbial storm. Weekenders and locals alike savor the rush of summer activity, taking in plein-air concerts, rustic theater productions amid the sparkle of fireflies, and exhibitions at East Hampton’s Guild Hall.
The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, one of the cultural gems of the area, has been threatening for years to decamp from its charming but cramped downtown location. Concrete plans are finally under way for a Herzog & de Meuron-designed building in neighboring Water Mill, but for now, residents enjoy this quintessential piece of Gilded Age Americana in their midst.
The Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, celebrating its 25th year, is always a highlight of the Hamptons summer. And for good reason: flutist and director Marya Martin brings together an elite group of New York’s finest classical musicians for concerts that feature thrilling works by favorite composers and new music that engages, rather than intimidates, the audience. All the musicians seem to be old friends having a great time together, making fabulous music and savoring the intimate acoustics of the charming, airy Presbyterian Church.
Theater fans enjoy year-round productions at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, while the Bay Street Theatre, in a picturesque waterfront corner of Sag Harbor, is one of the most consistent thespian offerings on Long Island. This summer brings productions of Landford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” and David Mamet’s “Romance.”
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