How do you honor and pay tribute to true pillars of a community? To properly thank leaders who have dedicated the past 30 years to an extended family of over a thousand? To capture the heartfelt emotion and feelings of generations of families? The Young Israel of Jamaica Estates decided to plan a Shabbos filled with programming and events designed to express the community’s love and appreciation to the Hochbergs. The name “YIJE Family Reunion Shabbat” was chosen to depict the sentiment of the weekend.
For 30 years, the names Rabbi Shlomo and Karen Hochberg have been synonymous with the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates. Over the years, hundreds, if not thousands, have been touched and inspired by them, passing through the walls of the YIJE. After Shabbos, the Rabbi shared the following message: “Your palpable love, which we have felt throughout these 30 years – and for 26 hours this past Shabbos in our YIJE family home - was truly overwhelming, meaningful, and uplifting for us – and so deeply appreciated.”
To set the stage for Shabbos, YIJE invited anyone who had been a part of the local community – dating back 30 years – to join and participate in the Shabbos program. The Rabbi and Karen are modest and humble beyond compare, prefer to avoid the spotlight, and deflect credit that is justly due them in favor of others. The reaction was overwhelming. Very quickly, acceptances began to pour in; over 800 people responded and the journey began. The aim was to somehow deliver a Shabbos that would be remembered forever, and provide an opportunity for each person to connect with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin over the short 26-hour timeframe.
The Friday night Oneg commenced with over 200 YIJE now adult “alumni” who returned for Shabbos – enjoying, singing, and socializing. Although no real “speeches” were given, dozens of alums stood up, one-by-one, and shared thoughts and memories with the room, but speaking directly to the Rabbi and Karen. Person after person expressed their thanks and appreciation to a couple who helped shape their perception and attitude toward Torah, Jewish communal leadership, chesed, and family. Tears were shed, hugs were given, smiles returned, and it set a high bar for the remainder of Shabbos.
Shabbos morning began with Rabbi Josh Goller of the Young Israel of West Hempstead, former Assistant Rabbi of YIJE for nine years, leading a pre-t’filah shiur and offering divrei brachah. As the sanctuary continued to fill up, 613, the award-winning Jewish a cappella group, provided an atmosphere of ruach with a spirited Shacharis and continued to enhance the program throughout Shabbos.
As t’filah progressed, not a single open seat remained in the sanctuary, and the overflow rapidly became standing-room-only. When Sam Herskowitz, President of YIJE, stood to introduce the Rabbi, the room was completely silent, with the kahal waiting on each and every word. “Rabbi and Karen,” Sam began, “we titled this weekend the YIJE Family Reunion. You are our family. Look at how many of us are here. How many generations! How many children! Our children are your children and our grandchildren are your grandchildren. It is a reminder that our relationship is forever, regardless of geographic distance or frequency of interaction.”
He then surprised the room by not only dedicating the chair on the bimah to Rabbi Hochberg, but by also naming him Rabbi Emeritus for life. It was one of many wonderful moments for the community, showering the Rabbi and Karen with love and appreciation for their friendship, dedication, and leadership. Next, Rabbi Hochberg’s moving words kept the room entranced. “We have felt your love,” he began, “and we hope you have felt our love for these 30 years, and we know that our love for our YIJE family transcends space and time.” He spoke of the acts of chesed and service, the learning, simchos, and tragedies we have shared, the words of affirmation and the emotional gifts exchanged, the friendships forged, events and meals we have shared. It was immediately a lasting memory and one that will not soon be forgotten. Rabbi Hochberg then led the Musaf service for the hundreds of congregants who enthusiastically joined in his beautiful and inspiring signature melodies.
With perfect, sunny weather outside, an expansive, sumptuous kiddush continued on the closed street in front of the shul. After a short break for a private family lunch, a mid-afternoon decadent chocolate dessert buffet ensued later in the day. Throughout Shabbos, more than 50 past and present members stood up in front of the room, and in less than two minutes each, shared deep, emotional, and personal memories – happy, uplifting, thankful, and expressive, with the Rabbi and Karen. Each shared story added to the feeling of a close-knit family.
Later in the day, Arthur Quint, Chairman of the Planning Committee, shared the following sentiments with an overflowing room during shalosh seudos:
“Rabbi, you mean so much to all of us, but above all, you have been our inspiration – inspiring us in ways too profound to express in words, in a myriad of ways, too large to enumerate in number. Karen, by instilling in us the importance of the mitzvah of chesed, you have ensured that we have a vessel to store this inspiration. We promise you to continue to extend your example of g’milas chasadim, so that this inspiration remains secure in our hearts forever.”
As the room continued to fill to capacity and beyond, the Rebbetzin stood up and took the podium to share her thoughts. After hearing from so many people over the course of Shabbos, it was an emotional moment before she ever uttered a word. Karen Hochberg has been an anchor to the YIJE community since day one, and in addition to being a friend, confidant, and our Rebbetzin, she led scores of shul initiatives such as the 5K Run for Israel, years of Family Mitzvah Mornings for those in need, an annual Clothing Sale, and so many other programs – always with energy, positivity, and enthusiasm.
Karen began by sharing that “family connections can’t be severed by time or distance, and one never says goodbye to family, whether they move across town or across continents.” After taking a moment, she continued: “It’s been an incredible journey. We’ve shared the intensities of life – times of intense joy and those of intense sorrow, as well as sharing the day-to-day, experiencing life together as an amazing community that has become our home, a home that we’ve all built together.” As she neared the end of her remarks, Karen concluded on a heartfelt note: “It’s the understatement of the century to say we will miss you all terribly, and everything about YIJE. We’ve had the supreme privilege of watching generations unfold as we’ve strived together – hands, hearts, and minds – to make YIJE the best it could be.” Looking around the room, it was clear the congregation felt not only the intensity of the moment, but the love being shared, as eyes were both red and moist.
As Shabbos ended, a musical Havdalah, led by long-time member Sandy Shmuely and supported by 613, turned the evening into a lively and emotional experience. The crowd broke into dancing at Havdalah, not wanting the feeling of this Shabbos to end. A slideshow displayed 30 years of memories on a large screen in the ballroom. A large mural of family photos was presented to the Hochbergs, along with a YIJE Family Photo Album published in their honor and distributed to the entire membership.
Rabbi Shlomo and Karen Hochberg may be physically moving from Jamaica Estates, but they are not “leaving” and they will forever be tied to their ever-expanding YIJE family and the greater community.
For more information about the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates and Family Reunion Shabbat, visit www.yije.org or call 718-479-7500.