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Synagogue can compete with beaches and nightclubs
October 31st, 2003
I arrived one Monday morning at my class at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and expressed surprise when I saw several of my rabbinic classmates wearing jackets and ties.
Whats the occasion? I asked. The summer internship interviews are today, they replied. Really, I said. I wanted to do that. I ran home, put on a blue sports coat and tie, and drove back to school.
I apologized to the interviewer for not having made an appointment or sent in an application. She agreed to let me interview. When we finished, she said she could definitely find a place for me, and she began to give me some possibilities.
You might fit in well in Minneapolis, perhaps Raleigh-Durham. Oh, and we also have an opening in East Hampton.
Wait a minute, I said. East Hampton. The lush beaches of eastern Long Island. That sounds perfect. I couldnt believe I might have the opportunity to spend the summer in the Hamptons.
Well, she said. Ill have to finish all the interviews and well let you know a few weeks.
A month later, I got a one line e-mail reading, How would like to spend the summer in East Hampton? And so began a transformative (not to mention fun) summer internship.
The Jewish Center of the Hamptons is an architectural jewel located in the elegant town of East Hampton, N.Y. A year-round synagogue with 750 households, it operates like a 2,000-family congregation during the summer, when people flock to the Hamptons.
A few years ago, a new rabbi arrived and realized the stiff competition the synagogue faced in attracting people to participate. The beaches, house parties, art galleries and theatre often meant the synagogue would be empty on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
Accordingly, he developed a summer institute that brings in top Jewish scholars, authors and communal leaders to teach and discuss contemporary issues. He also added a 5:30 p.m. Shabbat on the Beach service that draws a weekly crowd of over 500.
As the rabbinic intern, I had the chance to participate in every aspect of congregational life. I taught a class on modern Jewish thinkers that attracted over 25 participants, gave lectures, led services, played with children and shuttled around visiting Jewish dignitaries.
And yes, I did see and meet a few celebrities. Alec Baldwin is a year-round resident and frequents the local theatre. George Stephanpoulos, whom I have long admired, spends his summers in East Hampton, and I ran into him at the grocery store, where I also happened to meet Howard Stern. I never did get to meet Steven Spielberg, who occasionally visits the synagogue, but I did jog by his house, which rubs elbows with those of Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein. Maybe next summer.
A particular highlight of my internship, though, was a weekend in which the synagogue brought in the leading rabbi of Buenos Aires, Argentina, along with his family, two cantors and rabbinic protégé.
They spent a week raising funds for the social action work they are doing in the beleaguered country and conducted a Latin America-style Shabbat service that squelched any doubt that services have to be boring and lacking in spirit.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that the synagogue can compete with the beaches and nightclubs. The sense of meaning and purpose, friendship and joy one finds in the synagogue is difficult to find elsewhere.
I left the Hamptons (I admit it took a little while to re-adjust to normal life) with the realization that everybody even those with the Rolls Royces and BMWs that filled the temple parking lot are looking for more than fun and sun. The beach can wait for an hour, many said, while we study Torah and enjoy a Shabbat lunch.
Evan Moffic is a third-year rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.