For many years now, the Interfaith Clergy Group of Forest Hills, of which I am a proud member, has sponsored an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. Historically, the service has rotated among the participating houses of worship. For reasons of logistics and space availability, this year’s service was held in our sanctuary here at the Forest Hills Jewish Center for the second consecutive year.
For as long as I can recall, this service has attracted somewhere between two and three hundred people. Two synagogues are represented, three Catholic churches, one Lutheran church, one Congregationalist Protestant and one Episcopalian. It doesn’t take more than a moment to notice the two glaring absences. There are no representatives of the considerable Orthodox community in Forest Hills, which on ideological grounds would not participate in this kind of endeavor, and no Imams, either. There are no mosques in Forest Hills, but there are many, many Muslims in Flushing. Aside from this being a neighborhood project, finding the Imam who would “speak the language” of interfaith dialogue in a manner with which we would all be comfortable is a challenge we have not yet been able to meet. Our program is diminished by both of these absences. I still hold out hope.
But even so, we have continued to nurture this service. It is, invariably, a program that leaves those everyone feeling wonderfully enriched and spiritually nourished.
This past Sunday, as the service was about to begin, I gathered to attending clergy in my office for a pre-service moment of reflection and prayer. It was, as always, a pure and sweet chance to appreciate what we have here in Forest Hills, and in our lives.
And then, the most amazing thing happened.
As we walked into our very large sanctuary to begin the service and looked out at the crowd, we were completely overwhelmed by the number of people in attendance. As opposed to the more common number of two to three hundred people, there were somewhere in the vicinity of seven to eight hundred people filling the pews. I stood to welcome those in attendance, and could not believe what I was seeing. It looked like the High Holidays more than a humble if sweet Interfaith Service.
As the great medieval commentator Rashi might have said, “Ein Hamikra Hazeh Omer Elah Dar’sheini”; This text clearly demands interpretation! How did we almost triple the attendance this year? We take no ads in the papers. Each participating congregation advertises the event in its synagogue bulletin and weekly announcements. Where did all these people come from?
To me, there is only one answer. Those people in attendance were a response to the anxiety of the times in which we live. People are craving a place and a context within which to feel better about themselves and the world, which seems to be becoming ever more terrifying by the day. Bringing people together across faith lines to show our common resolve to live a life of meaning and consequence despite the ever-present threat of terror is the very best thing we might do to help people cope.
I know this is true because as I delivered my opening words of welcome, I told those in attendance that our very presence there together made a powerful statement of our desire, need, and resolve to reclaim some semblance of peace of mind. It didn’t matter what faith community we represented, or whether we were in a synagogue or a church. As I said these words, virtually every head that I could see was nodding up and down in agreement. Particularly as we approach Thanksgiving, acknowledging the myriad blessings of our lives is the best way to be reminded of the fundamental order that governs our lives. And once we reclaim that sense of order and balance, the world becomes just a little less scary.
Without a doubt, of the many organizational involvements and commitments that I engage in as the rabbi of a large urban synagogue, none is more precious to me than this humble Interfaith Service, which is, I would say, a little less humble than it was last year. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, may we all feel nurtured and supported by the communities in which we live, and may we celebrate the blessings of family, faith and community in peace and security.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.