Inside the walls of Chabad of Port Washington there is a judgment-free zone. It is a house of worship where all people can come together to pray without judgment of one another’s piety.
Rabbi Shalom Paltiel and Sara Paltiel opened Chabad of Port Washington 28 years ago. They are one of 5,000 families in the world who have opened chabad houses as part of a Hasidic Jewish movement that became widespread in 1951 under the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Shalom Paltiel joked that when people ask what kind of synagogue it is, he tells them “it’s an Orthodox synagogue with a Conservative service for Reform Jews.”
He said that aside from its accepting environment, chabad provides a spiritual experience that is rooted in authenticity.
“There is a lot of spirituality,” he said. “A lot of emotion, people will sit and cry in our service; modern, secular Jews who are living the American dream in Sands Point who never believed that religion would ever mean anything to them.”
The Paltiels said that many come to chabad in search of a fresh look at Judaism that differs from their experiences at Orthodox temples or more modern, fancy synagogues.
Arnie Herz, a Port Washington lawyer and president of the American Jewish Committee’s Long Island chapter, was one of those people back in 1998 when he was sitting in the last row of the chabad house in search of a greater meaning.
He grew up in the Five Towns and went to a conservative shul. After he graduated from Hebrew school and had his bar mitzvah, Herz said, Judaism began to slowly fall out of his life.
While playing basketball at the University of Michigan, Herz blew a hole in his aortic heart valve.
He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at the age of 20 but said he thought “it wasn’t a bad thing, that this was going to lead me to understand something deeper in my life.”
Twenty-year-old Herz went to his rabbi, who could offer no answers for him, he said, and as a result, he connected with an Eastern meditation path which led him to spend two years in India studying meditation.
“That was my path for 25 years, studying yoga and meditation,” Herz said, and by the mid-90s, it had been a decade since he had stepped foot in any temple.
Herz spent a few services in the back row of the chabad house, and then after meeting Paltiel through a friend he began coming once or twice a year, he said.
Until 2006, when his daughter approached him asking why she wasn’t having a bat mitzvah, Herz said.
The two went to multiple synagogues and found it was either too late or too expensive to enroll, he said, but when they went to Chabad of Port Washington, the rabbi enrolled her right away, free of cost.
And now, Herz said he couldn’t be happier with what he got involved in 13 years before and sits as a member of Chabad of Port Washington’s board of directors.
His involvement with Chabad of Port Washington has not only improved his own life, Herz said, but the lives of his family and friends, many of whom have gotten involved with chabad themselves.
“The only people who don’t love this place are people who haven’t come in,” he said.
The Paltiels stress the importance of “no labels” at their house of worship, which they open to Jews of all denominations and also those who don’t practice Judaism at all.
“Because you are not being judged and everybody’s accepted for who they are,” Sara Paltiel said. “We believe that everybody connects to God with their own soul and is born perfect.”
Herz said that chabad’s teaching are “very practical” in terms of how to live one’s life in 2019. A time, he said, when there is so much angst, confusion and disconnect throughout the world.
“It gives me a lot of comfort, clarity, purpose, mission, and I think that’s the case for many people,” he said.
Chabad of Port Washington offers a variety of programs for children, teens and adults. A “mini-Israel” room provides children with a sensory experience of Israel. Teens can get involved in chabad’s soccer and basketball programs and adults can learn Hebrew or attend “Daily Shmooze and Smear” after weekday services.
Celebrating the holidays with Chabad of Port Washington is free of charge and only requires an RSVP on the website, chabadpw.org. Members already have seats reserved and do not have to RSVP.
Services are held throughout Rosh Hashana, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, and Yom Kippur, Oct. 8-9, at the chabad house at 80 Shore Road in Port Washington.