In Five Towns, Jewish Community Rallies Behind Chabad

In Five Towns, Jewish Community Rallies Behind Chabad

by Dvora Lakein - Cedarhurst, NY

January 6, 2009

( Sometimes it takes a little darkness to shed light on something so remarkable. News reports on December 25 spoke of the wreckage that a BMW X3 caused when it plowed through the windows of Chabad of the Five Town’s annual Chanukah Wonderland. Images of the crushed glass and ruined exhibits made people shudder even as they kindled the fifth Chanukah candle that night. 

But Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, director of the Five Towns, leapt into action, visiting patients, consoling the horrified onlookers, and lighting the public menorah at Cedarhurst Park several hour later. His quick response impressed other community activists, and rabbis, therapists, and lawyers offered their services and comfort.

“This past week,” Wolowik told several days after the accident, “we learned more than ever how amazing our community is.”

On the surface of things, Chabad of the Five Towns, located on the south shore of New York’s Long Island, is like any other Chabad center around the globe. Inside its welcoming doors is a burgeoning preschool with a sizeable waiting list, a class of women learning about the weekly Torah portion, and energetic volunteers preparing for an upcoming Friendship Circle event.

But beyond the predictable is something that few in the community dreamed of when Rabbi Zalman and Chanie Wolowik moved here in 1994. “People didn’t understand what I was doing here,” recalls the salt-and-pepper bearded Wolowik. “It was an established community with schools and synagogues. People expected Chabad to be found in the Far East, not here.”

“It is important for people to understand that yes we have the shopping and the food,” explains Hadassah Geisinsky, “but there are still so many people who we reach out to.” Geisinsky, a coordinator at Chabad, lives near Cedarhurst’s main drag, Central Avenue, where all the trappings of a vibrant, established Jewish community are in evidence. Traditionally-dressed Jews frequent the Judaica stores, chain restaurants also found in Brooklyn, and even a Gap with modest clothing.

But it is “precisely because there is so much going on here, that people are getting left by the wayside,” believes Wolowik. “Other Orthodox communities are not trained like Chabad is to recognize those in spiritual need.” 

Chabad has found its niche. Its list of programming is immense, with literally something for everyone. A Wednesday morning class was filled with women of varied religious observance (some came in slacks while others covered their hair with a scarf or wig) learning Torah together. Children’s clubs offer sports, activities, and study for youth from across the area’s Jewish and public schools.

“It is great to see children from so many different backgrounds becoming friends,” says Geisinsky, “when before they would have never even met.”

Within the broader community it is understood that, “Chabad does holiday events,” which people from every Jewish organization attend. Thousands from across the Five Towns gather in the local park several times a year to listen to live music and dance on Sukkot; to watch the menorah be kindled each Chanukah; and to sit by a blazing bonfire come the spring festival of Lag B’omer.

Marcie Kramer discovered her local Chabad during the High Holidays. “It was soon after my 18-month old son was diagnosed with autism,” she recalls, “and I was searching for a Yom Kippur service that would allow me to connect with G-d and cry and beg for my son’s life.”

Even though the neighborhood is filled with synagogues (at the latest count there were 45 Orthodox congregations in the Five Towns), “this is the one place where I can feel holiness during prayer,” states Kramer.

Since that auspicious Yom Kippur morning, Kramer’s children have participated regularly in Chabad’s varied programming. Both children have Friendship Circle friends who visit regularly, providing friendship for the kids and a bit of respite for mom. Despite the fact that finding a babysitter is tricky, Kramer tries to attend every “Mom’s Night Out,” an evening for parents of disabled children to share resources, comfort, and good food.

It is in the homey Chabad center, where Kramer and her family attend weekly services, that she found her place.

“The Rabbi knows everyone in shul,” says Kramer. “He doesn’t pass anyone by—even a child—without wishing him a good Shabbos by name.” Continues Kramer, “whether you have been here before or not, they make you feel like this has been your home forever.”

Emails and calls are still flooding the Chabad center with requests to help following Chanukah’s accident. Despite harsh economic times, people are sending in donations and professionals are offering their services. “It is an amazing community,” says Wolowik, “everyone is pulling through and joining forces.” 

For her part, Kramer insists, “I would do anything for Chabad. They are angels.”

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