Monday, January 22, 2007

A Rabbi Who Isn't An Optimist

A story on The Rabbi With Little to Do.


RABBI BRIAN KENT has been predicting for hours that the weather will improve. At 4:20 p.m. he decides, one last time, to push open one of the tall glass doors to his synagogue and poke his head out to peek at the skies. He gazes at deep sidewalk puddles and watches the cars splash by. Quarter-size raindrops fall from the gray sky.

“I’m not optimistic,” he says in his thin Brooklyn accent. “These people can barely walk in the first place. They’ll never make it in the rain.” He is referring to his congregation, none of whose members have yet appeared.

It turns out the rabbi is right. In a moment of total silence, when cars cease to pass and the nearby No. 7 subway train is back on its way into Manhattan, he closes his eyes and listens for the people he hopes will finally show up for the inaugural 4 p.m. Interfaith Healing Service he has planned. There are none. The service is over before it begins.

Rabbi Kent, 43, is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, a Conservative synagogue on 37th Avenue and 77th Street that, like many houses of worship in changing communities, is on its last legs. Since 2002 he has served a community that now has only a little over 100 official members; their average age is 82.

The center was founded as the Queens Independence Society in 1919, when a few Jewish families, most German immigrants, began meeting in a dingy bungalow. It took its current name in 1927. In the 1940s, with the arrival of European immigrants fleeing the war, the center moved into its own building; by 1970 there would be weekly bar mitzvahs and a Hebrew school of 300 students. But after the boom came the bust, prompted by migration to the suburbs and the aging of the congregation.

...Rabbi Kent puts on his leather jacket and prepares to leave. He is not married and usually spends his nights studying Talmud or watching television. But tonight he stays to chat.

...There is some income, too. Steve Knobel, the center’s president, rents the building to Pentecostal and Hindu groups for their own religious services, and the synagogue’s small thrift shop sells, among other things, televisions, china dishes and dresses. Much of the merchandise belonged to members who died.

But the direction of the synagogue is decidedly not up. Mr. Knobel predicts that it will lose 10 to 15 members within five years and the congregation will need to sell the building and hold services in someone’s house.

As the evening comes to a close, Rabbi Kent takes a slow sip of ice water and collects his heavy books and untidy papers. He turns off the lights, locks the doors and walks out into the chilly wet street.

“I’ve never regretted it,” he says, the words emerging from his mouth in a warm pale cloud amid frosty Queens air. “My salary is pitiful and I don’t even know what I’ll be doing next year, because who knows about this place? But I’ve never regretted it.”

He’ll be back tomorrow morning, bright and early, to lead a 7 o’clock prayer. He hopes someone will come.


Anonymous said...

shows a commitment to the job. be sad if he has to hold meetings in a house.

Soccer Dad said...

When I was 1 or 2 my family lived in Jackson Heights. Can't say I remember it too well.

YMedad said...

Rabbis shouldn't be single

Anonymous said...

I know that neighborhoods change over time and that people grow older and move away, but I find this to be extremely sad. Although I admire the rabbi's dedication to keeping the synagogue alive.

YMedad said...

Rabbi Kent wrote me:

"You of all people should know that the New York Times prints stacks of lies. Any person who fights for Eretz Yisrael or promotes traditional Yiddishkeit are targets for their liberal reporters.

Your comment on the article about me in the NEW YORK TIMES (ARTICLE-THE RABBI WITH LITTLE TO DO) You wrote that "rabbis should not be unmarried" was very hurtful ESPECIALLY since I am married !"

well, that's great. glad to hear from you.