By Susan B. Master
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In the Mill Basin-Bergen Beach community, two houses of worship straddle East 69th Street: Temple Sholom, a Conservative synagogue and St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church. It is quite possible that congregants could live within their own sphere and never connect with their neighbors. However, it was the brainchild of the late Bernie Catcher, Temple Sholom benefactor and widely regarded Brooklyn civic leader, to create a Thanksgiving Brotherhood service, wherein each congregation would host the other on alternate years in order to foster friendship and connections across the faiths and across the street.
This year, the Bernie Catcher Memorial Thanksgiving Community Service was prepared by Temple Sholom’s Audrey Durst and St. Bernard’s Thomas Sorrentino, with assistance from members of the Knights of Columbus. Sorrentino urged the capacity crowd in the church’s expansive sanctuary to “make a friend and greet a new neighbor.” Durst described Catcher as a “man who loved life and peace,” and she noted that although this is the seventh year of the service, last year’s was wiped out because of Hurricane Sandy. “But,” she added, “that didn’t stop good people from helping out. We are all G-d’s children. Our differences make us interesting.”
Assemblyman and City Councilman-elect Alan Maisel was a great friend of Bernie Catcher. He explained, “Bernie noticed that Temple Sholom and St. Bernard were across the street but strangers to each other.” He wanted to bring together two institutions with common goals. Brotherhood is what makes up our country and once a year, we talk about it. Maisel added that “Happiness is not based on your assets, but is based on doing for each other.” He welcomed Lara Genovesi, whose late father, Anthony Genovesi, helped build the church.
Frank Seddio, District Leader and Kings County Democratic Chairman, read a Prayer for our Nation, about safeguarding and uniting all people with peace and freedom. He found “great pleasure” in “having both of my families in one room,” referring to his year-long active involvement, along with his wife, Joyce Becker, in both houses of worship.
Reverend Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello, Pastor of St. Bernard, began his reflections by welcoming the members of Temple Sholom and then he discussed the harsh realities of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims arrived after a grueling trip on the Mayflower, and the winter weather was so bitter that by the following year, their seeds and plants did not grow and half of their population had died. However, the Native Americans brought them corn to eat and fertilizer to help with their crops. With the natives’ help, the settlers flourished and the governor called for a feast for both groups as they gathered around the fire together. “Despite all that they had gone through,” said the pastor, “they realized that they had G-d’s grace. We come with our own hardships, but the spirit of Thanksgiving Day is to look beyond the darkness of today and see the hope from G-d.”
Gigantiello considered Thanksgiving a “wonderful unique celebration of Americans.” In our country, the land of opportunity, he said, we celebrate the need to give thanks, regardless of our race and religion. Quoting Saint Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake, he said, “It is only in giving that we receive.” He acknowledged civic leaders who volunteer for the community and noted that during Hurricane Sandy, people left their own homes with basements filled with water to help other people whom they might not have known, because they were worse off than themselves. “We have much to be thankful for,” he concluded.
Temple Sholom’s president, Bob Rossman, noted that with this year’s Brotherhood service, Bernie Catcher “succeeded beyond what he believed was possible.” He stated that “we have the formidable task to come together as a community,” noting that we cannot solve problems the same way anymore. There cannot be us and them. Only us,” he said, adding, “If we display indifference, complacency will prevail. To disengage serves no one.” Rossman concluded with an analogy of humanity’s interdependency: A grape that is separated from the vine withers and dies. When they stay together, they grow. And when they are squeezed together, they create wine!
Rabbi Joel Weintraub of Temple Sholom opened his benediction reciting in Hebrew and English, the first verse of Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Rabbi Weintraub wanted to make clear to the Catholic community how pleased he and other Jewish people are with Pope Francis. “He has put a focus on Christianity at its heart,” which Rabbi Weintruab characterized as caring for others, humility and compassion.
Rabbi Weintraub noted that Pope Francis is friends with Rabbi Skorka, Chief Rabbi of Argentina, and has said that you cannot be a Christian if you are an anti-Semite. “Religion is about kindness and sincerity,” and, referring to Pope Francis as “a role model of true faith,” Rabbi Weintraub said, “I hope we can emulate this in our community.” He concluded his benediction with Love thy neighbor as thyself. “Let us all make sure that we are committed to that ideal,” adding, “Don’t just tolerate each other. Go a step further and respect each other. Then, reach for the ideal of love.”
The evening’s program opened with Bill Hakius and Boy Scout Troup 76 conducting the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an invocation by Rev. Timothy Lambert, and it was punctuated with readings by Alexandra Sorrentino (Community and Charity – the gifts of all were given for the needs of everyone); Hon. Mark Partnow (The Heritage of America – strive to keep the United States a land of justice and righteousness where bigotry will not be tolerated and for the courage equal to our responsibilities); and Sol Needle and John Piccirillo (Thanksgiving – do not take blessings for granted but share them with others). Songs were performed by the St. Bernard Adult Choir; Ernest Buckley, their musical director; Rachael Meyers; Antonio Oliveri; Jacklyn Azoff; and Dominique Krol.
The message of brotherhood and mutual understanding was loud and clear, but it was most poignantly achieved through whispers. A Jewish father explaining to his child, his first time in a Catholic church, about the icons around the sanctuary. The Pastor and the Rabbi, sitting side by side near the altar, exchanging private comments, as they faced together the communities they have brought under one roof. It is always good to give thanks for what we have and who we have, and to appreciate its source.