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Temple Adas Israel Seeks Cemetery Expansion

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By Stephen J. Kotz

Temple Adas Israel’s effort to expand its Chevra Kodetia Cemetery on Route 114 just south of Sag Harbor received a sympathetic hearing when it was unveiled before the East Hampton Town Planning Board on April 2, but board members nonetheless pointed out that a number of significant hurdles need to be overcome before it can be approved.

The key barrier to the congregation obtaining site-plan approval for the expansion is that the 1-acre property proposed for it, which the congregation purchased more than two years ago, is in a water recharge district, where clearing restrictions are stricter than for similar sized lots elsewhere to help protect the groundwater from pollution.

The situation is further complicated, said Miles Anderson, the Sag Harbor attorney representing the synagogue, this week because town law requires that burials must be done in sealed caskets, “which is against the Jewish faith,” if a cemetery is in a water recharge area.

Yet another twist to the application is that Suffolk County tax maps erroneously show the original Chevra Kodetia Cemetery as part of a larger, 6.3-acre parcel, which includes 5.3 acres owned by the Jewish Cemetery Association. In fact, the properties were legally split in 1891, Mr. Anderson told the planning board, with Temple Adas Israel owning only a 1-acre portion of the larger parcel.

In their initial review of the site-plan application, town planners erroneously thought the two cemeteries shared a single parcel. As a result, they overestimated the amount of land that could be cleared.

“Our current cemetery is practically filled. We have been looking for this opportunity for a long time,” Howard Chwatsky, a synagogue trustee and chairman of its cemetery committee, told the planning board. “We are here out of need. As they say, people are dying to get in.”

Mr. Chwatsky told the board that the two cemeteries were split in the 19th century because two groups of Jews, some from Hungary and some from Russia, did not get along and quipped that they were still fighting today.

This week, Rabbi Leon Morris of Temple Adas Israel took pains to stress that there was no animosity between the groups, “I do a lot of funerals in both cemeteries,” he said, adding that the different cemeteries were the result of different waves of Jewish immigration. “It’s akin to the differences between a Roman Catholic Church that is Irish and one that is Italian,” he said.

Of more pressing concern is whether the town will even allow the cemetery to expand because of limits it imposes on cemeteries in water recharge districts that require “caskets to be encased in watertight liners to restrict the entry of body decomposition and embalming chemicals into ground or surface water.”

Rabbi Morris suggested that when the town adopted those restrictions “it didn’t have in mind Jewish burial practice” in which bodies are not embalmed and buried in simple pine coffins. “Maybe the restrictions were based on the assumptions bodies would be embalmed and that a lot of toxic glues would be used in coffins,” he said.

A key now, he said, was determining how “arbitrary the lines are in demarking an area next to a historic cemetery” as a water recharge district. “We only purchased that land so we could increase the size of our cemetery,” he said.

Mr. Anderson told the planning board the synagogue would be happy to go before the town Zoning Board of Appeals. “We just need direction so we can get off square one,” he said.

“I see no reason why they can’t grant a variance,” he said on Tuesday. “The question is will they?”

Mr. Anderson added this week that he expects to meet with the town’s building inspector and planners in the coming weeks to discuss the application and what needs to be done to get it moving. “It is going to result in a catalog of issues we have to address,” he said of that meeting.

Board members said they wanted to work with the synagogue, but they had questions about a plan to provide access to the expanded burial ground via Six Pole Highway. That road now serves a single house and would have to be improved to provide access. Synagogue representatives said they did not envision heavy use. Rather, they said the access would be used during the development of the site, to allow backhoes to enter the property to dig graves, and allow hearses to get closer to gravesites.

Eric Schantz, the town planner assigned to the application, stated in an email on Tuesday that the planning board has the authority to issue a special exception permit that would allow additional clearing, provided the property meets a minimum size, but he added that he did not believe the synagogue’s property would meet that threshold and would likely require a variance from the ZBA.

Mr. Anderson said it was anyone’s guess why the county tax maps had never differentiated between the two, separately owned, cemeteries. “They were classified as one cemetery. Because nobody was paying taxes on it — and nobody was required to pay — it was overlooked,” he said.

Putting the Fun into the Purim Holiday

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web Purim

By Emily J Weitz

If you’ve never celebrated Purim, you’re missing out on one of the best parties of the year. When Rabbi Leon Morris of Sag Harbor’s Temple Adas Israel dubbed it “Mardi Gras for Jews,” it pretty much summed up the feasting, storytelling, and overall joyful sentiment that accompanies Purim.

“On a very basic level,” says Morris, “it’s a topsy-turvy carnivale-esque holiday filled with laughter, parody, sweets, gifts and masquerade. On a deeper level, it’s about how to construct a life of faith in a world where God’s presence often appears to be absent.”

To honor both the lightness and the significance of Purim, the temples in the area are planning to honor the four mitzvot, or commandments, of the holiday in their own special ways.

The first mitzvah is the Reading of the Scroll of Esther, or the Megillah.

“Esther is the great heroine of this story,” explains Morris. “She risks her own life to intervene on behalf of her people and succeeds.”

Goldie Baumgarten of the Chabad in East Hampton adds that “Purim is a time that celebrates the victory of good over evil, the victory of the innocent being protected by God, and the importance of faith.”

In this spirit, Temple Adas Israel, the Chabad, and the Jewish Center in East Hampton will all have Megillah readings on Wednesday evening. The reading is one of the more serious of the mitzvoth, but Shelley Lichtenstein of the Jewish Center promises that “It will still be a fun evening, with celebration and chocolate.”

Esther’s great accomplishment in the Megillah is that she protects her people. But Rabbi Morris explains that “Esther is a complex and curious character. She is in many ways a ‘hidden Jew’,” he says.

“She is thoroughly assimilated into the culture of the country in which she lives, yet identifies with her people when the moment calls.”

The name Esther means “hidden,” and Morris says this refers not only to Esther’s hidden identity but also the fact that “God is hidden throughout this story, without God’s name appearing even once.”

Readings are an integral part of most Jewish traditions, as these texts have been passed down for thousands of years as a way to keep the stories alive. But just as important on Purim is the celebration – a different way to honor memory and history. At Temple Adas Israel, “Purim Fest” will include family activities and food for all. The energetic congregation has created a new way to celebrate this year, with a local beer tasting, co-sponsored by Edible East End.

“Purim is traditionally celebrated by drinking to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews in days of Mordecai and Esther,” says Morris. “In fact, in the Talmud it says that one drinks until he or she doesn’t know the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman’ (the villain of the Purim story). We thought a contemporary and local twist on this would be a local beer-tasting. This will encourage responsible drinking while sharing the joy of the holiday with one another.”

The Jewish Center will host its annual carnival in honor of Purim, and this year there will be a kids’ rock concert in addition to the usual face painting and balloon makers.

“Purim is a joyous time,” says Lichtenstein. “Kids are encouraged to dress up and be silly. It’s a big party.”

Of Rick Recht, the Jewish kids’ rock star that will perform, she says, “He uses Jewish prayers and text in contemporary form. The kids sing about doing good deeds and about Israel, and it’s really exciting. Each age level gets a song they sing on stage with him.”

The other two mitzvoth on Purim are making offerings to the poor and sending food to friends. The temples organize donations, with charities as local as the Sag Harbor Food Pantry (Temple Adas Israel) and as distant as a charity in Israel that brings a Purim dinner to those who cannot afford it (Chabad).

“It’s all in the spirit of bringing joy to each other,” says Baumgarten. “It’s a holiday of joy, celebration and salvation.”

All of the congregations are throwing their doors open wide to members of the community, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. To learn more about the Purim festivities in the area, check out the temples’ respective web sites. Chabad of the Hamptons is at www.chabadofeastend.com, Temple Adas Israel at www.templeadasisrael.com, and the Jewish Center of the Hamptons at www.jcoh.org.