When a new Chabad House opens in any community, it often plants a large menorah on the front yard as a sign of visible Judaism. They stand long after the last candle of Chanukah blows out to inform Jewish passersby that there is a couple in town who can answer their questions about Yiddishkeit and serve their religious needs. Last October, Rabbi Mendel and Rivka Gurkov settled in Rockville Centre, setting up the newest Chabad House on Long Island.
Until last week, it did not make any waves among neighbors until one spoke up at a village board of trustees meeting, with eight minutes of false accusations based on stereotypes relating to Orthodox Jews. “Last week I was made aware that a property in the village, 9 Marlborough Court, had a large menorah on their front lawn,” Michelle Zangari said. “It’s almost eight feet tall.” She then argued that the menorah is a symbol of a synagogue. “In this case, it is a single-family residence being used as a synagogue.”
She then spoke of her experience as a former resident of the Five Towns who experienced the influx of Orthodox Jews as they built shuls on residential blocks, raised property values, and ran for school board seats. She alleged that Orthodox individuals offered to purchase homes off-market, pressured businesses to shut down on Saturdays, and reduced funding to public schools. “This is very emotional for anyone who lived through the transformation of the Five Towns,” she said. “My old elementary school was sold to the highest bidder.”
She used her time at the podium to urge the board to amend the zoning code so that no new houses of worship would be approved in residential areas. Such tensions are not unique to Rockville Centre. There have been battles over school board representation, eruv construction, and public menorah displays in suburbs across the country. As housing values skyrocket in the Five Towns, Jewish families look to Hewlett and Oceanside as the affordable alternatives. Likewise with Franklin Square becoming the alternative to West Hempstead, which in turn began as the choice community for families who could not afford a home in Queens.
At the same time, Chabad shluchim are not seeking to serve Orthodox Jews who have their own synagogues. “Chabad of Rockville Centre provides assistance to the few Jews who live there. They don’t have any minyanim there,” said Alan Skorski. “None of the Chabads have led to Jewish takeovers of communities.” The West Hempstead resident drove by the house on Marlborough Court, investigated her claims, and disproved each of them from his own experience. “Migration is a process; it never happens as she describes it.”
Zangari noted that when she worked at the Bagelry of Cedarhurst, the owner was approached about closing on Shabbos, which she interpreted as cultural pressure. But Skorski said that Shabbos is a matter of hashgachah, namely that some certifying agencies insist on Jewish owners keeping their businesses closed on the holy day. “That business boomed after they became Shomer Shabbos.”
Skorski said that Zangari was upset about the demographic change that took place in the Five Towns in the last generation and feared the arrival of Orthodox Jews in Rockville Centre. “The menorah was a trigger for her, but it is outside a house, not a house of worship.”
Avromi Gorokhov lives on the border of West Hempstead and Franklin Square, where he witnessed a nearly identical dispute over a public menorah. “West Hempstead Synagogue Zichron Kedoshim used to have a menorah on Dogwood Avenue, and it’s not there anymore because their neighbors ratted them out.” Built as a residence and used as a shul on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim, it faced complaints from neighbors because it does not have a parking lot. “Zichron Kedoshim fought it in court.”
Gorokhov also drove to Rockville Centre after watching the video of the April 4 village board meeting. “I met a Conservative rabbi in Rockville Centre, and I felt like he was on the side of this lady. He said that she doesn’t want this village to become like the Five Towns. He doesn’t want Orthodox Jews moving in, because Chabad takes people from Conservative temples.”
Closer to his home, Gorokhov is a member of Beis Medrash of West Hempstead, a new shul led by Rabbi Dov Greer. It began as a storefront minyan last year and recently purchased a home on David Street. To ensure that the sale and transformation of the home complies with the law, the shul relied on the local Chabad for advice, which also had its start in a private residence that became a shul. “Rabbi Greer got all the permits, and it was with the help of Rabbi Yossi Lieberman, doing things the official way.”
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman condemned Zangari’s remarks as anti-Semitic and un-American. Freedom to practice religion and freedom to live where one chooses are rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” he wrote. “It is the duty of public officials to condemn the type of anti-Semitic speech that was in evidence at the Rockville Centre Village Board meeting.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, whose district includes Rockville Centre, also slammed Zangari’s speech. “This was anti-Semitism, full stop. The trope of ‘Jews taking over’ has been a hallmark of white supremacy for ages. RVC has a history of tolerance that welcomes all. Stand up for what’s right and call this out loudly.”
On Sunday night, Gov. Kathy Hochul also argued that the speech was anti-Semitic as it sought to keep a specific group out of a community. “Everyone is welcome in New York. The despicable and anti-Semitic rhetoric used at a Rockville Centre board of trustees meeting has no place in our state.”
Skorski said that when Orthodox Jews become involved in public life such as village board meetings, and running for seats on their local school boards, it is important not to cause a chilul Hashem, to file the necessary permits, build relationships with neighbors, and respect one another.
By Sergey Kadinsky