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Your rabbi is a banana. Your cantor thinks she\'sJohn Lennon. And the entire congregation is singing Beatlestunes. A nightmare? A parallel universe? No, it\'s just Purim at Sha\'arei Am: The SantaMonica Synagogue, and Rabbi Jeff Marx\'s megillah reading is just oneof many bizarre scenes that will play out as rabbi and congregantsrid themselves of cumbersome inhibitions for one silly day.
June 2, 1998

Your rabbi is a banana. Your cantor thinks she’sJohn Lennon. And the entire congregation is singing Beatlestunes.

A nightmare? A parallel universe?

No, it’s just Purim at Sha’arei Am: The SantaMonica Synagogue, and Rabbi Jeff Marx’s megillah reading is just oneof many bizarre scenes that will play out as rabbi and congregantsrid themselves of cumbersome inhibitions for one silly day.

In the Book of Esther business as usual is turnedon its head, so Purim demands that revelers literally eat, drink andbe merry, in direct contrast to holidays such as Yom Kippur.

“On Purim we can appreciate what God has given usthrough good things and happy times,” says Malca Schwarzmer, Jewishstudies principal at Ohr Eliyahu academy, a yeshiva day school inCulver City.

“We are given a wonderful opportunity to have timeand perspective without pressure. That belief is something that comestruly from the heart,” says Schwarzmer, who has been known to shockstudents by dressing up as a punk rocker for Purim.

Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer — a notorious jokester –has never had a problem with merrymaking. But on Purim, even he takesit over the top with costumes and pranks.

“One year I wanted to go as a Chasidic rabbi,”says Kelemer, rabbi at Congregation Mogen David. “But the only beardI could get was a Santa Claus beard. So they called me, ‘RabbiSanta.'”

Rabbi Avraham Levitansky found out that it’s hardto shock Southern Californians. A few years ago he hung aroud a SantaMonica street corner handing out mishloach manot, traditional Purimgift baskets, with his friend, Megillah Gorilla.

“Not one person flinched,” recalls Levitansky,rabbi of Chabad in Santa Monica. “They just rolled down theirwindows, took the basket, and said, ‘thank you.'”

Some take their fun more seriously than others.This year, Rabbi Haim-Dov Beliak of Temple Ner Tamid in Downey willcontinue his 15-year tradition of dressing up as a clown.

“I did not know I would be made famous by RabbiBakshi Doron, who calls himself the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel,when he said Reform rabbis are clowns.”

This year, the board at Ner Tamid passed aresolution requiring all board members to dress in costume to “set aproper example” Beliak said.

The fact that a board resolution was requiredpoints to a problem lamented by many.

Purim has fallen victim to “the pediatric approachto Judaism — it’s something wonderful for the kids, but not sonecessary for adults,” says Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah inWoodland Hills.

But historically, Purim was a very adult chance tochuckle at the world, he points out.

“A Purim spiel is an attempt to laugh at life evenwhen things are bad. At times, spielers brought great healing to manycommunities,” Vogel says.

Unfortunately, Purim has also brought great harm,as revelers have gone too far with the tradition of ad delo yada,drinking until the distinction between cursing Haman and blessingMordechai is blurred.

“I don’t think it’s a sobriety test,” says Vogel.”I think rather that it’s a statement about life, that sometimes goodand evil blur themselves and life can change quickly. It’s the natureof Jewish existence.”

Most rabbis agree that getting smashed is not theway to celebrate Purim. In fact, the Orthodox Union is using Purim asa launchpad for a new teen alcoholism educational campaign.

Schwarzmer notes that there are other ways tocelebrate, such as through the other mitzvot of Purim — givingtzedakah, sharing gift baskets and enjoying a community meal.

There is also a fine tradition of using Purim topoke fun at tradition, nowadays widely done on the Internet.

But some say even that goes too far.

“The line between being relaxed and derisive hasto a large degree been crossed over,” says Joshua Berkowitz, rabbi ofCongregation Shaarei Tefila in the Fairfax area, which draws a largecrowd to its annual Purim party. “It was always intended to be withrestraint and respect, but things that are holy and sacred becomeobjects of derision.”

But for Beliak, joy is what Purim is allabout.

“Generally, there is too little real joy in asynagogue,” Beliak says. “There is a lot of manufactured joy, whereyou walk in on somebody’s simcha. But Purim just seems to be purejoy.”

Raisin revellers at Sha’arei Am’s Purimfestivities.

Coming Up

Purim On The Pier

Purim is known as the holiday where everythinggets turned upside down, and that’s just what will happen to rollercoaster riders at Kehillat Israel’s Purim party on the pier.

The Pacific Palisades synagogue has managed torent out Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier for the evening ofThursday, March 12, when the carnival rides and games are usuallyclosed.

“It’s a wonderful way for everyone to celebratetogether and for people to learn about Purim,” says Leslie Gifford, asynagogue member who is helping to organize the event.

Thursday, March 12, 4-8 p.m. at the Santa MonicaPier. Wristbands for all 11 rides are $12 at the gate, $10 in advanceat Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310)459-2328. — JGF


Justice for All

The Southern California Board of Rabbisis creating an interdenominational beit din

By Julie GruenbaumFax,

Religion Editor

In a move that some are heralding as a great showof Jewish unity, the Southern California Board of Rabbis is creatingan interdenominational beitdin, or rabbinic arbitration body, toresolve civil disputes between Jewish individuals orinstitutions.

“We wanted to show that the concept of Jewishethics is not divided by movement,” says Rabbi Aaron Kriegel, chairof the beit din committee for the Board of Rabbis. “We all understandthe idea of what is right, the concepts of Torah that bind ustogether.”

Litigants, who must agree that the beit din’sdecision is legally binding, will each choose a rabbi, and the tworabbis will choose a third.

The board, made up of 250 rabbis from alldenominations, hopes that the beit din will provide an alternative tocostly court battles and keep the media away from internal battles inthe Jewish community.

“There is real excitement in our coming togetherto use tradition to solve problems, using a system that has workedfor thousands of years,” says Kriegel.

Yet that excitement is premature for some in theOrthodox camp, who are reluctant to offer support until more detailsare available.

“In theory, this is a wonderful idea, a wonderfulway to connect Jews to the Jewish legal system, and a wonderful wayto keep things internal rather than going to civil court,” says RabbiYosef Kanefsky, a member of the Board of Rabbis’ executive committeeand head of B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation.

“[But] I wouldn’t serve unless it were clear thatthis is not a formal halachic body. If the impression is that it isgoing t
o issue piskei halacha [Jewish legal decisions], that would bea misrepresentation.”

Kanefsky, who is active in interdenominationaldialogue, says he would consider participating only if it were clearthat the body was a “Jewish, scholarly, benevolent and wisearbitration board guided by principles of Jewish law.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, also a member of theBoard of Rabbis, is less optimistic.

“On one hand, there is a part of me which looksfavorably to Jews looking to the sources that all of us share,” saysAdlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva ofLos Angeles. “But in terms of mechanics of such a beit din, I don’tknow how we could ever get off first base.”

Kanefsky and Adlerstein both stress that eachmovement holds a fundamentally different approach to halacha and thehalachic process.

“It would be like a medical committee of aHarvard-trained physician, a homeopath and a foot reflexologisttrying to decide a medical matter,” Adlerstein says. “They would eachhave the best interest of the patient in mind, but they just don’tspeak the same language.”

But Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of theBoard of Rabbis, says that, by definition, participants in each casewould be self-selective. Litigants would choose rabbis whom theyrespect, and rabbis uncomfortable with the specifics of a given casecould refuse to sit on the beit din.

“There is nobody being forced to be on a beit din,and because we have 250 rabbis of all shapes and sizes anddescriptions, people can choose,” says Goldmark, rabbi of Temple BethOhr, a Reform congregation in La Mirada.

There remain details to be worked out, Kriegelsays, such as how much the beit din will charge. For the first case– a dispute between an individual and a Jewish institution — no feewas charged.

“We don’t want to be nogaya bidavar, to showpartiality,” Kriegel says. “Right now, the issue of justice is biggerthan the issue of payment.”

And the issue of unity seems to come above allelse.

“The whole concept is that there are so manythings that are dividing the Jewish community that this is somethingthat comes at a wonderful time to unite us,” Goldmark says.

For Adlerstein, the issue is not so clear. “AllJews can, and should, feel equally passionate about the ability ofall of us to get along,” he says. But this, he added, just might haveto remain one of the issues that divides.


Activist and Cantor Team Up For Shabbaton

It’s not often that Rabbi Avi Weiss, activist parexcellence, gets upstaged. But he didn’t seem to mind taking secondseat to Cantor Elli Kranzler at a recent Shabbaton hosted by B’naiDavid-Judea.

With sweet melodies and rousing renditions of thetunes of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, Kranzler, cantor at Weiss’s HebrewInstitute of Riverdale, led the congregation in hours worth ofuplifting song and dance throughout the weekend at the OrthodoxPico-Robertson congregation.

Rabbi Weiss drew crowds for his talks on Shabbat,and despite a downpour, to a Saturday night lecture, where his speechwas followed by a sing-along by Kranzler in the shul’s intimate GoldRoom.

“What has propelled me to do what I do,” explainedWeiss, “…is feeling the pain of our brothers and sisters. Thequestion becomes not why do we do it, but how can we not?”

Weiss is renowned for such actions as taking onblack activist Khalid Mohammed for anti-Semitic and racist remarks,and for taking up the cause of Jonathan Pollard, currently in prisonfor spying on the U.S. for Israel.

“What he did was legally wrong,” Weiss said. “Theissue is those who have done what Jonathan Pollard did, have receivedsentences between four and five years. Jonathan Pollard is in the13th year of a life sentence.”

Weiss said his activism was also aimed atpreserving the past.

“How will we view the Shoah 200 years from now or300 years from now? I’m desperately concerned about this…I’mconcerned that the Shoah has not been ritualized.”

In addition, Weiss noted that the memory of theHolocaust is being threatened by the establishment of churchesoutside concentration camps in Europe.

Outlining the formidable task of activism thatlies ahead, Weiss defined “the ultimate challenge we face” as “theneed for younger, stronger people to help.”

He concluded his lecture by saying: “Don’t speakout for what is popular, but for what is right.” — MichaelAushenker, Community Editor, and Julie Gruenbaum Fax, ReligionEditor

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