With a lavish dinner and exuberant ribbon cutting, Chabad of Great Neck recently celebrated two milestones: the anniversary of its 25-year presence in Nassau County, and the opening of its new 23,500 square-foot building.
The evening included a performance from the popular Israeli singer Gad Elbaz, and singing and dancing in the packed banquet hall lasted long into the night.
When addressing the crowd, Chabad of Great Neck’s Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky described the space as holy, a smaller version of the beit mikdash, “where the community can gather and do mitzvot.”
The opening of the building marks the culmination of a dream a decade and a half in the making, Rabbi Geisinsky told The Jewish Week in an email interview following the event.
“What began as a grassroots operation with three Hebrew school students around the kitchen table slowly morphed into something bigger and better,” he said.
Rabbi Geisinsky and his wife, Rebbetzin Chanie Geisinsky, came to Great Neck as Lubavitch shluchim (emissaries) in 1990. Although shluchim are usually known for setting up shop in remote areas with few Jewish resources, Rabbi Geisinsky said that the Lubavitcher Rebbe “understood that despite there being many organized synagogues in Great Neck, there was a need to reach out to every Jew,” and “gave us his blessing to start a Chabad house here.”
Due to the large number of existing congregations, when the Geisinskys first arrived, they encountered some resistance. Some residents were “rightfully… concerned,” according to Rabbi Geisinsky, that Chabad would turn the town into an exclusive “black hat, Shabbat-keeping-only community.”
But with the passage of time, Rabbi Geisinsky said, despite differing viewpoints, “we have come to respect and support each other.”
The Geisinskys started out as a “modest operation, a small staff in a two-desk office,” loaned to them by a local businessman, said Rabbi Yonason Biggs, a longtime friend of Rabbi Geisinsky who also is based in Great Neck.
They found their niche serving the area’s growing Persian community, and as the organization grew, it was clear they would need more space. After a few years, they had raised enough money to buy a two-story house on an 8.7-acre waterfront property at 400 East Shore Road for $2.1 million. They moved in in 1994.
The East Shore Road property was originally selected because it was sufficiently far away from existing Orthodox synagogues so as not to steal members, but also close enough to the community so that it could attract those interested in trying out Chabad’s unique approach to Judaism. The plot was up for public bid, and “through a blessing from Above, all other bidders stepped back,” said Rabbi Biggs with a smile. “God gave us a very good price.”
When the Geisinskys proposed construction of a second building, they faced opposition from area residents concerned that the building, situated in a residential neighborhood, would cause too much traffic, sewage and rainwater runoff for the neighborhood infrastructure to handle, according to a 2001 article in The New York Times.
There were hearings and meetings, but with the help of local rabbis from other synagogues and supporters from Kings Point — and a significantly downsized building plan — a permit was granted and construction began in 2009.
During construction, some members of the community hosted events at their homes that the older building couldn’t accommodate due to size limitations.
Thus far, the new, two-floor building has held several types of events, from mega challah bakes for women to social programs for 150 special needs children; from weekly adult education classes and teen programs to communal dinners.
“There is a constant hum of activities and events,” according to Rabbi Geisinsky, though the building’s “interior design is not yet complete.”
The older structure was built on a hill, now overlooking the new edifice. Its value has not yet expired; it will continue being the site of smaller programs and to host guests for Shabbat dinners so that Chabad can continue to offer “the cozy, homey feeling people have always enjoyed,” Rabbi Geisinsky said.
But what the older structure has in history, it lacks in utility; it cannot fit more than 75 people, whereas the new building has already accommodated events for over 500. It also includes modern classrooms, a library and a commercial kitchen for Shabbatons, singles events and various other Jewish life cycle revelries.
Today, Chabad of Great Neck runs the Silverstein Hebrew Academy, a day school serving nursery through eighth grade, two Hebrew schools, a teen program, a summer and winter day camps, Friendship Circle, a unique Chabad program for special needs children, Smile on Seniors, and adult and youth educational programs. For those in the community who were uncomfortable around a more religious environment, Rabbi Biggs said that such charitable services have served as a unifying front.
The evening was indeed a celebration of community, the cornerstone of the Jewish nation’s survival across the centuries. And, akin to the great variety of Jews across the globe, the building’s activities will reflect Chabad’s open-door policy of inclusion, regardless of economic status, religious affiliation, age or level of observance.
“We were one nation at Mount Sinai and we are one nation still today,” Rabbi Geisinsky told The Jewish Week. Chabad’s success in Great Neck, he added, “symbolizes that what unites us is so much stronger than what divides us.”