When “THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman” opened at the Actors Temple Theatre Nov. 30, it wasn’t the only new show beginning a run there. For the third time in a decade, a new rabbi is on board hoping to revitalize the West 47th Street shul, also known as Congregation Ezrath Israel, and return it to its showbiz roots.
“Each person brings their own unique gifts to a situation,” said Rabbi Jill Hausman, 54, who was installed Nov. 10. “I am here to help people and do good work in the community. By doing things for others, the synagogue will be blessed. If I’m only here for selfish reasons, to say, ‘See how I built up the synagogue,’ it’s not going to succeed. It will only work if I build it up to do good works for others.”
The effect of her reaching out to the community could be seen at her installation, with clergy from neighborhood Christian churches, as well as from the Salvation Army, which operates a theater on the block, in attendance for the ceremony and the dinner for 80 that followed.
The first show is “THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman,” a musical about two men, one a Baptist, the other a Roman Catholic, on a spiritual search. It also deals in part with gay marriage. Rabbi Hausman said the temple, formerly Conservative but now unaffiliated, will not censor incoming shows.
“In the best of all possible worlds, it would be wonderful to have a Jewish show that’s spiritually uplifting, but since we don’t have a Jewish show that’s spiritually uplifting, we have a non-Jewish show about spiritual yearning,” Rabbi Hausman said. “We wouldn’t take a show that’s pornographic or inappropriate for the space, but we’re not presenting Walt Disney here either.”
Rabbi Hausman said the fact that the synagogue is no longer affiliated with any branch of Judaism gives her “tremendous carte blanche.”
“The synagogue has to live in the same society we live in,” she said. “It can’t live in the 1950s. Our society is pluralistic. My job is to accept everyone. God doesn’t shut anyone out. I want to emphasize the universal aspects of religion while using the particular to enrich worship and not exclude people.”
This inclusiveness appealed to the board, Kifferstein said, adding he expects Rabbi Hausman will provide strong pastoral counseling. “She’s extremely personable, and her energy is tremendous,” he said. “When you’re with her, you know she cares. She’s not just talking to someone while having other motives.”
Ezrath Israel, or helper of Israel, was founded in 1917 as the West Side Hebrew Relief Association. In its glory days as the Actors Temple it counted as members Al Jolson, Joe E. Lewis, Edward G. Robinson, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny, Shelly Winters, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle.
Despite its celebrated history, Rabbi Hausman had never heard of the Actors’ Temple until she stumbled upon it several years ago while doing an Internet search. Now she wants to make sure when people discover this shul, it’s not by accident.
“That’s my job, to make sure it’s not a well-kept secret.”
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Feature in "Jewish Week"
An article called "Staging a Comeback" in Jewish Week describes how and why the Actors' Temple made the decision to become an Off-Broadway house.
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