Rabbi Berel Lerman is an unmistakable individual in the East End community of Sag Harbor. His chabad, the Center for Jewish Life, is nestled in Sag Harbor’s waterfront. With small gatherings in 2013 that were hosted in the living rooms of friends who call the East End home, Rabbi Lerman has been “keepin’ the faith” in the Hamptons now for the better part of a decade.
Rabbi Lerman is a year-round resident of Sag Harbor, but was born in the borough that he fondly calls “the holy-land of Brooklyn.” He moved to the East End with his wife Brocha and children to offer the East End community educational programming and Shabbat prayer services in the summer months. He found that the demand was great, leading to his presence on a more-permanent basis.
“We got started in the Sag Harbor area as a grassroots effort,” he says. “We got to know some of the wonderful people out here, some being year-round, others who are seasonal, as you can imagine. One thing led to another thing, and in 2017, we moved into our formal center which now houses different programs, prayer services, children’s programs, community events, Kabbalah classes, et cetera.”
Lerman considers himself what is called a “spiritual entrepreneur.” While national statistics may suggest that faith and religion are on a downward trend in American society, he says that here in the Hamptons, that just isn’t so. Using an entrepreneurial term, which is rather indicative about his mindset, he says he remains “bullish” on spirituality.
“While we live in a modern society,” says Lerman, “at the same time, I am very bullish on spirituality, on community, and on our growth. When you think about it, every single one of us is a spiritual being. We all have a soul and everything about each human being is a product of that soul.
“We are all spiritual beings, living for spiritual purposes,” he adds. “While religion may be on the decline, if we focus on the metaphysical, it is something that we are all looking for, we all need, and we all want.”
Just like the entire East End, Sag Harbor is blessed with natural beauty of beaches, waterfronts and spectacular views. Lerman incorporates these beauties into his services, oftentimes embracing the waterfront that his center overlooks.
Rather famously, in 2018, Lerman hosted a “Shabbat on a Yacht,” where about 30 congregants gathered for a service on a watercraft, utilizing the serenity and peace of Sag Harbor Bay to reflect, pray and celebrate community.
“We are located here in Sag Harbor, right on the waterfront, so we are very in tune with our environment and this beautiful part of the East End,” he says. “Several congregants walk off their vessels and attend services. We have a number of families who dock their boats in Sag Harbor because our center is within walking distance of the marina.”
The Center for Jewish Life has also ventured into the art scene with their Ezra Gallery of the Hamptons, where works of art by local artists and others from around the world are exhibited. The current exhibit, which was curated by Kimberly Goff, is called the Nature Show, showcasing landscape art of various natural scenes on the East End; the show opened just last week.
“Everyone is welcome at our center regardless of religious observance or background,” he says. “Our goal from the outset has been to create an environment where there are no labels, and everyone is free to express his or her Jewishness and spirituality. Our goal is to create a center which serves as a beacon of light, spirituality, education and Jewish culture that radiates brightly in the Hamptons and beyond. I believe we have succeeded in doing so.”
In terms of the future, Lerman has made clear that the Center for Jewish Life in Sag Harbor has much room for growth. Given the recent redevelopment plans for the area, the center is looking for a new property to house their growing community. The Center for Jewish Life has launched a capital campaign with naming and dedication opportunities to help accommodate their need for a new facility.
“We have launched a capital campaign to be able to raise the funds and secure the next-best location for the Center for Jewish Life,” he says. “We are working strongly and actively to find the next best spot where we can be with Hashem’s help for generations and centuries to come. While change can be disheartening, I see this as a unique opportunity to really establish a community center, a community space, a center for spirituality, an art gallery, a children’s learning center — all of the above, under one roof — for future generations.”
The Center for Jewish Life will be hosting their Building for a Brighter Tomorrow Summer Benefit at the home of Ken and Maria Fishel in Bridgehampton, on August 14 to raise funds for the capital campaign. Individuals of all backgrounds are invited to attend and participate. For more information, visit cfjewishlife.com.
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.