Rhinebeck, N.Y. — The first thought that crossed Saul Fraiman’s mind when his son, Matthew, announced 20 years ago that he was moving to this Dutchess County town to take a chef’s job, was “it seemed far away.”
Far away from New York City —102 miles north.
Fraiman, a native of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, known to his friends as “Sonny,” lived then in Manhattan, working in the diamond business. He knew that Rhinebeck had a negligible Jewish community, and a reputation as a WASPy enclave that had not been welcoming to Jews.
He and his wife Sandy came up for a weekend to visit his son. They kept coming back, feeling more at home each time. Finally the couple bought “a weekend place,” a home on a four-acre tract of land.
Now, at 68, he’s “semi-retired,” and spends four days a week in Rhinebeck. When he fully retires, he said, he and Sandy will live here full-time.
Fraiman, who grew up in a “100 percent glatt kosher” family but became less ritually observant as an adult, said part of Rhinebeck’s attraction is a synagogue, the village’s first independent one not affiliated with another congregation, which is to be dedicated at the end of this summer.
The Rhinebeck Jewish Center was founded by Tzivie and Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, emissaries of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement who settled here eight years ago.
The synagogue, according to chabaddutchess.com, is “a Modern Orthodox congregation” with a chasidic flavor.
Rabbi Hecht, member of a prominent Lubavitch rabbinic family, is conducting an $800,000 fundraising campaign for construction of a mikvah and the synagogue, which is barn-shaped, in keeping with local architecture, incorporates some of the cedar beams from the 100-year-old barn that formerly stood there.
A ceremony marking the start of the writing of a Torah scroll, donated by the family of Ivan and Frema Sobel, RJC supporters, was held in mid-May, two years after construction began. In addition, Eliana Abramoff, a congregant, is lending the synagogue a 150-year-old Torah from a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Bukharian neighborhood that was built by her grandfather in 1894.
The Rhinebeck synagogue’s postponed dedication will take place in time for full use on the upcoming High Holy Days.
The “Barn Shul,” environmentally “green,” is located behind the Hechts’ home on a tree-lined 1.5-acre lot, once the property of the Astor family; the grounds also include the family’s 2,000-square-foot garden where the Hechts are growing a wide variety of vegetables and herbs.
Like other shluchim, or emissary, couples, the Hechts, both 30, have set up a full-service enterprise, offering classes for adults and children, hosting community seders and distributing challahs for Shabbat and cheesecakes for Shavuot.
The synagogue is the latest sign both of the growth of the international network of Chabad shluchim, and the expansion of the movement’s current emphasis on places, like Rhinebeck, which have small Jewish populations.
“In northern Dutchess County there are about 500 Jewish homes, many of them being weekenders,” Rabbi Hecht said. He estimated the Jewish population of Rhinebeck itself, in the northwest corner of the county across the Hudson River from the Catskill Mountains, as no more than 150.
Rhinebeck is also the home of a small-scale synagogue and a religious school whose primary bases are out of town. Israeli-born Rabbi Yael Romer is spiritual leader of the “Jewish presence” here of Kingston-based Congregation Emanuel, which is Reform. The rabbi conducts a weekly Torah study class and meditation service in a “meeting center” near her home, and holiday services several times a year. The Community Hebrew School of Dutchess County, founded by a group of synagogues in Poughkeepsie, holds classes one afternoon a week in the parish hall of a church here.
The Rhinebeck Jewish Center, community members said, will be the first indigenous Jewish institution here — a situation in which Chabad emissaries in other communities frequently find themselves.
“Immediately upon his arrival to the shores of the United States [in 1941], the Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson] initiated intensive programs to reach out to Jews in Jewishly-isolated places,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Merkos L’lnyonei Chinuch, Chabad-Lubavitch’s educational arm, said in an email message. “With shluchim now in major cities across the globe, there is now a greater focus of manpower to create more permanent services for Jews in the smaller and often more isolated communities.”
Most emissaries face a common financial problem in establishing themselves in new surroundings; though they get seed money for several years, they must fundraise on their own.
Which is part of the Hechts’ challenge. “We pay our bills with a lot of $18 checks,” Rabbi Hecht said.
His brother, Rabbi Yitzchok Hecht, is a shaliach across the Hudson in Kingston (the Jewish population of the area is about 700 to 800 families.)
Rabbi Hanoch Hecht said he and Tzivie decided to move to Rhinebeck after visiting the village while working in Kingston a decade ago, and seeing the need for a synagogue here. “I knew the area,” he said.
Rhinebeck is a slice of small-town Americana (population 2,657), a 329-year-old community with strict zoning laws that is light on national franchise businesses and heavy on quaint, locally owned boutiques and restaurants with homey names like Pete’s Famous Restaurant and Gaby’s Mexican Café, as well as a gourmet scene that brings to mind Park Slope.
There are few Jewish resources here. While local groceries and health food stores stock some kosher food, full kosher shopping is available only in New York City and Monsey, each a 90-minute-to-2-hour drive away. There’s a kosher pizzeria in Hudson, a city 25 miles north.
Rhinebeck, according to locals, has a limited Jewish history, with a Jewish presence dating back only to the early 20th century. It’s a community of transplants, with few longtime Jewish residents. The village experienced a slight increase in Jewish numbers after 9/11, as people seeking a respite from city pressures headed upstate.
Rabbi Hecht said his vision is for Rhinebeck, once the synagogue is finished, to become a Jewish destination — for weekend visitors or permanent residents.
Housing prices “are a lot less than in New York City,” said Eliane Abramoff, a local realtor real who is an active congregant of the Rhinebeck Jewish Center. She said the price of a three-to-four bedroom house here ranges from $250,000 to about $6 million; most are between $500,000 and $700,000. “You don’t have to be wealthy to live here,” Saul Fraiman said.
In Rhinebeck, where Rabbi Hecht began his outreach with a pre-Shavuot class that two people attended, he and his wife have built up a mailing list of 500 people, virtually none of them Orthodox. Many have since become financial supporters of the synagogue.
Rabbi Hecht said a wide range of congregants have donated their time, expertise and dollars to construction of the building. The supporters include several people who are not Jewish, the rabbi said.
One supporter is paying for a parochet, a Torah ark cover, designed by noted physician-artist Mark Podwal.
The presence of a synagogue and of a visible, readily identifiable rabbi — Rabbi Hecht, with a short beard and bright maroon, velvet kipa — has made it easier for Jews who live here, often not identifying themselves as such, to come out of the ethnic “closet,” Saul Fraiman said. Many have emerged in recent years, he said, similar to the phenomenon that outreach-oriented rabbis have experienced in once-communist Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary.
However, Jonah Triebwasser, a native of Far Rockaway, Queens, and participant in some RJC activities who has lived in the area since 1979 and serves as a village and town justice in Red Hook, Rhinebeck’s northern neighbor, said Jews here have not been reluctant to identify as Jewish. He said he has experienced no incidents of anti-Semitism, and has been elected three times to his judicial positions.
Justus Rosenberg, a German-born Holocaust survivor who at 94 is a professor emeritus of languages and literature at nearby Bard College and still teaches two classes each semester, said he became a supporter of the synagogue after being approached by Rabbi Hecht a few years ago to give a speech about his wartime experiences.
Rosenberg, who said he does not believe in God, said he has begun to light Shabbat candles each week and has arranged, when the time comes, to be buried with a traditional tahara washing ritual instead of being cremated.
Rosenberg said he admires the Hechts’ outreach. “They embrace people whose affiliation is of a different kind,” he said.
The Hechts “are very accepting of everybody,” said Sandy Fraiman, who grew up in the Bronx’s Grand Concourse area with “absolutely no” Jewish background. “I bring a lot of people who are like me” to synagogue activities, which take place in the under-construction building, the Hechts’ home and in congregants’ homes.
Participants in synagogue activities come from a radius of at least 15 miles; a few dozen attended a Shabbat meal and worship services one recent week, most driving, no questions asked.
“I find [the Hechts] to be incredibly open,” said Leah Reingewirtz, another former New Yorker.
Rabbi Hecht tells of one openly gay man, a frequent participant in RJC activities, who attended a weekend retreat in New England for gay Jews a few years ago. The man, asked by gay friends at the retreat if he belonged to a synagogue, mentioned the Rhinebeck congregation. Asked if he felt comfortable in a synagogue led by a chasidic rabbi, “He answered, feel more comfortable there than I do here,’” Rabbi Hecht said.
Rhinebeck offers the basics for a full Jewish life, besides the availability of nearby kosher food, the rabbi and his congregants said.
Everything available in a big city can be found here, Reingewirtz said. “You just can’t eat in restaurants.”