From Moscow to Mickey: Living Jewish in the Land of Disney

Today’s world of incredibly fast travel and communication has created improbably jarring segues of time and space. But even given that fact, transitioning from being in Moscow and St. Petersburg one week to Orlando, Florida the next has been, to say the least, a strange adjustment.

Part of the adjustment owed to being in Russia very much as a rabbi, on a UJA-Federation mission, and then in Florida very much as a father and grandfather. My oldest son, recently ordained as a rabbi, moved to Florida just a few weeks ago with his wife and daughter, to assume a rabbinic position at a small synagogue in Southwest Orlando. Orlando is a large city, but the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation is virtually walking distance from Disneyworld. Just a few days before I was walking in Red Square, davening Ma’ariv just a few meters from Lenin’s tomb. And then, it was off one plane and on to another, to a totally other reality in every significant way. From Lenin to the Magic Kingdom…

I am the relatively rare pulpit rabbi who has had one job his entire rabbinic career. I came to Forest Hills straight out of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, to serve as the Assistant Rabbi to the late Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, of blessed memory. As things turned out, when Rabbi Bokser passed away, I stayed on with the community, and ultimately ascended to the senior rabbinic position. Other than moving from an apartment to a house, and from a small office to a much larger one, I have not changed the fundamentals of my professional life.

Whatever the implications of this unusual rabbinic history have been for me personally, there is little doubt that my longevity in Forest Hills has been an extraordinary blessing for my family, and especially for my children. Rabbinic families notoriously suffer from the expected periodic dislocations that come with new professional opportunities. Children have to leave friends and schoolmates behind, and are routinely expected to live in a community where there are relatively few Jews who share their practice of Shabbat, kashrut, and Jewish life. It can be terribly difficult, and, most of all, lonely.

I have no illusions about my children’s upbringing having been immune from the difficulties that often accompany being “PK’s;” what’s known in the vernacular as “Preachers’ Kids.” I’m sure there were days that they wished that they could be invisible, neither better nor worse than anyone else’s children.

But what I do know is that my having stayed in Forest Hills for thirty years gave my children a sense of the American Jewish community that is, to say the least, atypical. Living in the heart of central Queens is, outside of living in Israel or parts of Brooklyn or maybe Teaneck, probably the most intensely Jewish life a person can live here in the United States. We don’t have to worry about whether or not the local supermarket chain sells frozen Empire chicken parts, or whether there are any restaurants under Kosher supervision. We have what can only be called an embarrassment of riches on all those fronts, and our children have grown up knowing that embarrassment of riches as the norm of their lives. The sheer density and diversity of the Jewish community in which we live demands that these services exist, and also gives them the support that they need to flourish.

In the few days that my wife and I visited in Orlando, we could not help but be moved and impressed by the warmth of the synagogue community that was welcoming our son and his family. The Shabbat services were vibrant and inspiring, with lots of children participating, and the rabbi was most impressive on his very first Shabbat on the job (but who’s prejudiced?). It was clear that this was a synagogue anxious for rabbinic leadership, and our son is a rabbi anxious to lead… a perfect match! They are lucky to have each other.

As for the Jewish “comforts of home,” well- it is an important lesson for my son and his family to appreciate the sui generis nature of the New York Jewish community, both for better and for worse. I am sure that there will be moments of missing the readily available plethora of kosher products and eating options, and the Jewish ambience that characterizes a dense Jewish area of settlement.

But I am equally sure that there are satisfactions just as great and in fact probably greater to be found in the sacred work of nurturing and growing a smaller Jewish community. Our son has been given a wonderful opportunity to take an already charming and flourishing synagogue and help it reach the next level, and I know that he sees it that way as well. I look forward to following his work in the days and months to come, and feeling all the appropriate pride. And perhaps most importantly- and this is where the real nachas comes from- I look forward also to learning from what he does.

Gerald C. Skolnik is rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.