To an outside observer, a Chabad located in a thriving Orthodox community with multiple shuls seems counterintuitive, but the Chabad of West Hempstead inspires observant families as it reaches out to unaffiliated Jews.
“It’s the welcoming embrace that emanates from the place and the people here,” said Rabbi Yossi Lieberman, who serves as the Chabad shliach in West Hempstead. Along with his Rebbetzin Chaya Rochel, the couple were raised in Crown Heights, with many family members in shlichus. When the Chabad of Long Island organization was looking to establish a center in West Hempstead in 2002, the Liebermans stepped up and a minyan gathered in their home. “We also worked on the campuses of Adelphi and Hofstra, which are nearby. They now have their own Chabad Houses. When you do something good, it’s contagious,” Rabbi Lieberman said.
Earlier this week, Chabad of West Hempstead hosted its annual Barbecue & Ribfest, an outdoor dinner serving meat and craft beer from the Oceanside-based Barrier Brewery. Instead of a distant catering hall, the event took place in the backyard of the Chabad shul, where participants spoke about their connection to this Chabad House.
“It was so warm and welcoming, it feels like home,” said Levi Lazarus, who moved to West Hempstead from Riverdale in 2015. “They run amazing programs and my kids attend all of them. The number of children’s programs is tremendous.”
For some of the older members of the community, the arrival of Chabad brought back childhood memories. “I grew up in Crown Heights and moved to West Hempstead 54 years ago,” said Joni Nathanson. “The Rebbe’s mother lived downstairs from us on President Street. The Rebbe visited his mother daily.” When Joni and her husband Mickey relocated to this suburb, they were its 12th Jewish family. “When we moved in, everybody knew everybody. It was wonderful.”
After the Liebermans arrived in West Hempstead, the Nathansons became regulars at the Chabad House and gave back to it by hosting a spa evening for women in their backyard, with the proceeds benefiting the Friendship Circle. “Our most recent spa day had 180 women and no men,” she said.
Friendship Circle is a Chabad program that pairs teenage volunteers with their disabled peers, as they participate in events and causes that educate and inspire participants and their communities.
Another popular program run by Chabad is C Kids, a Sunday school for public school students, where they learn about chagim and mitzvos, bringing home themed art projects. Many of the children come from observant homes but attend public schools for the services that they provide. Their Sunday classes take place at the Lieberman house, where the Rebbetzin organizes the lessons. The children attend without supervision, paying attention and retaining what they’ve learned. Perhaps the Rebbetzin’s ability to connect with the students with patience and care comes from personal experience, as she is the mother of 14 children, most of whom have grown up and moved out, but help out with events when they are home.
In particular, when there are chagim, they return to help their parents, along with volunteers from the community on things such as the Lag BaOmer barbecue in Hempstead Lake State Park, the menorah lighting at Halls Pond Park, and hamantash baking at Echo Park. Another key event in the past year was an afternoon honoring first responders, secular groups such the local volunteer fire company, and Hatzalah, along with the Nassau County Police Department.
Elected officials and candidates have also joined in Chabad events, as it offers an opportunity to connect with voters and hear their concerns. In the past year, Rep. Anthony D’Esposito visited Chabad while campaigning for office, Hempstead Councilman Tom Muscarella and Nassau Legislator John Giuffre spoke at the menorah lighting.
In all of these events, such as the recent visit to West Hempstead by Ashkenazi Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau, or the forum on anti-Semitism with Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, are co-sponsored by the other shuls alongside Chabad. Jake Scheiner attended the Ribfest and spoke about Chabad’s role in his life. He received his t’filin from Chabad and often attends the Chabad of Hewlett, which is near his Lynbrook home. He is running for county legislator and shared a proclamation recognizing Chabad’s role in the community, on behalf of State Senator Kevin Thomas.
“The West Hempstead community works well together, to the credit and testament of Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer zt”l,” said Rabbi Lieberman, regarding the late Rav of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. Although that shul is the largest and one of the oldest in this community, its Rav welcomed new shuls, fostering a sense of cooperation and unity.
As it grows in membership, the Chabad offers daily minyanim, shiurim throughout the week, and a sizable Shabbos kiddush. “Our worry is to get the job done. Chabad here in West Hempstead had many roles. We have plans to expand,” said Rabbi Lieberman. “At the same time, we’re not allowed to lose focus on every single individual.”
For the Nathansons, memories of being among the first Jews in West Hempstead are kept fresh at Chabad, where everyone introduces themselves, and new friendships are constantly being formed. The scene is crowded, yet still personal and warm.
The Ribfest is the idea of Charlie Weissman, a regular participant at Chabad, who got the idea more than 17 years ago. “A yeshivah in Memphis was selling ribs by mail until they ran out. I ordered them and then spoke to Alan Shulman of Mauzone and David Yizhaky of I & D Glatt,” he said. This year’s event was dedicated in memory of his mother Miriam. “We had it every year to benefit a different charity. Then it became the event for Chabad.”
By Sergey Kadinsky