The Jewish Hamptons
Long known as the land of summer homes for A-list celebrities and Wall Street tycoons,
New York’s “Hamptons” also have significant Jewish character.
by Peter Rothholz
The villages of Westhampton Beach, Southampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Sag Harbor, all located along the Atlantic shore on the east end of New York’s Long Island, have long been known as the summer home of A-list celebrities and Wall Street tycoons.
In recent years, they have also attracted a large number of Jewish weekend and summer residents who have established thriving institutions and created an oasis of Jewish learning with a vast array of cultural diversions.
While all the Hamptons share many characteristics such as wide sandy beaches, leafy residential neighborhoods – some with ostentatious “MacMansions” facing the ocean or hidden behind high hedges on multi-acre, immaculately manicured lots, and others with more modest but nonetheless cozy shingled homes – each village has its own, individual personality.
Heading out from New York City, the first “Hampton” you reach is Westhampton, some 75 miles from Manhattan. Due to the enormous following developed by Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founding rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, this village has attracted a very large Jewish population, many of whom are observant. As a result, there are kosher markets and kosher restaurants and there has been much controversy concerning the installation of an eruv.
While The Hampton Synagogue’s worship services are modern Orthodox, its summer programs are of universal interest and include a wide variety of speakers, authors and performers. Among the highlights this year is a series of so-called “Shabbat Diplomat Dinners” which feature speeches by the Ambassadors to the United Nations from Panama, New Zealand, Madagascar, the Czech Republic and Uruguay. Among the authors who will speak on Thursday evenings are Stuart Eizenstat – an ambassador for three U.S. presidential administrations – who will discuss his new book, The Future of the Jews: How Global Forces are Impacting the Jewish People, Israel and its Relationship with the United States, and Yehuda Kurtzer, author of Shuava: The Future of the Jewish Past.
Monday nights in Westhampton are dedicated to a Jewish Film Festival. Additionally, concerts of jazz and choral music are scheduled from time to time culminating with “Yiddish Masters in Concert,” produced by the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene on Labor Day.
Southampton, about a half-hour drive from Westhampton, is the largest of the Hamptons and also the most patrician, possibly exemplified by the fact that David Koch recently hosted a $50,000-per-plate dinner here for Mitt Romney. Its principal Jewish institution is the Chabad Jewish Center, which offers a variety of programs and classes including a Gan Israel children’s camp. Whereas visitor accommodations in the Hamptons are mostly in B&Bs and motels, Southampton is also unique in that it has a full-service resort hotel, the Southampton Inn, which Chabad occasionally uses to host large events. Among the leading cultural attractions in Southampton are the famed Parrish Art Museum on Job’s Lane and “Pianofest,” a summer program directed by concert pianist Paul Schenly, who conducts master classes for some two-dozen outstanding young pianists from the world over. They give public recitals on most Monday afternoons at the Avram Theater on the campus of Southampton College.
Some 10 miles further east is Bridgehampton, the smallest of the “Hamptons.” Due to its proximity to East Hampton, only about seven miles further east, it has no specifically Jewish institutions. The annual Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, this year from July 26-August 19, is now in its 26th season and features some of the world’s foremost musicians in concerts held mostly in the historic Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church.
Like Westhampton, East Hampton has a large Jewish community and several institutions, the most prominent being the Jewish Center of the Hamptons (JCOH). Its centerpiece is a magnificent synagogue designed by the late Norman Jaffe that has won accolades as one of the most outstanding houses of worship of any religion in the U.S.
Each year, the JCOH organizes a Summer Institute that presents outstanding scholars and speakers. This year they include President Frederick Lawrence of Brandeis University; Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Rick Hodes, Medical Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia and the subject of the HBO film Making the Crooked Straight; Michael Arad, the Israeli-American architect of the World Trade Center Memorial and Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News.
Additionally, the JCOH presents movies of Jewish interest every Monday night and a number of musical evenings highlighted by “Tutti Suonare,” a concert featuring students and faculty of the Chamber Music Workshop from the Perlman Music Program. The JCOH also holds family-oriented Friday night services on Main Beach as well as a large number of classes conducted by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, Cantor Debra Stein and outstanding lay instructors.
Virtually directly opposite the JCOH is the Chabad of the Hamptons, which also offers a variety of educational programs including “Challah Time” each Thursday afternoon, when kids create their own Shabbat challah. The Chabad has the only mikveh in the area and also offers for purchase a selection of kosher take-out meals.
Among East Hampton’s many attractions are Guild Hall, a combination art museum and theater; countless art galleries; the Long House Nature Reserve; fashionable boutiques and restaurants.
Sag Harbor, while technically not one of the Hamptons, is a fascinating village some seven miles north of both East Hampton and Bridgehampton that has the look and flavor of a New England fishing community similar to Nantucket. It was a 17th-century whaling port and among its many historic buildings is America’s first customs house, now a whaling museum. Sag Harbor is home to the oldest synagogue on Long Island, Temple Adas Israel. Though it was originally Orthodox, it is now Reform, offering weekly Friday eve services and Shabbat morning Torah study. Sag Harbor attracts yachts of all sizes and its Bay Street Theater presents Broadway-quality productions throughout the season.
Some will argue that the best way to enjoy the Hamptons is as the house-guest of a friend, preferably one with golf and tennis club membership, a private pool and other similar conveniences. But, lacking such a host, there is a good selection of excellent B&Bs, motels and a number of resorts in nearby Montauk.