Main Sanctuary-Young Israel of West Hempstead
There is a classic catchy anthem from the successful television sitcom Cheers that I always enjoyed. Some of the words are “where everybody knows your name, and their always glad you came. You want to go where everybody knows your name.” These lyrics poignantly describe a recent special Shabbos celebrated in the community of my youth.
This past Shabbos Nachamu weekend was my first visit to West Hempstead, NY for Shabbos since Thanksgiving weekend 2009. Almost five years had passed since I last spent a Shabbos in my hometown. My parents often visit us in Manhattan on weekends and we occasionally visit them on a Sunday in their home as well. However, as a Rabbi, Saturday is a work day and difficult to get away from my shul. On the occasional weekend off, for various reasons, we sparingly have visited the place of my upbringing. In fact, we have now only visited twice in a period of eight years on shabbos.
There is something very special about returning home. My mind was flooded with all different types of memories that were spurred by different locations in town. On Friday, I was a little hungry and took a drive past the kosher Carvel, Hunkis Pizza and the Chinese restaurant Wing Wan to discern from where I’d grab lunch. These were all places that I’d frequented hundreds of times in my youth as I fely myself transported to a more carefree time in my life. I even ended up ordering pistachio ice cream with orange sorbet, the flavors I always used to enjoy, but hadn’t had for many years.
Friday afternoon, my daughter Anaelle was assigned to sleep in my old room while I was placed in a guest room for shabbos. Anaelle found in my room a portrait of me from my law school graduation in 1999. I looked completely different and it was almost startling to her. I very much enjoyed sharing and explaining this piece of my past with her as well as others that came up over the weekend. I also enjoyed looking over some of my old seforim and other memorabilia.
Friday night, we came to the table for the Shabbos meal. I was supposed to sit in my old chair, immediately to the right of my father. My two-year old son insisted on sitting in that seat. Surprisingly to me, I was a little disappointed. I always sat in that location and it was awkward for me to be sitting elsewhere. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I moved back to my intended location. It had been a long-time since I enjoyed my mother’s meatballs and chicken soup and other delicacies. It felt just like old-times, though I did miss the presence of my two younger brothers.
Shabbos morning was a real treat. I attended the 8:45 am minyan and sat next to my father in my old seat in the main sanctuary. I was warmly greeted by many of my father’s friends. Everybody had gotten a little older, a bit greyer with expanded waistlines, but much was the same as well.
Some of these men have been sitting in the exact same seats for over forty years. The community has evolved and grown significantly from my childhood, but these men are still in their seats carrying on the same conversations with their same friends. There is something very comfortable about nothing changing over so many years. It looked very similar to the 1980’s when I grew up in the community. Although much has changed in their personal lives, the shul experience has remained steady and a constant for them.
I will add that I’m very impressed that this entire group of men comes on time to shul. They might not be the “frummest” group and may break for Kiddush club and certainly schmooze a bit during davening, but I’ve seen much worse behavior in other places. There is a modicum of maturity and respect that comes forth from this group of men I grew up watching. None of them would dare skip the Rabbi’s sermon and they are proud that they are back in time for it each week.
Having grown up with the children of many of these men, there is an amazing warmth and affection that is exhibited toward me. There is a pride in what I have become and that they knew me when. The various banter and joking around over what to call me is also heart-warming. For this group, my first name is the only thing I think I’d ever be comfortable with.
It was also a treat that some of my childhood friends were visiting the neighborhood on this Shabbos. It probably has been at least twenty years since we all visited on the same weekend. Two of them currently live in Israel and it was a real joy to see them back in the old “hood.” It must also be a “nachas” for the community to see what we have all gone on to accomplish in our unique fields.
The most disappointing part of Shabbos was that the Rabbi was away on vacation. Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer Shlita is one of my rabbinic hero’s. West Hempstead has produced many talmedi chachamim and incredible contributors to the Jewish community over the years. Much of that success is due in no small part to his quiet demeanor and amazing presence as a role model to many of us as we grew up.
He was a bit of an enigma in certain ways. We didn’t grow up in his home or have Shabbos meals with him, but he was a unique personality. I know he didn’t sleep much, but he always exuded warmth, care and concern and he always had words that made you feel bigger than you actually were. He also was a Torah giant. You just don’t find that level of scholarship and practical knowledge in the American rabbinate these days.
I don’t see or get to speak to Rabbi Kelemer often enough and it was disappointing to miss him on this visit. I particularly enjoyed his overly effusive welcome last time I visited and would have to get along without the ego-boost this weekend. Admittedly, as a Rabbi on my own vacation, I certainly appreciated his time away as beneficial to him and his family and certainly well deserved.
I did enjoy watching the new Assistant Rabbi, Rabbi Josh Goller lead the community in his place. Rabbi Goller was a peer of my youngest brother and also grew up in our community. The younger rabbi exhibited a good sense of humor and much potential and dynamism. He certainly is fortunate to observe one of the masters of the trade up-close and to help lead an amazing diverse community of various ages.
After shul, I walked around the corner and attended a mini-kiddush at the home of Alan & Cookie Greene. I used to babysit their kids when I was in high school and it was a treat to visit their home and enjoy some cholent and good scotch. Their oldest son, who recently married, would often frequent my shul on the upper west side. To me, the Greene’s represent the best of where I grew up. Warm and welcoming, we spoke about their kids and reminisced about the past. Alan even joked that I’m still living off the baby-sitting money he used to pay me. Admittedly, he used to pay me quite well.
The most poignant part of the weekend was perusing the old albums. We snuck a peek at my bar mitzvah album and noticed a few interesting things. Firstly, my daughter enjoyed seeing her current principal at Manhattan Day School, Rabbi Mordechai Besser in attendance at my celebration. She didn’t recognize him at all, but I explained he was my princpal when I was about her age and beyond.
It was sad to see how many people from the album were no longer amongst the living. I hold so many memories of these special people who contributed friendship to my family and look so vibrant and alive in those pictures. Almost thirty years have passed since that event and this sad feeling in reminiscing is of course to be expected.
Sunday morning, I went to minyan and conversed with Dr. David Shatz, a renowned Jewish philosopher and friend of my family after davening. He walked me to my home across the street from shul where we stood for a long while continuing the conversation. I was reminded of the many talks I had with friends in front of my parents’ home about shidduchim, job opportunities, career paths and other things that I contemplated in my earlier days. Sure enough, when I finally came inside, my mother remarked that she remembered how that was “my spot.”
I then decided to take a walk and invited my almost eight-year-old daughter to join me. I took her to Halls pond where we performed tashlich each year. As we walked around, I explained to her how the entire community would converge from different directions to attend. The best part was when she “tried out” a new park she discovered at the pond that she hoped to visit on her next trip to her grandparents house.
I then took her to West Hempstead public high school for a walk around the track. I explained how I would often play tennis or basketball at this location as she listened with interest. She also shared with me that “you can’t turn a city girl into a suburban girl.” I just chuckled at her candor and insight.
Going home is something so very necessary. No matter how far I have travelled in life, it is crucial for me to remember my roots, where I originally emanated from and am a product of. It was also a wonderful opportunity to share this experience with some of my children. In truth, the very best part was being so welcomed. To return home and to be made to feel that you are missed and appreciated. West Hempstead is a unique place. It is primarily middle-class and it doesn’t have any airs about it. It is a Torah-true community with good priorities, homey and comfortable and it was extraordinary to come in touch with that feeling again. I’m going to try to cut down the time elapsed until my next visit!!