Friday, September 17, 2021

Erica and Elliot Safar were living in a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with 15-month-old daughter, Nellie, and a dog when they decided to relocate to Stamford.

“We needed an easy commute into the city and while we didn’t know too much about it, the Stamford Jewish community felt warm and welcoming,” said Erica. “I grew up in Long Island and Elliot is from New Jersey. We never knew that Stamford was a quick express train ride from Grand Central. We started exploring the area and immediately fell in love with the beauty of Harbor Point.”

That was in 2018, when the 100-acre development along the Stamford waterfront just south of the train station was already a bustling, nine-year-old community. The following summer, Erica noticed a Facebook post announcing the opening of Chabad of Harbor Point. Elliot stopped by to check out the new community resource, the first of many visits to come for the Safars.

Connecticut’s newest Chabad center is helmed by Chabad of Stamford’s senior rabbi and rebbetzin, Rabbi Yisroel and Vivi Deren. The rabbi, who is also regional director of the Chabad Lubavitch of Western and Southern New England, was inspired indirectly by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who had come to Stamford in 2015 as a community scholar-in-residence.

“I was in Harbor Point just looking around because we had been thinking about setting up something there,” Rabbi Deren recalled. “A quote from Rabbi Telushkin’s book, ‘Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History,’ came into my head, something along the lines of, ‘If it’s important to do, then do it right now.’ I said, ‘We’re going to do it today.’”

Over the next two days, as Rabbi Deren explored rental spaces, he met a Jew in each building he entered. “It certainly seemed like someone saying, ‘There’s work to do here and you want to start getting to it,’” he said. In mid-June 2019, the Derens signed a lease for a unit on the water. They hosted Shabbat the following week with a few people for dinner and davening. They held a post-Shabbat Nachamu concert on the boardwalk outside Beacon. By Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 60 to 70 Jews showed up for services; the first Chanukah celebration featured a public menorah lighting on the boardwalk. Then came the pandemic.

In 2020, the Derens moved to a larger location two buildings away, at 101 Park Place, and held outdoor gatherings when the weather allowed. By the High Holy Days, with COVID restrictions still in effect and no place to set up a tent for more than two hours, things got creative. Harbor Point owner, BLT, offered Chabad the spacious and roofed wrap-around porch at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, the neighborhood restaurant opened in 2012 that had been shuttered during the pandemic. (Plans are still in process for this year’s High Holy Days.)

Through Shabbat gatherings, Jewish holiday programs and classes, Rabbi Deren and Morah Vivi have met the range of Harbor Point Jews: single young adults and young families relocating from New York City, downsizers moving from North Stamford. The community recently celebrated its first-ever bar mitzvah.

“We are grateful to have met so many wonderful people in Harbor Point—singles, couples, all ages and stages,” Morah Vivi said. “Even though some have moved on to other communities, we find that there are more new people moving in daily. In addition, our present location, with the menorah on the porch, really boosts our visibility, enabling people to just pop in, especially on a Friday night or Shabbat day.”

When Nellie Safar first returned to in-person school in September 2020, the three-day-a-week schedule meant that the toddler was home on Fridays. Erica approached Morah Vivi with the idea to start up an outdoor Friday Shabbat class. The two women designed a program on the Harbor Point boardwalk that is still active and growing, drawing parents with babies and toddlers from across the Stamford community. “The Derens have become like family to us,” Erica said. “Our daughter loves our weekly Friday night kiddushes and getting special Shabbos treats from Morah Vivi.”

With the Harbor Point Jewish community growing and Chabad activities and programs ramping up, the Derens hope to soon cede day-to-day operations to a young couple and help expand outreach efforts. In the meantime, they continue to host weekly programs and have dreams to enhance adult learning offerings over the next few months, underscoring Erica’s assertion that Harbor Point is a “hidden gem.”

“The area has so much to offer young couples and families, and Chabad of Harbor Point has been instrumental in bringing everyone together,” she said. “Moving to Harbor Point allows people access to all that the Stamford Jewish community has to offer—kosher food and restaurants, Jewish day schools, the JCC and synagogues—with the added benefits of living downtown, like walking distance to the train, beautiful new apartment buildings with great amenities, and a vibrant waterfront setting. It is a really special place and we truly love living here.”

Chabad of Harbor Point is located at 101 Park Place, Unit 110 (Washington Boulevard and Pacific Street), Stamford. For more information, visit HarborPointJewish on Facebook or www.jewishharborpoint.org.

By Cynthia Mindell

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