“There’s no business like ‘shul’ business,” Rabbi Hy Levine said while delivering his sermon to a standing-room-only crowd at the Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center during a May 12 service that marked Levine’s 60 years as a rabbi — and, coincidentally, his 90th birthday.
Later that evening, I enjoyed dinner at the rectory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello has taken the reins as pastor. Through the generosity of Joe and Mary Ann Mattone, Gigantiello had the entire rectory remodeled, making it a wonderful refuge for him and his colleagues.
The religious service ended with Rabbi Levine’s congregants telling their stories of his kind, creative energy, which made the synagogue a special place for learning and welcoming.
For me, I will never forget his kindness and support when my husband and I wanted to have a bat mitzvah for our first born, Lara. Most people thought we were crazy, but we believed that even if she was developmentally a 3 month old, she should be part of our Jewish heritage.
Many on the synagogues board were skeptical, but with Levine’s wisdom and power, he supported our desire — and soon enough, we had Lara on the bimah (stage).
Somehow, Lara seemed to beam with a smile as the prayers were sung and recited. I never knew what she took in from that day’s service, but I like to think her little smile was because she knew more than we thought.
I was just one of many whose life was touched by Rabbi Levine, a most gracious, brilliant religious leader.
I learned from his celebratory service that, as a child, he had resisted going into the rabbinate even though he came from a family of rabbis. Born and raised in Springfield, MA, his family sent him to a seminary in New York. In short order, after being ordained a rabbi, he met a rabbi from the Clearview Jewish Center who told him that there was a young congregation forming in Bay Terrace and they needed a rabbi.
“I was told they knew nothing and I knew nothing as a novice rabbi so it would be a good fit! And I didn’t have many options,” Levine modestly admitted. So began what would become 60 years of mutual admiration.
For nearly the first five years, however, the Bay Terrace congregation didn’t have a home. They wandered from Fort Totten to basements in the nearby co-op buildings and even to Rabbi Levine’s living room.
Then, almost like a miracle, Rabbi Levine found a home for his homeless congregation. One Shavous, he found himself sitting next to Hyman Muss (and whose son, Josh, now runs the family’s real estate empire), and during the service, Muss turned to Levine and said, “I hear you need some property to build a synagogue. I have some on Bell Boulevard where I’m building a group of homes. Would you like the parcel?”
“Without hesitation I said, ‘Yes but at what price?’” Levine recalled. “While the service continued, Muss said $74,000. I then said $70,000, and the deal was done.”
Finally, the Bay Terrace Jewish Center had a home — and through it all, Levine has been a beloved fixture for both the congregation and the community.
Legends of the diocese
I was delighted to see how Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello has taken on his new mission of rebuilding and expanding the congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the middle of the gentrifying Williamsburg community. It blends old residents with the new.
Gigantiello is well on his way to drawing young people into the church with Masses geared toward millennials. His creativity and charisma is sure to make the community know how welcoming the church is to the neighborhood.
It was my privilege to have dinner with Gigantiello and his close friend, Monsignor David Cassato, at the warm Our Lady of Mount Carmel Rectory. Cassato, who traded parishes with Gigantiello, now leads St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst, which remarkably welcomes more than 1,600 Spanish-speaking families every Sunday.
Their key to success follows the wise words of Pope Francis, who said during an interview with “60 Minutes” on Sunday night: “Listen to your people, talk little and look them in the eye.” He then added, “Laugh and bring joy into your life.”
Certainly, that’s what Monsignors Gigantiello and Cassato — two legends of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens — are doing for their parishioners.
Mother’s Day together
My kids and I came together for a Mother’s Day brunch on a day dedicated to putting the spotlight on us as mothers. The best gift I could receive was to see how the little cousins enjoyed each other’s company. It made my day.
I hope you shared the day with your loved ones as well.