At Home in Forest Hills
10/30/2009 - 08:36
James Besser

The title of this blog entry is an intentional riff on the charming and wonderful  At Home in Mitford series by southern author Jan Karon.  The protagonist of the series, the unflappable Father Tim, is the endlessly patient pastor of a small church in a small town.  The books- each in its own slow and magical way- display both the charms and the challenges of the clerical life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business.  Father Tim spends virtually his entire pastoral career in Mitford, and the town and its citizens are in his bones and his soul- a feeling that few clergy people are privileged to have.

Earlier today, I had a conversation with Hillary Larson, a reporter for this newspaper who regularly writes on the different Jewish communities that are a part of the Jewish Week's readership.  We talked at some length about Queens (one of those "outer boroughs" as Manhattan denizens love to describe it), and how its Jewish community has changed over the almost thirty years that I've been a part of it here at the Forest Hills Jewish Center.

As I hung up on my conversation with Hillary, I reflected on the longevity of my tenure here is this community, and just how much my own life has "changed," or evolved, in parallel process to the community itself.

Notwithstanding for the moment whatever demographic trends have affected the community itself, I regularly find myself in the position of officiating at the weddings of men and women whom I named when I was new to Forest Hills. 

I have, by this point, shared both simchas and sad moments with countless synagogue members, and our relationships have a quasi-family feeling to them.  My four children were born into this community, and knew no other home growing up.  No matter where their future lives will take them, (only one of them still lives at home), Forest Hills will always be their "home" frame of reference, an anomaly among rabbinic families.  It is extraordinarily rare for a rabbi to stay in one community throughout a career.  Most change jobs at least once or twice, but Forest Hills and I have been together for so long that it's hard to imagine being somewhere else.

The truth is, of course, that as Forest Hills has been changing, so have I.  As the demographic changes that are so much a part of today's Queens were beginning to take hold, so was I changing.  And so was our synagogue, in its own way, evolving into a different version of itself.  Everything and everyone change, especially over as long a period of time as twenty-eight years.  The only really significant question is whether or not the changes are readily apparent to the naked eye, or whether they're more subtle and nuanced.

My conversation with Hillary caused me to pause and reflect on just how complicated a question she was asking, and how much this community has become my "Mitford."  Change is inevitable, but as Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is little that is new under the sun.  The charm of my little Mitford is that no matter how different it might be than it was when I came here, it still feels like home… a welcome realization!  That hasn't changed, and probably never will.

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