An Orthodox Jewish movement that uses the motto “Judaism with a smile” is booming across Long Island.
The Chabad Lubavitch branch has opened nearly one synagogue a year on the Island since Rabbi Tuvia Teldon set up the first center 40 years ago in a rented storefront in Stony Brook.
Come Sunday, the denomination will have three dozen synagogues when Village Chabad opens in East Setauket. The 12,000-square-foot building, set on 9 acres off Nicolls Road, has an expandable sanctuary, a ballroom and a daytime Hebrew school for younger children. The cost: $4.6 million.
“We are very excited and we feel that now the work begins for us,” said Rabbi Chaim Grossbaum, who heads a team of three rabbis and their wives at the center.
Ten years in the making, Village Chabad is the offshoot of the center that Grossbaum led in Lake Grove. As more and more new members joined the center, space became tighter and tighter. Grossbaum found himself renting rooms in hotels, community centers and public schools to handle the crowds.
“The Three Village community has tremendous potential for future growth and Chabad wants to stay ahead of the game,” said Teldon, who today heads the movement in both Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Chabad has seen its greatest growth on Long Island in the past 20 years, jumping from 14 centers in 2000 to the 36 today, and from 17 rabbis to 54. The branch welcomes all Jews — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and even the unaffiliated.
The movement aligns itself with Hasidic Judaism, which follows a strict regimen of praying three times a day, keeping kosher and separating men and women during worship services.
Teldon attributes the surge to younger Jews who not only like the movement's open and friendly philosophy but appreciate the free membership: They can visit any center they want without paying, including on the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Older synagogues charge annual dues and sell tickets for the High Holy Days.
“Chabad is based on a very different type of model,” he said. “It’s much more free-moving, it’s much more based on your immediate needs.”
Similarly, traditional synagogues are losing members, which some in the Jewish community tie to the uptick in the Chabad numbers.
But Rabbi Charles Klein, of the Merrick Jewish Centre, disagrees with the notion that annual dues are thinning the ranks of established synagogues.
Klein points to many churches that don't have annual dues and still can't fill the pews.
“By and large, organizational life in general is in trouble in America today,” he said. “This is not the age of deep commitment to organizations and institutions that really need people to be committed.”
With more than 300,000 Jews on the Island — many unaffiliated — Teldon believes Chabad is only beginning to hit its stride. As proof, the movement plans to open six more centers on Long Island in the next five years.
“We are very bullish about the future of the Jewish community,” he said.