Amid declining membership and decreasing funds, Oceanside Jewish Center administrators are seeking a new project at the house of worship after Town of Hempstead officials unanimously denied a request to build a 119-room assisted-living facility on part of the property.
The board’s decision came after community outcry over the proposal.
“We intend to remain and be involved in the Oceanside Jewish Center and community affairs,” OJC President Adele Murphy said. “Over the last 10 years, realizing this downward swirl, we created a committee to assess our real estate situation and propose solutions. We tried to find a partner for over a decade and were saddened by the zoning decision and the resistance of the community. It has never been our intention to hurt our community, and we are looking to survive.”
Murphy said that from the 1950s through the 1970s, the center boasted 800 member families, but that number has steadily dwindled in recent decades, and now there are about 160 families, which she called a tight-knit group. Because of its declining membership and revenue loss, the OJC board has sought to sell part of its land to developers. It struck an agreement with Charles Weinraub, a real estate investor, who planned to purchase 24,000 square feet of the 40,000- square-foot property to build the assisted-living fa-cility. But after dozens of residents opposed it, the board denied the project, 7-0, on March 9.
Had the development been approved, the northern half of the property would have remained a center for religious services with a nursery school, but the OJC’s catering hall would have been lost as part of the conversion.
Jeff Resnick, a former OJC president who now serves in public relations for the institution, said the last 10 to 15 years have been difficult for the house of worship. He added that though there was some resident backlash, he favored the assisted living facility proposal because, he said, he did not anticipate a significant impact in traffic or parking. Though the assisted living facility is no longer an option, Resnick said, many developers have engaged in conversations with OJC administrators to find a solution.
“We are by no means dead in the water,” Resnick said. “We view ourselves as a small, but thriving family congregation.”
Part of finding a suitable project for the area will include community engagement. Though many residents were vocal about their displeasure over the assisted living facility — many arguing there was a lack of transparency about the project — Randi Pivnick, the OJC’s executive vice president, said outreach to area residents would be prioritized.
“Our intent is to work with the community and work with the government,” she said. “Our goal is to stay within the community. It’s very important to us. Our congregation wants us to stay together, and we are going to explore all avenues in order for us to do that.”
The OJC has been a part of the Oceanside community since the 1940s. Its members have remained active over the years, participating in interfaith Thanksgiving events, and the center served as a safe haven for residents after Hurricane Sandy. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, members also organized food deliveries for those in need. With membership dwindling, the OJC cannot sustain the property and facilities without selling a portion of it, however.
With the OJC struggling, neighboring congregations such as Temple Avodah have offered to take on its members; however, Pivnick said that though they appreciated the offer, the OJC is the lone conservative Jewish center in Oceanside, while Avodah is a reform temple. Murphy noted that OJC members have become a family and would not favor splitting up to other houses of worship, as they enjoy taking part in events and services together. Resnick said the one positive that came out of the pandemic was that the congregation grew closer amid a challenging time.
Though center officials said they hope to find a quick solution, there is no timeline on when a deal needs to be struck for the OJC to survive. The administrators said they also planned to speak with community members and elected officials before another proposal is presented to the town board.
The sale would not mark the first piece of OJC property sold in recent years. About a decade ago, OJC administrators sold a plot of land on Sylvan Court, where five homes were built. Many of those homeowners were the most outspoken against the assisted living facility, because it would have led to a three-story building being erected in their backyards.
Marty Stalzberg was among many residents who said last month that they were pleasantly surprised when the board voted down the proposal, and that she would be in favor of single-family homes on the land. “We were very surprised,” she said, “and it’s the sort of thing where if they came in with a right-sized project, the community would support it.”
Marc Weissman, an attorney who lives in Oceanside and advocated against the sale, said last month that he, too, would support single-family homes or a small scale project, and he was pleased when the town board agreed with the community that the assisted living facility was too large.
“I thought that the residents of Oceanside were heard,” he said.
Murphy said residents’ opinions have been made clear, and the OJC will work with the community to find a solution that benefits everyone involved.
“We heard the community, we heard what they said,” she said. “We were hit hard by this. We had hopes. However, within our congregation, we have to be resilient. If this single-family homes is the new choice and the way that we need to go, we are not opposed to that.”