Some people think of it as a quiet alternative to the Five Towns. It is a unique neighborhood with a strong past, but also ripe with possibility. Communities can shine brightly for years, but over time their batteries start to get weaker, and though they still work, they are mere shadows, a flicker of what they once were. In Oceanside, the community refused to let those batteries die. They just needed a little recharge to help the neighborhood shine brightly once again.
Youth is the key to a Jewish community. Sure, there are snowbird synagogues, but bocce ball and bingo aren’t going to attract young couples. And a Jewish neighborhood without the semblance of a youth department in its future is a community that will likely not be around very long. There are Jewish communities throughout New York City and Long Island, where this has occurred, and is happening still. Oceanside, N.Y., was on the path to becoming one of these communities. But the pillars of the town, men and women who have lived in the town for decades, weren’t about to let their beloved neighborhood erode like the beaches of Long Island’s Eastern Shore.
The Young Israel of Oceanside used the recent celebration of its 50th anniversary as a time to reflect on its rich past and begin plans for attracting Oceanside’s young future leaders of tomorrow. At its peak in the early 90s, the shul had approximately 275 families, now the number is closer to 160. Members of the community do not want Oceanside to become like the beautiful, but dwindling community of Belle Harbor, N.Y., which has barely a frum family looking to locate there, let alone a young couple.
Members of the community marching at Oceanside’s Memorial Day Parade
To change the trend, the shul’s Rav, Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, started a growth initiative committee led by David Welner, a stalwart figure in the community for over 30 years. Working as a team, this committee created fresh blueprints for reinvigorating an Orthodox neighborhood by attracting what Rabbi Muskat calls “‘Klal Yisrael Families” – couples that are truly looking to make a difference in the community.”
Rabbi Muskat, 35, and his wife Yael, had been in the community for a little over two years, but their youthful exuberance, and impressive credentials made them the perfect candidates to help restore Oceanside as a neighborhood that appeals to young couples. “When we first arrived the shul was somewhat stagnant, but now we’re on the rise,” Rabbi Muskat said.
With starter homes going for $400, 000, and four-bedroom houses for $500,000, the committee has arranged for free attorney charges for the closing and buying of houses, home inspections for a mere $350, and (through a special affiliation) mortgage rates that are up to 3/8 of a point below average rates. In fact, for qualifying couples, there are some “substantial” interest-free loans that may be used towards the purchase of a home and do not have to be repaid until these buyers sell their homes.
But Mr. Welner points out that the attraction to Oceanside isn’t and shouldn’t just be dollar-driven. “No young couple in their right minds would move to a neighborhood and commit for 10 years for money alone,” he said. “It’s about the sincerity of our community and the warm and secure feeling they get inside when they’ve spent a Shabbos with us.” Therefore, the growth initiative committee prepared special Shabbatonim and parlor meetings, organized specifically for young couples. And more and more, the targeted demographic started taking notice of Oceanside.
After only a short four months from the roll-out date of the project, seven young families are already finalizing the paperwork for their new homes in Oceanside. With yet another successful “Young Couples” Shabbaton last week, Oceanside has an additional two-dozen ideal families looking to move in.
“At first we were a bit skeptical,” said Jake and Naomi Weintraub of Woodmere, N.Y., “but after spending a couple of Shabbosim in Oceanside, we knew that this is where we wanted to raise our children. We could not believe our good fortune in finding such a warm, noncompetitive, chesed-filled community with real Torah values and where everyone knows each other.” They added that they were able to save tens-of-thousands of dollars with help and advice from the home-buying committee.
Stu and Tamara Brand, 25 and 24, have been living in the community since January, 2006 and recently gave birth to their first child. Their son’s bris was held at the Young Israel. “I think Oceanside is a community that is a hidden treasure,” said Mr. Brand, 25. “It has a quiet, beautiful, country feel; it’s a low-key neighborhood with an established core of Orthodox families. When Tamara gave birth the Young Israel of Oceanside Chesed Committee made sure meals were provided for us for two weeks. Every night another family would cook for us.”
Stu and Tamara Brand with new Oceansider Alex
It must be pointed out that the Young Israel isn’t the only Orthodox minyan in town. A mile away is Chabad of Oceanside. Established in 2000, it can have anywhere from 35-200 people on Shabbos, and a whopping 1,000 attendants for the High Holidays. Many of these Jews are what Rabbi Levi Gurkov calls “Yiddin that are unaffiliatedand disenfranchised for one reason or another,” but who are looking to grow in their Judaism, which is exactly what Chabad is there for.
“Our main focus is on our educational department,” said Rabbi Gurkov. The Chabad of Oceanside Hebrew School (“for ages 5 through Bar Mitzvah” as Rabbi Gurkov put it) currently has 250 students, an impressive number for such a new establishment.
Aside from the Young Israel there are only two other Orthodox shuls: Congregation Darchei Noam, which has approximately 60 people for minyan on Shabbos, and Shaar Shamayim, which averages 35 people on Shabbos and has been a part of the community since 1964. The shuls are located in converted neighborhood homes and surrounded by Jews both frum and non-observant. Yet, both Darchei Noam’s and Shaar Shamayim’s doors are open to all. “I think one thing that might set us apart is that we’re involved in more outreach,” said Rabbi Avi Kasten, rav of Shaar Shamayim.
Both Darchei Noam and Shaar Shamayim are warm, intimate and quiet congregations.
“I enjoy that we are close and accessible to the New York Jewish community’s many institutions, yet retain the advantages of a tight knit, out-of-town community where people really can get to know one another,” said Rabbi David Friedman of Darchei Noam.
“There are a variety of shiurim and I have always been heartened by the enthusiasm of participants in my Tuesday night Gemara shiur, and monthly class for women. My ba’alei batim have been warm, friendly and supportive, and have made our family part of their family simchas.”
One aspect that sets the Young Israel of Oceanside apart from large shuls, which focus on young married couples in other neighborhoods, is its view on young couples minyanim. “We are in principle against these minyanim,” said Rabbi Muskat, “The main minyan should be for everyone. New members should be integrated fully, and the community should daven as a whole, and not be segregated.”
It seems that this approach is appealing to some couples. “After spending just one Shabbos in Oceanside my wife and I knew this was the kind of community we were looking for,” said Joey Levy, who, along with his wife Susie, is in contract for a new home in the neighborhood.
The Young Israel of Oceanside also has a strong youth department headed by the affable Daniel Stroock. When asked how the numbers compare to when he started eight years ago, Stroock smiled and jokingly said, “You’re going to make me look bad.” The truth is that, yes, the youth department numbers have gone down in recent years. But the influx of young couples that have moved in and are moving in portends a resurgence in the youth department.
A Youth Department BBQ at the Stroock house
“We’ve had something of a baby boom,” Stroock said, pointing out the 10 new children born into the community in the last year alone. Plus, some of the young couples planning to move into Oceanside have one or two young children.
Even now, the youth department is still an integral part of the community, not only working with the National Council of Young Israel, but NCSY, as well. “We have programming for pre-schoolers, high school, and even college students,” said Stroock. Some of the more interesting events in the last year included an exotic animal show for Parshat Noach, a fishing trip for teens, and a white water rafting/Arnold Ring Homestead trip for all ages. The Stroocks are also known for having barbecues for all of the neighborhood youths in the warmer months. “Daniel has done a great job with the youth department,” said Stu Brand, “I can’t wait for my son to be old enough to participate.”
For a young frum couple sincerely looking to be part of a community, it would seem that Oceanside must be a consideration. While the growth initiative committee has select members, it is in fact a unifying effort. “There is something very special about our initiative that makes us stand apart from the rest,” said Mr. Welner, “The vision of Rabbi Muskat, my committee, and each and every member of our Young Israel is one and the same. We are all truly unified in our resolve to make this community grow with quality young people who share our Torah values.”
New to the Neighborhood: The Simantov Family
Oceanside’s growth initiative has proven so successful that shul presidents and rabbis from many communities around the Tri-State Area have been calling both Rabbi Muskat and Mr. Welner, asking if they could share the secret of their success with them.
Some people who hear that Oceanside has no kosher restaurants or non-Chabad yeshivas become somewhat dismayed by the idea of considering it a suitable place for a frum couple to live. But residents will point out that it isn’t as if Oceanside were located in the middle of Utah with only a Chabad school in sight. The neighborhood is a mere 15-minute drive from Central Avenue in the Five Towns, a block that offers essentially every type of kosher restaurant and establishment a frum family could want.
However, Oceanside isn’t without its own kosher establishments. There’s Bagel Boss, Steinberg’s Bakery, and the Knish Factory, which provides kosher catering and takeout food. Plus the area Stop and Shop Supermarket is one of several supermarkets that carries an entire section of kosher meats from Empire, as well as many side dishes from Mauzone and other kosher items. Oceanside has an eruv that covers the entire community and includes South Nassau Hospital. They also have a modern mikveh, and a new, vibrant JCC.
In terms of yeshivas, both for grade and high school, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR), Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), Yeshiva of South Shore, and all branches of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) are all within 20 minutes of Oceanside.