In August, 1952, when I was 5 years old, my parents moved our family from 156th Street and the Grand Concourse – in the shadow of Yankee Stadium! – to Far Rockaway in faraway Queens. I lived there until I married in 1970, though for the last eight years I was only a part-time resident (weekends, holidays, and some summers). During the week I stayed in Manhattan where I went to school (MTA, YU, and Columbia Law). But even if I spent more time in “the city,” Far Rockway was home.
After I got married, I visited Far Rockway frequently with my family. We spent almost all High Holidays there until 2005, when my mother, without her beloved spouse for the first time in 65 years, joined us in Teaneck. Indeed, my default for yomim nora’im melodies, liturgy, and customs, and I daresay my kids’ as well, still is Far Rockaway’s.
For many of my generation, Far Rockaway was a wonderful place in which to grow up. I emphasize “many” because when I raved about the 50th elementary school reunion of my special Hebrew Institute of Long Island (HILI) eighth grade class of 1960 and our rosy school and Far Rockaway experiences (“The Memories are Still Green”), my implication that all my friends and classmates shared my memories was properly and promptly corrected (“A Rainbow in Someone’s Cloud”). Clearly, all did not. But many did.
My decades-long personal connection and deep emotional ties to Far Rockaway died with my parents. Indeed, in an article in the Jewish Week (“The Soul of a Shiva House”) in early 2007, shortly after my mother died, I noted that my siblings and I “sat shiva not only for our mother; we sat shiva for both our parents, for our childhood, and for our home.” And an important part of our childhood and home was their location. Nonetheless, I continue to follow Far Rockaway news and events, albeit more dispassionately. And the community and its institutions that I experienced in my later visits and now see from afar are quite different from the ones that nurtured me.
I don’t only mean that the baseball sandlot that occupied so many of my spring weekends and summer days now sports a beit midrash where home plate once stood, or that, like Teaneck, McMansions dot its quiet streets. I’m also not referring to the high-rises overlooking the Atlantic Ocean where our somewhat rundown beach clubs once beckoned us, or that the boardwalk on which we rode our bikes is now concrete rather than, well, boards.
More significantly, HILI no longer occupies its former Seagirt Boulevard campus. Rather, its remaining buildings, and many new ones, are now filled with the students of another wonderful Jewish school – Yeshiva Darchei Torah. However, unlike my alma mater, a coed modern Orthodox yeshiva with a basketball team and high school prom, the newer school is boys-only, with a much more right-wing Jewish ideology and practice. Similarly, my family’s synagogue, the White Shul, was in my youth a leader in the broader Modern Orthodox community. Though still a vibrant center of prayer, Torah learning, and communal activity, it is so from a distinctly “black hat” (make that “sheital wearing” for those in the balcony) perspective.
I’m also thinking of the wonderful Mizrachi HaTza’ir group I attended throughout high school and college, led personally week after week by a dedicated Rabbi Emanuel Rackman. Boys and girls socializing in a wholesome Jewish atmosphere was as much a part of that group’s mission as was learning about Zionism and how to think for ourselves. Such a group no longer fits the mores of this now more strictly sex-separated community.
My hometown has changed. And while I mourn my version’s passing, I understand that change is a critical element for communities no less than people; that change is necessary to meet new challenges and handle new realities.
I thought about this because I’ve recently been thinking about change a lot. Living through a pandemic — where in a little more than twenty months practices previously unthinkable are now part of the quotidian details of life — does that to you. At least it did to me.
I’ve realized that there are different types of pandemic related change. There’s the terrible and permanent change of people, jobs, and businesses lost forever due to this plague. There were the terrible and non-permanent changes of children barred from schools, friends, and camps; of closed shuls, theaters, libraries, concert halls, and museums; of missed vacations, family gatherings marking milestones, and sprawling Shabbat lunches.
There were also the silver lining changes containing losses and gains. For example, we lost the ability to have in-person events like classes, lectures, weddings, and funerals where people could physically interact, exchanging handshakes and hugs. And yet many people, previously unable to join live for distance, health, gender, or other reasons, have gained the ability to participate virtually. Similarly, working from home entailed not being part of a team and meeting co-workers in the flesh; a loss of synergy and collegiality. But many gained decreased commuting time, and increased time with their family. It will take wisdom to process and learn from these changes; to separate losses from gains; to retain, if possible, the lining while eliminating the cloud.
Most difficult is the amorphous change; the change we don’t yet fully understand or know how to deal with. For me, one of those changes is that our shuls, though reopened, are not the same, and I’m not speaking of masks people wear and tents still dotting shul premises — both important and necessary since the pandemic is by no means over.
Rather I’m thinking about the empty seats inside our sanctuary (even considering those davening in the tents). I’m thinking of those who no longer attend; whose children don’t participate in groups; who don’t hear the rabbi’s sermons and shiurim, the bar mitzvah boy’s layning, and the announcements of joys and sorrows; who miss schmoozing with their neighbors during a break in the service or joining afterwards in the community chatter and bonding in front of the shul and at the kiddush. I’m thinking of people unmet, friendships unmade, relationships that will wither and die.
Backyard tent minyanim, as important as they were during the height of the pandemic (and to whose hosts we should be forever grateful), do not create memories like those the White Shul formed for me. And, unlike shuls, they don’t develop and sustain communities.
We therefore must undo this change by introducing different change. Some of those empty seats represent congregants who are dissatisfied with the way shul was; who discovered something meaningful in those months when shuls were closed that they don’t want to give up. It may therefore take more change to bring them back.
Sadly, I’m not smart enough to create the magic bullet to do this in a way that would satisfy both those who returned and those who haven’t. But, as a whole, our community is. Working together — exchanging complaints, suggestions, proposals, ideas, possibilities, and compromises — we’re wise enough to massage our practices, tweak our customs, eliminate outdated behaviors, and incorporate innovations that can return members, and sparkle, to shul, while retaining dignity and tradition.
The inflection point resulting in a different Far Rockaway was a change in demographics. It was either adapt or die, and, following the biblical dictum, that community chose life (Deuteronomy 30:19). We’re experiencing a different inflection point; one of a pandemic that impacted almost every element of our society. But if we learn the right lessons, make the right choices, advocate for and accept the right changes, then we too can choose life — a life of a slightly different though stronger and more vibrant, exciting, and compelling Jewish community and future.