Talk about a job with growth potential. In 1952, Rabbi David Halpern (single and newly ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University) took what he thought was a temporary pulpit in a pioneer Brooklyn Jewish community later to be named Mill Basin.
Congregants met in a store on Avenue N, paying the owner $5 per service. A daily minyan was hard to come by, but families were steadily trickling into the area from such fading Jewish areas as Brownsville and East New York.
The congregants, many of them World War II veterans from Orthodox backgrounds, were drawn to the neighborhood by affordable homes, about $10,000, with a 2 percent interest rate.
Half a century later, that congregation has burgeoned into the 600-member Flatbush Park Jewish Center, with a sprawling, four-building complex on Avenue U, numerous youth programs, an affiliated yeshiva and several separate daily and Shabbat minyans.
The surrounding community that was developed during that period has grown into a scenic, suburban-like area with homes worth millions and several smaller shuls.
"We started out with a dream and a vision and we struggled to identify ourselves," said Rabbi Halpern, who recalls that the congregation’s greatest challenge was to define its religious orientation.
Two years after his arrival, members voted on whether to embrace the Orthodox or Conservative movement. By an almost 2-1 margin, 42-22, they chose Orthodoxy.
Had the vote gone the other way, "I would have handed in my resignation," Rabbi Halpern says. "I would like to think that’s part of the reason" for growth.
Rabbi Halpern’s longevity is rare in an age when pulpits frequently change due to personality conflicts, philosophical differences, demographics or contract disputes.
Having grown with the community, he is now marrying the children and grandchildren of couples he married at the start of his career. And in bar and bat mitzvah speeches, the rabbi can often recall the simchas of the celebrant’s parents.
This weekend, the community will celebrate together as they pay tribute to Rabbi Halpern and his wife, Sheila, at the Jewish Center’s annual dinner.
"He is the quintessential community rabbi, serving all aspects of the community," says Larry Birnbaum, chairman of the synagogue board and a member for 43 years. "He takes care of people in their time of simcha as well as their time of need."
Like many of his peers Birnbaum, a pharmacist, came to the community with his family as a small child, via Brownsville, and has remained in the area to raise his own family.
Rabbi Halpern insists he has not a single regret about his tenure.
"I’ve had a very good rabbinic life," he said in an interview in his synagogue office. "I am respected, my family is well liked and I have nine grandchildren in three Torah homes."
The rabbi said he never expected a lifetime commitment from the job when Bernard "Red" Sarachek, then coach of the Yeshiva College basketball team and a Mill Basin resident, called the placement coordinator at YU and asked for a rabbi. Garber was a former classmate of Rabbi Halpern’s and offered him the assignment.
Rabbi Halpern had been offered a scholarship to study at a yeshiva in Israel and expected to go there shortly.
But the congregation kept growing. In 1954, the first development in the area, Fillmore Gardens, was completed, and within two years an additional 300 Jewish families with children moved in. At around the same time he married the former Sheila Lifshutz, and they began raising their three children, Neil, Risa and Beth.
Fund raising for a permanent building began, and at a public auction the rabbi (following an impassioned speech about his nonprofit, community building intent) walked away with the first parcel of undeveloped land at the opening bid: $33,000.
His fund-raising strategy: If you build it, they will come.
"Our principle has always been to build first and the money will come when the community sees we are serious," says Rabbi Halpern.
By 1960, the congregation had about 700 members. The Jewish Center would expand to three buildings on 22 adjacent lots. In 1967, synagogue officers faced a major decision: whether to build a catering hall or youth facilities. Youth carried the day, and the center now includes a large indoor basketball court used by an intramural league, classrooms and several outdoor pools for the congregation’s large summer day camp.
Sheila Halpern looks back fondly on her 47 years in the community, but she says there have been drawbacks.
"It’s not easy for children, growing up in the rabbi’s house," she said after popping in to the rabbi’s office during his interview. "It’s a fishbowl existence and can be very frustrating when people always have their eyes on you. But they grow up, accept certain aspects and overcome it.
"And over the years there have been many wonderful people. The children have friends who always say they grew up in a wonderful shul with a wonderful rabbi."
Rabbi Halpern says of his wife: "It takes a very special lady to be a rebbetzin of a congregation this size."
Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who will attend the dinner Sunday, says the Flatbush Park Jewish Center was Rabbi Halpern’s "institutional eshet beíurim, or true love, the one in which he invested his earliest dreams and ambitions as he entered the rabbinate."
Sen. Charles Schumer, whom the rabbi has known since Schumer was an assemblyman in the early 1980s, said in a statement that he has "seen firsthand Rabbi Halpern’s effective leadership and his commitment to his Jewish community and the State of Israel."
Still, Rabbi Halpern is not yet the longest serving rabbi in Brooklyn. At least two others have served slightly longer: Rabbi Phillip Singer retired after 52 years at the pulpit of the Avenue O Jewish Center in Bensonhurst, and Rabbi Chaim Rubin led the Avenue U Educational Center for more than 50 years.
But Rabbi Melvin Berg, director of the Rabbinical Board of Flatbush, says Rabbi Halpern may hold one record: "I believe he is the only founding rabbi who has been in service for 50 years."
And although many might put in for the gold watch after half a century of service, Rabbi Halpern has no plans to retire, which puts him in contention for the overall record.
"I don’t think about it," he says of stepping down. "I enjoy what I’m doing, and as long as I can be effective, I certainly want to continue."