As it has every year throughout its more than eighty years of existence, the Conservative synagogue I serve- Forest Hills Jewish Center, in Queens, New York- held its annual Journal Dinner-Dance last weekend. The event is a major source of revenue for the synagogue, but also, of equal importance, a much-cherished opportunity for our members to be together socially and celebrate the community that we so cherish.
To create the evening, the leadership of the synagogue selects a guest, or guests, of honor, to be the focus of the celebration. Once again, because it is a fundraising dinner, there is, in all candor, the hope that the honorees will help make the evening a financial success. But the truth is that, from my experience, the dinner-dance affords those whom we honor the rare opportunity to be the exclusive focus of attention that evening. Even more importantly, if affords the synagogue the opportunity to publicly thank them for their efforts on behalf of the community.
This year, we had two honorees- three really. One was a beloved teacher and administrator in our wonderful Nursery School program for more than twenty years, Iris Chomsky, who has touched countless young lives and families and introduced them to a warm and welcoming Jewish extended family. Our other honorees were a married couple, William and Robyn Cimbol. long-time active and involved members of the synagogue, who have been models of sustained commitment and volunteer work for the synagogue. Even after their two lovely daughters had grown up and aged out of the community, Robyn continued working tirelessly on behalf of our Religious School, and William was involved in our House and Adult Education committees. They are wonderful people, and also good friends.
So- so far it sounds like just another synagogue dinner-dance, right? A familiar template for a fundraising/social event, not at all unique in the Jewish world. I agree… but here’s what made it different.
Our honoree from the Nursery School and her lovely husband are long-time members of the neighboring Young Israel of Forest Hills. In fact, he was the President of the Young Israel for six years, and they remain deeply committed to their synagogue. Their social circle is largely within the Young Israel community, and though Forest Hills Jewish Center is a beloved professional home for our honoree, her true spiritual home is within Orthodoxy. Along with almost all of the teachers from our Nursery School, also in attendance were a large number of friends from the Young Israel community. Interesting factoid- the child of the Rabbi from the Young Israel attends our Nursery School program!
And, to round out the picture, Robyn Cimbol has, for many years, been the Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy for Congregation Emanu-El in Manhattan, the flagship congregation of Reform Judaism in New York. In attendance at the dinner were the Senior Rabbi of Emanu-El, and quite a few guests from the congregation who came (to Queens, no less!) to celebrate their friend and colleague.
At some point in the evening, our synagogue’s Executive Director came over to me and encouraged me to look around at the people in the room. “Can you see what’s happening here,” she asked? It took me a minute to grasp what she was saying, but then it hit me right between the eyes. What we had in the room was a microcosm of the Jewish community, across denominational lines, enjoying each other’s company, right there in our ballroom…
Trust me when I say that in today’s Jewish world, particularly in New York, it’s hard to produce a content-based, inter-denominational program that brings Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews together, especially in a synagogue setting. Admittedly, we weren’t “davening;” there were no issues of liturgy, mehitzahs, religious authority and the like. We weren’t talking about Israel, or Trump, or any of the other issues which so often make it hard for us to communicate effectively. I’ve had too much experience learning the hard way how difficult it can be to bring us together, and how easy it can be to allow our differences to take over.
But what became so clear the other evening was that, when we weren’t “trying” to produce an inter-denominational evening, it happened organically. As I looked around, it made me sigh wistfully at what our community might look like if we could produce that bonhomie more often- enjoying the sheer pleasure of each other’s company. And it was, indeed, a pleasure to have so many people from outside the metaphorical walls of our synagogue and movement there to celebrate with us.
Well… for this special evening, at least, the words of the Psalmist were realized: Hineh mah tov u’mah na’im, shevet ahim gam yahad… Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity! It was a great night for Forest Hills, and an intuition of what could be a better and healthier future for us all.