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Port Jefferson Station

Rabbi Aaron Benson from the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jeff Station is drawing guests every Thursday for coffee and free advice. File photo

By Alex Petroski

Outlets for negative feedback are bountiful in 2017 America. One need not look far to find someone willing to tear down or criticize, but for residents in the Port Jefferson, Setauket and Stony Brook areas, finding a friendly face who’s ready to listen and provide constructive advice is as easy as buying a cup of coffee.

Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jeff Station began hosting regular “office hours” at Starbucks on Route 25A in Setauket earlier this year, or gatherings to discuss ideas in a comfortable, informal setting which have been dubbed Benson’s “Starbucks Schmooze.” Every Thursday, members of the NSJC congregation, or anyone else with something on their mind, are invited to the coffee shop to visit with Benson between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

“I always liked the idea, when I was a kid, I really had this in mind, when I would see one of my teachers outside of the classroom it was always like a special treat,” Benson said during his schmooze Aug. 31. “Like, ‘Oh my goodness, they let them out of the box.’ And so I thought in today’s day and age, it would be a nice thing to be able to interact with people not inside the synagogue, to be out there and perhaps interact with people that I don’t know, and the success of it is really just if I meet a few people and connect a few people.”

Benson said typically he has between two and four visitors during a session, though he’s had as many as six guests actively engaged in conversation, and the discussion ranges from politics to relationship advice to current events and everything in between. He said the idea emerged organically because it fit in perfectly with his normal Thursday routine, which always includes a stop at The Rolling Pin, a kosher bakery, in the same shopping center as Starbucks where the rabbi supervises to ensure traditional processes and requirements are followed for the kosher designation. After that he would go to Starbucks for his caramel macchiato, then heads to St. Charles and Mather hospitals, where he volunteers as a chaplin. He decided to work the hour-long schmooze into the routine in January and hasn’t looked back since.

“If I can bounce an idea off one of those vital life questions for somebody then I am happy to help with that.”

— Rabbi Aaron Benson

JoAnne Shapiro, a regular attendee and member of the NSJC congregation, said it’s refreshing to have a personal relationship with the rabbi at her synagogue.

“I think when you think of the term rabbi, even in this day and age, people view the rabbi up there [on a pedestal],” Shapiro said. “And it just makes our rabbi much more approachable … I think the neat thing about this is that you never know what’s going to come out of the visit. It’s neat, it’s sort of like a nice way to start the day.”

Linda Miller, another member of Benson’s congregation, was attending her first schmooze Aug. 31, though she said before she left she planned on sending her husband for advice the following week. She said the visit was worthwhile not only for the advice she got from Benson regarding upcoming Jewish holidays, but also because she had a lengthy conversation with Shapiro, who she said she’d known in passing for years but couldn’t recall the last time, if ever, they had conversed for so long.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Miller said.

Benson said some of the more rewarding sessions are the ones that feature conversations which require very little of his own input. He recalled one schmooze when two attendees spent much of the hour bonding over the watch one was wearing.

The rabbi offered perspective on the importance of seeking help and guidance in challenging times, be it religious advice or otherwise.

“I can’t tell you to believe in particular stories, but everybody in the world has to have a set of stories that tells them about how you decide on priorities in life,” he said. “What do you do when you fall in love? What do you do when you fail? What do you do when you lose someone important? Religion provides those stories for you, but everyone has those sorts of questions. Everyone confronts those sorts of issues and everyone needs help with that. So if I can bounce an idea off one of those vital life questions for somebody then I am happy to help with that.”

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St. Paul’s Church in Port Jefferson Station

By Jill Webb

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church’s first meeting was held on Dec. 13, 1917, marking its 100th anniversary this upcoming December. During the church’s first meeting, as the then-called The English Lutheran church of Port Jefferson Station, the Rev. Pallmeyer and his associates decided that services would be held at the Grange Hall on Route 112 and Union Street. Back then, the hall’s rent was only $10 per month.

The church has faced hardships over the past century. During the Depression, the church found difficulty in acquiring a full-time pastor along with acquiring guest pastors. This forced the church to close its doors for a year before reopening as the renamed St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, now at 309 Patchogue Road (Route 112), Port Jefferson Station.

Currently the church has approximately 150 members. “We are small but mighty,” said the president of the church council, Betsy Prosser. John Reiersen, the chairman of the 100th anniversary committee, emphasizes the welcoming atmosphere at the church over the 45 years he’s been a member. “We’re known as the friendly church on top of the hill,” he said.

Pastor Paul Downing, who has been with the church for four years, said the church has lasted so long due to the commitment of the members. “They’re committed not only to coming together to have a worship home, but also to serve the community,” Downing said.

One of the ways St. Paul’s serves the community is through feeding the hungry. The church does a soup kitchen twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays, feeding around 40 to 60 people each time. They do these soup kitchens through the Welcome Friends organization, which is an interfaith not-for-profit corporation serving the Port Jefferson area. Through Welcome Friends, each day of the week a different place of worship hosts the soup kitchen. “People have a place to go each and everyday to get a good meal,” Downing said. Their devotion to the community can be attributed to their motto “God’s work, our hands,” Prosser said, adding, “and sometimes our feet.”

In an obvious contrast to the busy road it resides on today, the area around St. Paul’s used to be very rural, causing the church to stand out. According to John Sehlmeyer, the vice president of the council, the church became a hub to the area’s residents. “Everything that happened here — whether somebody had a baby, somebody got married or somebody visited from out of town — it made the newspapers,” Sehlmeyer said. “All of the community always came and attended these events.”

A struggle St. Paul’s has been trying to overcome is the decline in millennial church attendance. They are constantly putting forth initiatives, including an outreach to Stony Brook University to promote how close the church is to the railroad station. “We’re hoping to see some kind of a rebirth where people start valuing attendance,” Reiersen said. He sees a potential rise in attendance with Generation Z.

Downing sees raising the attendance as more of a challenge than a struggle. “It’s just like when the church started, when you have this curiosity and this message of hope that Christ brings to the world that we are part of,” Downing said. “That’s exciting to be able to share that.”

Noting the division in politics, Downing strives to bridge the gap of differences with his faith. While he realizes that ethnically the Port Jefferson area has little diversity, he has noticed there are clear divisions in points of view, talents and gifts. Growing up in a congregation in Queens, “diversity was obvious and plentiful,” Downing said. “This congregation has taught me that diversity takes a lot of forms.”

As their 100th anniversary nears, the congregation has a lot planned for the celebration. “We got a theme during the year for the 100th year anniversary: ‘Let’s not look 100 years old,’” Sehlmeyer said. “We’ve done an awful lot in terms of upgrading the church to make it’s appearance nice.”

Downing is also incorporating what he calls “flashback services” into Sunday Worship. Working their way back to 1917, each Sunday the service will be based on what is was like 10 years prior. “We just did 1967 so we used the hymnal liturgy from that time with all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and the older version of the scripture,” Downing said. Going along with the decade theme, there have been film screenings every few weeks in which a popular film is screened from that decade at the church. In August, they will end with a screening of “WALL-E.”

In September, they have a weekend planned to celebrate the past 100 years, in which all current and past members are invited. It will start with a wine and cheese reception on Friday, Sept. 22. On the Saturday, they will attend a dinner dance at the Polish Hall in Port Jefferson Station and will finish up the festivities with a special 100th anniversary worship service on the Sunday, with Bishop Robert Rimbo officiating. Rimbo is the bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “It’s a pretty action-packed weekend,” Reiersen said.

The longevity of the church can be accredited to the member’s dedication to it’s mission: Bringing the word of God to both the churched and the un-churched. “The thing you got to avoid is controversy, because in any organization there are troublemakers. You just kind of have to have a leadership that can recognize that, and remember what the mission is,” Reiersen said. “It’s a rule for any organization: Don’t sweat the small stuff and stick to going after the mission.”

Members of Soulfarm perform for the crowd. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

The eighth annual Jewish Summer Festival at West Meadow Beach Aug. 9 brought together members of the North Shore Jewish community for a night of family fun.

Chabad at Stony Brook hosted the event that is co-directed by Rabbi Motti and Chaya Grossbaum. The rabbi said the festival was originally organized to celebrate Jewish pride and community, and like the Chabad, is open to all members of all sects of the religion. He estimated about 500 people attended this year’s festival including local residents outside of the Jewish community.

A child walks around with a face painting from Rainbow Rosie. Photo by Seth Berman/Rapid Shutter Photograph

“We focus on what unites us not what divides us,” Rabbi Grossbaum said.

This was the second year Jennifer O’Brien from Hauppauge attended the festival with her family, she said, and it was the first time she brought her 16-month-old son Everett to a Jewish cultural event. She enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces at the festival after attending other Chabad events this past year.

She said she admired the efforts of the Grossbaums and Rabbi Cohen of the Chabad regarding the festival and the religious organization. 

“No matter what your Jewish affiliation is or how much or little you are involved, the Grossbaum and Cohen families welcome everyone with such an overwhelming warm and loving sense of acceptance and togetherness,” O’Brien said. “They go above and beyond in all of their community efforts and take pride in building relationships with each individual and family.”

Tracey Mackey of Port Jefferson Station said she was unable to attend last year but her family did. She said after hearing about it she was looking forward to seeing friends and meeting new families. She said her daughter Ava, 11, helped out at the Chabad’s camp this summer and the children were so happy to see her.

Uri from St. James enjoys some cotton candy. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“It was so wonderful because they had camp all summer, and they worked together on their crafts, and it was kind of a celebration that you get to see someone you really created a bond with,” Mackey said.

Mackey echoed O’Brien’s sentiments about the feel of the festival and the Chabad.

“That’s what Rabbi Motti likes to do — bring everyone together as a community,” Mackey said, “And when you’re there, you know you belong.”

The evening included performances by the popular Jewish rock band Soulfarm, and the high-energy group Industrial Rhythm. Children were able to get their faces painted and play in a bounce house, and kosher barbecue, cotton candy and ices were served. Mackey said the event was perfectly timed to witness the sunset at the beach. Grossbaum was grateful for the various local businesses that sponsored the festival and  “without them we would not be able to produce such a beautiful event.”

The rabbi said he hoped attendees left the festival feeling inspired and empowered about the future of the Jewish community on the North Shore of Suffolk County.

“We’re a minority but when we all come together it gives everyone a sense of pride and a sense of positivity that we could be a more active community while living here,” Grossbaum said.

A girl plays on a drum. Photo by Seth Berman/Rapid Shutter Photograph

File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Suffolk County Police 6th Squad detectives are investigating a motor vehicle crash that seriously injured a construction worker in Coram Aug. 14.

Gloria Taylor was holding a sign to slow or stop traffic on the east side of northbound Route 112, which was under construction, when a 2000 Isuzu box truck traveling northbound drifted to the right near Pauls Path at about noon. The truck struck Taylor, 55, of Islip. She was transported to Stony Brook University Hospital in critical condition.

The driver of the Isuzu, Dominick Sconzo, 19, of Selden, was not injured. A safety check was conducted on the truck, owned by Casa Piazza, located at 509 North Bicycle Path in Port Jefferson Station.

Blighted buildings and empty storefronts in upper Port Jefferson could soon be addressed through various grants. File photo by Kevin Redding

With a master plan in place to breathe new life into the area, Port Jefferson Village is pushing for millions in state funds to give some long overdue Uptown Funk to residents.

The village, in an effort to get moving on much discussed upper Port Jefferson revitalization, has recently applied for a combined state grant of $9.46 million through the Consolidated Funding Application — $7.06 million from Local Waterfront Revitalization Program and $2.4 million from Empire State Development.

Initially hoping to secure up to $10.5 million through New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, Port Jeff lost out on that grant last week when Hicksville officials received the funds to renovate and revitalized their own downtown area.

However, Port Jefferson village officials applied for funding through the state’s Consolidated Funding Application so they could still get agency funding individually by project for several desired initiatives in the area surrounding the Long Island Rail Road station in what’s commonly called upper Port.

If awarded, the funds will contribute to the village’s face-lifts along the intersection of Perry Street and Main Street and about a block north of the train station.

The multiphased project known as Uptown Funk has been building momentum since 2014 and aims to transform blighted properties, better connect residents to work, make the streets more walkable and vibrant and provide an overall better place to live, especially for younger residents, according to Village Mayor Margot Garant.

At the beginning of 2017, the village secured $500,000 from Empire State Development through Restore New York Communities Initiative to help demolish a blighted building, and a grant of $250,000 from Suffolk County as part of its Jumpstart program for transit-based improvements around the train station.

Garant said the latest ask for millions of dollars is for good reason. The pending grant is considerably more money than the village has received in the past, though the mayor said she feels it is necessary due to a drastic change in Port Jefferson’s marketplace.

“[Rail] Realty built 76 brand new apartment units last year that got rented out in lickity split time — housing is desperately needed,” Garant said in a phone interview. “We only put in for $500,000 last year because we weren’t ready. Now we are.”

The mayor said among those who will benefit from the project are Stony Brook University students, who are just a train ride away.

“Those people need housing, those students need a place to be, they need a sense of community,” she said. “We’re ready with shovel in the ground projects and I’m hoping we get a piece of the pie. I need the state to recognize that these projects are ready to go.”

On the long list of projects in the upper Port master plan, Garant said, are new gateways, parking lot renovations, major streetscape improvements, blight studies and the implementation of new sidewalks and streetlights. Many of these are currently underway using the previously awarded funds.

“Whatever they give me, I’m going to put to work,” Garant said. “One of the reasons I decided to run again for my fifth term was I wanted to see the planning we’ve done, the money we’ve spent and the effort the community has put into planning this come to fruition. We’re right on the cusp of that.”

The village’s grant writing manager Nicole Christian, of HB Solutions LLC, said all the village’s projects aligned with the requirement set by the region, and she said she believes the village stands a good chance of at least getting partial funding.

“I think Uptown Funk is going to skyrocket this village through its stratosphere,” Christian said. “It’s a destination for young people, families, tourists, I think it’s a fantastic investment for the community. And I think the state knows that too.”

She said the application is currently under agency review and they should have an answer by November.

By Desirée Keegan

Suffolk County Police 6th Squad detectives are investigating a motor vehicle crash that killed a motorcyclist in Centereach at 9:47 p.m. July 10.

James Conner was driving a 2014 Mini Cooper southbound on North Washington Avenue in Centereach when his vehicle struck a motorcycle. The motorcycle was operated by John Greehy, who was traveling east on Gould Road, when he ran a stop sign at the corner of North Washington Avenue and Gould Road.

Conner, 50, of Centereach was transported by Centereach Fire Department to Stony Brook University Hospital for treatment of minor injuries and released. Greehy, 27, of Port Jefferson Station, was pronounced dead at the scene by the physician assistant medical examiner.

Both vehicles were impounded for safety checks. The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information is asked to call the 6th Squad at 631-854-8652.

Subway on Old Town Road in Port Jefferson Station was robbed July 6, according to SCPD. Image from Google Maps

A Subway sandwich shop on Old Town Road in Port Jefferson Station was robbed Thursday night, July 6, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.

“Suffolk County Police 6th Squad detectives are investigating a robbery that occurred in Port Jefferson Station this evening,” Assistant Police Commissioner Justin Meyers said in an email through a police spokesperson. “A man robbed the Subway located 681 Old Town Road at approximately 5:45 p.m. The man fled with cash. The investigation is continuing.”

File photo

A resident of a Port Jefferson Station group home intentionally lit a fire at the facility, located on Poplar Street, during the afternoon July 3, according to the Suffolk County Police Department. A 6th Precinct Police Officer extinguished the fire.

Sixth Precinct Patrol Officer Joanna Westrack responded to call of a house fire at a congregate care facility, which is operated by Options for Community Living, in Port Jeff Station, at about 1:25 p.m. Within minutes, Westrack arrived on scene and observed smoke emanating from the second floor of the home. As smoke streamed from the door, she entered the room and used a fire extinguisher to put out a mattress that was fully engulfed by fire. There were no injuries to staff or residents of the home.

Arson Section detectives, personnel from the Terryville Fire Department, and a Fire Marshal from Brookhaven Town also responded. An investigation by Arson detectives revealed the fire was intentionally set.

Sheldon Whittingham, 38, a resident of the home, was arrested and charged with second-degree arson. He is being held at the 6th Precinct and is scheduled to be arraigned at First District Court in Central Islip July 4.

Attorney information for Whittingham was not immediately available.

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Community members call for Trump’s impeachment. Photo by Alex Petroski

On the south corner of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station about 100 community members gathered to call for the impeachment of the 45th president of the United States July 2. And after hearing about the demonstration on Facebook, a few dozen of their neighbors assembled on the north corner of the intersection to voice their support for President Donald Trump (R). Though only six lanes of highway and a median separated the two groups, the ideological gulf between protestors and their interpretation of the first six months of the Trump presidency is seemingly growing by the second.

Jim Barr and other pro-Trump community members oppose the rally. Photo by Alex Petroski

Members of political activist organizations The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising and others organized the Impeach Trump rally. The groups have been involved in organizing similar rallies since Inauguration Day Jan. 20 to speak out about Trump’s position on climate change, women’s health care rights, nuclear proliferation and to commemorate International Women’s Day. To coincide with The Women’s March on Washington D.C. Jan. 21, a sister march boasting attendance in the thousands took place at the same corner.

The march calling for Trump’s impeachment Sunday had a different feel from previous events for two major reasons — a sizable group of Trump supporters gathered across the street to oppose the rally, and attendance was substantially lower compared to not only the massive Jan. 21 event, but to all others organized by the groups of late as well.

Organizers from the two groups on the south corner pointed to the holiday weekend as an explanation for the waning number of attendees, rather than a potential decrease in enthusiasm for the Trump “resistance.”

Though citizens on both corners acknowledged the heated political discourse is having an overall negative effect on the country, neither seemed ready to concede any ground.

“The country has never been divided to the extent it is now, and the anger level is very, very high,” said Bill McNulty during the event, a member of the North Country Peace Group who has had a political radio talk show at Stony Brook University for 25 years. When asked how a rally calling for Trump’s ouster days before July 4th might contribute to that divide, McNulty suggested supporters of the president are among those most likely to suffer from his policies, especially regarding health care and the environment.

Community members call for Trump’s impeachment. Photo by Alex Petroski

McNulty admitted discussion of Trump’s impeachment is premature due to the Republican majority in the House and Senate, and because investigations regarding possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian are still in the early stages.

“What we have to do now is draw together these different organizations and focus on a couple of particular points that will enable us to really throw a fright into these politicians,” he said, also conceding political opposition from his corner would be productive if focused on specific issues, though he didn’t back down from his belief Trump is not fit for office.

Across Route 347, most attendees declined to answer questions. Sean Bergin, a Ronkonkoma resident explained his motivation for occupying the north corner.

“They are out here actively trying to undermine a dually elected president,” he said, gesturing across the street. “The Democrat policies that they put forth have flooded Long Island’s streets with blood-thirsty gangsters in the form of MS13, and cheap heroin, which is killing our kids by the dozens and the hundreds every goddamn day. None of the media has the guts to point at Barack Obama’s failed immigration policies as the cause of that. We have a president now who’s putting a stop to that, and those people are terrified because they know it’s the end of the Democrat party.”

Jim Barr, a Selden resident, Trump supporter and President of Long Island ABATE, a group dedicated to the training and education of American bikers, said the source of the anger across the street is Hillary Clinton’s loss in the election.

“This is the United States of America — key word ‘united,’” he said. “We’re all supposed to be on the same page. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. That’s the last person I would have voted for, but I didn’t cry when he got elected.”

Barr admitted he wished someone would screen the president’s tweets, but said he’s happy Trump hasn’t changed from his demeanor during the campaign.

Sound Beach resident Noreen Morrison, a member of Long Island Rising, explained the thinking behind a July 4th-weekend rally calling for the impeachment of a sitting president, and the possibility it could heat up political rhetoric.

“It’s the only thing we have available to us, peaceful protest,” she said. “I don’t want to see this country come to armed conflict between political factions.”

Though there has been chatter on the Democrat side, no substantial move towards impeachment has accumulated to this point.

File photo

By Desirée Keegan

The Suffolk County Police Department Highway Patrol Bureau, assisted by the New York State Police, arrested 14 people and seized one vehicle during an overnight sobriety checkpoint in Port Jefferson Station June 30.

Police officers from the SCPD highway patrol were assisted by New York State Troopers in conducting a sobriety checkpoint at the corner of Route 112 and Hallock Avenue. The checkpoint was conducted as part of an on-going July 4th holiday enforcement operation for the prevention of injuries and fatalities associated with driving while ability impaired by alcohol and drugs.  A total of 716 vehicles went through the checkpoint.

The following people were charged with driving while intoxicated:

  • Sandra Ventre, 50, of Port Jefferson
  • Robert Paddock, 28, of Stony Brook
  • John Young, 40, of Centereach
  • Jeffrey Gerlin, 57, of Centereach
  • Megan Dichtl, 26, of Wading River

The following was charged with driving while ability impaired by drugs:

  • Nicholas Cappelletti, 31, of Centereach

The following was charged with driving while ability impaired by a combined influence of alcohol and drugs and seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance:

  • Justin Maldonado, 24, of New Jersey

The following was charged with seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance:

  • Justin Wienckowski, 23, of Commack

Ventre’s vehicle was seized due to a prior DWI conviction. The individuals were be arraigned at First District Court in Central Islip July 1. Additionally, six individuals were arrested for unlawful possession of marijuana and issued field appearance tickets and will be arraigned on a later date.

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