Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wednesday Night in Greenpoint: Thanksgiving Interfaith Service at Congregation Ahavas Israel

Approaching our seventh decade on this planet, one of the fully-absorbed lessons from our atheist Brooklyn grandfather and great-grandfather is that it’s nearly always a mistake to enter a synagogue.

But hope and community triumphed over experience and ancestral wisdom last night as we took the B-43 bus to the corner of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues and instead of heading for the marquee of Starbucks like a sensible person, turned around and headed for Noble Street, where the 2008 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Thanksgiving Interfaith Service was scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

We weren't sorry we did. It is Thanksgiving, after all.

The service, now in its eighth year, brings together local Muslim, Christian and Jewish congregations on Thanksgiving Eve, rotating venues among the different houses of worship, including St. Stanislaus Church, Reformed Church of Greenpoint, Greenpoint Islamic Center, St. Cecilia’s Church, St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, Ahavas Israel, Our Lady of Carmel Roman Catholic Church, St. John’s Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church of the Messiah and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension.

In the summer we often walk up Lorimer Street to its Noble end, but had never noticed the 104-year-old Ahavas Israel synagogue before, nor its next-door neighbor, another historic shul in somewhat worse repair that belongs to the congregation, which was founded in 1893 – by German Jews, from what we could tell, although the architecture of the sanctuary seemed kind of Moorish, or at least Sephardic, to us.

We traded in our Mike Nesmith wool hat for a yarmulke (at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix, where we worked in 2005-06, these were always called “kippahs” and the word yarmulke was verboten; the boys hated to wear them, whatever they were called, and the dean chastised us more than once for not stopping our students from “playing with their kippahs in class”) and found a side pew in the back.

Immediately an octogenarian across the aisle sized us up as a prospective temple member, and we took advantage of his naiveté to ask him some questions. Yes, he said, it was a pretty small congregation – we’d been unaware that there ever was a Greenpoint Jewish community – but no, it wasn’t filled with old people but mostly members in their thirties and forties, “the people who’ve revitalized the neighborhood.” The old man said he usually ran the Sabbath services since their old rabbi died in 2007, although they’re looking for a replacement.

The synagogue’s president, Naomi Wolfensohn, our new friend told us, was a lawyer and daughter of Sir James Wolfensohn, the financier: “She’s helped us a lot.” The synagogue obviously has seen better days but they’re obviously spending money trying to renovate it. (Getting the mimeograph machine out of the downstairs men’s bathroom might be a start.)

Once we determined that this was still an Orthodox congregation, we told the man across the aisle that Hebrew was gibberish to us and if we ever did go to a synagogue, which we wouldn’t any more than our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents did – which is to say when kosher pigs fly – it would be a Reform synagogue where things were in English. The old man protested that we’d probably find their service in Hebrew enjoyable.

Maybe, we replied, but if we wanted to spend Saturday mornings listening to a language we couldn’t understand, we’d probably just watch the cartoons on Channel 47. He nodded and never spoke to us again, even though we politely added that we hadn’t like the Roman Catholic Mass when it was still in Latin, either.

The program began with Naomi Wolfensohn welcoming all of us from various churches, etc., and talked about this Thanksgiving being a challenging time for the nation and the community. She acknowledged by name the ministers and priests who were in attendance, as well as Assemblymember Joseph Lentol and Jerry Esposito from Community Board 1.

The Greenpoint Reformed Church’s pastor, Ann Kanfield, was the first clergy member to speak to the crowd of over 100 people. Her church is nearby on Milton Street, and its congregation includes one old-timer who “grew up in the congregation” who, upon hearing that this service would be at Ahavas Israel, excitedly said, “We worshipped there!” Back in 1942, it turned out, when their congregation determined that the number of Reformed Protestants in Greenpoint was getting smaller, they moved to their new church and sold the old one on Kent Street, and before the new building could be occupied, they temporarily held Sunday services at this shul. “So, on Thanksgiving eve, we’d like to say thanks for the hospitality,” Rev. Kanfield said.

She went on to say that we should respond to these challenging times alluded to by Ms. Wolfensohn, should bring not lamentations but with a recognition that they’re times of opportunity. She talked about “lean times” and “the gift of desperation” and the Reformed Church’s soup kitchen and that afternoon’s pre-Thanksgiving dinner and the help received from other neighborhood religious leaders and congregations.

The priest from the Episcopal Church of the Ascension spoke next, quoting from a blog post from one of his colleagues in Atlanta, Wendy at I Are A Writer, who said that all of us should do a five-minute-then-pencils-down thankfulness list, and then recorded what she herself was grateful for, like sandwiches, her olivewood cross and her “stupid brilliant brothers.”

Charles Chesovich (we think that's his surname), the director of liturgy from Our Lady of Carmel (“some of you may know us from our little feast”) came to the podium next and talked about Christian Unity Week and the event that they usually had the day after or before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He discussed the five implications for believing in God; we believe we counted more than five that he mentioned, but may have mistallied after we heard “coming to know His greatness and majesty.”

He then recited an Iroquois prayer giving thanks to “our mother the earth. . . and rivers and streams” and more.

Fuad (we didn't catch his last name), the spokesman for the Greenpoint Islamic Center, started by saying “Sholom Alecheim” and “Salaam Allahkim” to which the audience responded in turn. He said that one of the Center’s goals was to participate in community affairs and that after this year, due to overseas travel, he will be giving up his role as spokesman in favor of the speaker he introduced, the imam’s wife, Sister Noor (again, we didn't catch her last name).

After apologizing for her speaking skills as “the new kid on the block” – she actually was the most eloquent speaker of the evening and the only one with a genuine Brooklyn accent – Sister Noor told an Arab parable about an ancient imam’s advice to someone asking how to lift the burden from his shoulders. She also quoted from Sartre’s Huis Clos – “Hell is other people” – and sardonically remarked that we sometimes don’t realize that we are “someone else’s hell.”

Naomi Wolfensohn then introduced the keynote speaker, the celebrated Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah on the Upper West Side, a rabbinical school that “subscribes to a modern, open approach to Orthodox Judaism.”

We’re familiar with Rabbi Weiss from our Phoenix colleague, Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, one of his graduates. Rabbi Weiss is also national president of AMCHA, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a “modern and open Orthodox” congregation in the Bronx.

He spoke about his congregation getting involved in interfaith events following the slaying of Amadou Diallo and its hosting of numerous interfaith gatherings throughout the year, such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event with the Green Pastures Baptist Church choir. “How beautiful, how wonderful it is, sisters and brothers,” the rabbi said, “to come together.”

He also spoke about how often we forget to say the two words “thank you” and how all the Abrahamic religions share a belief that every human being is created in the image of God. Then he started singing – the rabbi is definitely what back in the day we used to call a “listener” – “Lean on Me” as two floppy-haired moppets, boys about 6 or 7, frolicked wildly in the balcony (the mechitzah, for the segregated women congregants).

Rabbi Weiss said that “religious coercion” is an oxymoron and that the U.S. is the most religious developed nation because we have strict separation of church and state and have the first amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. So he gave his thanks for the United States, for the troops and their families, and then for “spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren,” et al.

Then again with the singing, this time “I Believe.” And after that a song we didn’t know:
This is the house
The house of the Lord
This is the house
The house of the Lord
I wish the best for you

Which engendered a lot of swaying on the rabbi’s part and his asking others from the different denominations to join him onstage with their arms around their shoulders and swaying. Then the audience joined in. Luckily there was no one else in our pew, and when a young lady in the pew in front looked hopefully, we shook our head and said, “We don’t do that.”

(We actually did say “we” – showing the sad result of an unfortunate early decision to write our furshlugginer blog in the first person plural and our determination not to waver in our creative writing professors’ rule that one never breaks point of view.)

As we watched everyone swaying with their arms around each other’s shoulders, we were reminded of why our Grandpa Herb and his father Zayde Isidore always felt no good could come from religious services. We hate “kumbaya” too.

Rabbi Weiss said he saw people do the same thing – link arms and sway, that is – when he watched four Latino rock guitarists play “This Is the House” at Pope John Paul II’s appearance at Yankee Stadium. We were reminded of why our ancestors always were Dodgers and Mets fans.

Anyway, after Rabbi Weiss thanked everyone in the universe, including the dark matter, there was a short silent prayer led by one of the priests, and Naomi Wolfensohn apologized for a mistake in the program that said that light refreshments would be served downstairs after the service. “Actually, Jews never have light refreshments,” she said. As we saw the thick pita bread with gobs of hummus and sour cream and loads of chocolate bobka passed around later, we understood religious truth.

Anyway, it was a nice event, enjoyed the mostly older crowd with dragged-along kids, none of whom had as much fun as the two boys running wild during most of the service.

Today is Thanksgiving and we’re grateful for everything. Truly. Isn’t life wonderful?! Especially when the G train doesn’t take too long to get you home.