An Interview with Rabbi Shimon Stillerman, Chabad of Islip

Edith Gross Chabad House
The ribbon cutting of a study center named in honor of local Holocaust survivor, Edith Gross. Photo courtesy of Chabad of Islip.

For the past decade Rabbi Shimon Stillerman, Co-Founder and Director of the Chabad of Islip Township has been bringing people together on South Shore Long Island and serving as a resource for its Jewish residents, community leaders and local school districts. Their policy of welcome is extended to those of secular lifestyle and interfaith relationships as well as those who embrace a more religious doctrine. With last year’s opening of the Chabad’s headquarters on Ocean Avenue in Islip Hamlet, their vision continues to grow and thrive. With Passover approaching, we sat down with Rabbi Stillerman to discuss his organization, life on Long Island, and listen to his thoughts about the present state of world affairs.


Rabbi Shimon Stillerman with his wife Zeldy, courtesy of Chabad of Islip.

Fire Island News (FIN):  Rabbi, could please tell us when was the Chabad of Islip Township founded?

Rabbi Shimon Stillerman (RSS): It was founded 10 ago. We first started coming out from Brooklyn to do groundwork and outreach to the Jewish community to see how we can best have an impact, and we then settled here 10 years ago.

FIN: What made Islip attractive to you?

RSS: My wife and I grew up with the passion to do the work inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We always wanted to open up an outpost of Chabad that would have an impact on a community that needed it. I had friends that were going all over the world, but thought maybe there’s somewhere that’s not far away from Brooklyn, but far enough away that Jewish life was a bit dormant and being overlooked. In doing some research we felt that the South Shore of Suffolk County can use a boost of Jewish life. We felt we could make a difference here.

FIN: So, you are an ordained rabbi and the founder of the Chabad. On your website you are listed as its co-founder.

RSS: Yes, I am co-founder together with my wife Zeldy. Everything that we do is a team effort, It’s not the rabbi and his wife at his side. We are side by side in this effort. Each of us taking a leading role. So, the co-founders are myself and my wife, Zeldy.

FIN: Very pretty name. Can you tell me about some of the services you offer to the Jewish Suffolk County community?

RSS: We’re here to facilitate whatever is needed and is meaningful for the Jewish community. What we’re here to offer is care, love, and connection for everyone in the community by fulfilling their spiritual needs, as well as their material ones. Our framework is to create a welcoming space that everyone in the community knows that they’re part of a Jewish family and can feel at home. We fill the need for all age groups, with a strong emphasis on our youth because they’re our future. We have a very fun and engaging Hebrew school and offer everything else that a regular synagogue has but we’re so much more than just that. Of course, we hold services on Shabbat and the holidays, but the activities and programs we offer are more than the services, like the very active women’s circle, the large holiday events, as well as adult education classes. There are many people who may never even come to a religious service, yet knowing that we’re here, and that there is a Jewish home for them, and that we care about them, is very comforting to them. Our outreach includes home, assisted living, and hospital visits so that everyone knows that they’re never alone. It makes a difference.

FIN: I know many of your events have filled up our community calendar over the years. Your annual Hanukkah in Brightwaters, your recent and very successful Purim event, as well as the upcoming Passover event. They seem quite welcoming and enjoyed by all. It appears that you go beyond the Jewish community scope. I’ve seen elected officials attend these events and that you’re very much in the fabric of the Islip community. Tell me more about that?

RSS: We are a non-membership-based community center. Everyone should feel welcome in the Jewish community regardless of how they associate themselves, and that’s something you see in all our programming. As far as us being engaging with elected officials and the general community, of course, living in Islip, which doesn’t have a large Jewish population, it is important to be in touch with the wider community and be of assistance for whatever we can and to join with other groups in providing help and guidance when needed. So, whether it’s by being involved at community events to give a prayer, or by being involved in the Town of Islip Unity council; which is to bring together the diversity of the community. We see it having an impact.

One of the things we have been involved in a lot is Holocaust education. A member of our community, Mrs. Edith Gross is a Holocaust survivor who only started speaking publicly about her experience three years ago. Ever since starting she has been invited to speak at local libraries and school districts. I mention school districts because unfortunately there’s a lot of antisemitism going around. So, we were able to bring all the school districts together to the table to talk about the nature of what’s going on and how we can better address it. They were all very understanding and welcomed the conversation on the need to do more about this. We have seen positive change in this area. Chabad of Islip is making a difference not just for those who attend services, but for all of the town, in making it a place that Jewish children and all minorities can feel safe.

FIN: Your mention of the sensitive topic of antisemitism brings me to the heart of really why I’m interviewing you today. Things have changed so much in the world since last fall when the war broke out in the Middle East. I know the Chabad has been taking an active position in support of Israel. Can you tell me more about that?

RSS: Our position is that support for Israel should never be questioned. We heard about what was going on in Israel on Oct 7th, during the synagogues service on the joyous day of Simchat Torah. We were in tears over the flow of news that was coming in, as it got worse and worse. During the holiday and in the immediate days that followed, we stepped into a role of making sure that we could lend support to the Jewish community, and we also stepped into a role of advocacy. The community got to hear from our local public officials in their making statements of support for the Jewish community after Israel was first attacked and that was very reassuring. A large crowd, including many non-Jewish neighbors, came out to show their support for Israel at our rally we held in that first week.

It’s been difficult in the weeks that followed, especially for the youth. Many teenagers shared with us some of the hateful stuff that has been going on in their schools and on social media. Of course, it’s important to fight antisemitism, and there’s many organizations that are out here that focus on that including our own. But when it comes to fighting it, are we always able to quickly change hateful minds? In addition to fighting antisemitism, we have to also focus on building up the kids to be strong and proud of who they are. So, what we have been doing with the children is to be there for them, to provide guidance and morale in helping them build up their Jewish character and pride. That’s something within our power to have an immediate impact.

FIN: Due to your mobilization efforts, have you experienced any backlash from the community for the positions that you voice collectively?

RSS: Regarding Israel?

FIN: Yes.

RSS: I would say that surprisingly, I’ve seen interest from people who want to know more about what’s going on and understand the history of it all. For example, when the first calls for a ceasefire were coming out and the word of genocide was being thrown around, there were good people I know that wanted to understand more of what was going on. I had many private conversations with them to explain what the call of a ceasefire for Israel would mean, and was able to provide a better understanding on the history of Israel. I learned that people are not well educated on the background of Israel’s history. So, I wouldn’t consider it backlash, but questions that were coming more from a compassionate place. Through having conversations, I have been able to explain the difficulties in making that call. I don’t consider that backlash personally received or directed to me.

FIN: This conflict this has become a subject that has divided the American people as well as the Jewish community. As a religious leader, what are your words and thoughts to bridge this gap?

RSS: It’s a very, very difficult time as Jews in America and especially so in the suburbs of America that are not so Jewishly populated. We’re here to support and remind everyone in the local Jewish community of the importance of being proud of who you are both as Jews and Americans. We need to care about our Jewish brothers and sisters both here and in Israel and that has to be absolute. It’s okay to not have the same opinion as everyone in the Israeli government, but it can never become something that compromises the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel. Nothing should come in the way of that. Not politics or anything. When the prophet Samuel said that “the eternity of the Jewish people does not lie,” the fact that we survived all these years is a miracle in itself. The reason why we survived was not because we navigated the world in a tricky way to hide who we are or change our positions into whatever was locally popular. The reason why we have endured as a people is because we have always stood our ground and stood by our principles. Everything that we have been doing at Chabad of Islip since Oct 7 is very much in line with that, never wavering on our commitment in support of Israel and our people regardless of what it means in politics or anything else.

Yet, if there are people who disagree with each other, even when it comes to Israeli policy, know that they are still welcome at Chabad. We are still family. Differences should never lead to a family breaking apart.

FIN: Is there anything else that you would like to discuss in this interview that my questions did not touch upon?

RSS: I just want to just mention that we shouldn’t need to have these atrocities happen to our people to have a resurgence of recognizing how much Judaism plays a role in our life. But the reality is that it has brought us together and we can’t let that slip away. If there’s anyone out there who is not yet comfortable, they should feel comfortable to reach out to us for anything and we’ll be happy to help. We’re not here to preach religion. We’re here to create a family and that goes for anyone in the South Shore communities or the fire island community. We’re here to be of help.

FIN: Thank you, Rabbi and Happy Passover!

The Women’s Circle, preparing food for one of the Islip Chabad’s many events.

Rabbi Stillerman can be reached at 631-913-8770