Like most of his grad student peers at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer always thought he would eventually become a pulpit rabbi, even taking an assistant rabbi position at a prominent San Fernando Valley synagogue as training for the day he would lead his own congregation.
Then an interesting experience led him to seek another way of communicating his beliefs.
"I was writing a High Holy Day sermon about what we want to do versus what we actually do," he said. "It was all very profound and I was in the middle of writing it when my wife came in and asked me a question. And I yelled at her [for the interruption]."
He pauses momentarily to shake his head. "I wish I could say that was the 'Eureka!' moment but that actually came a couple weeks later. I realized the irony of what I was doing: here I was preaching family values while working six days a week and yelling at my wife."
Mayer pulled back from the clergy and tried other routes, including art (his current passion is stained-glass work) and writing. He eventually decided to draw on his background as a magician -- he spent 12 summers at Tannen's Magic Camp in Oakdale, N.Y. -- and put together the one-man show that became "Religion Outside the Box."
He chose for his debut the synagogue where he had received his training, Temple Judea's main campus in Tarzana.
"Religion Outside the Box" is, in a word, revolutionary. In it Mayer weaves a bewitching combination of Borscht Belt-style humor and Eastern Philosophy, gently mocking both himself and the audience while challenging the assumption that faith is a passive thing absorbed through rote prayer and what passes for tradition. (Think a Jewish Ray Romano channeled through Ram Dass). The show takes a few interesting twists, particularly in skits like "God and the 50-minute Hour" in which Mayer acts the part of the Lord Almighty in session with a psychotherapist and in the more "interactive" sections (audience participation is a must to fully absorb Mayer's philosophy). The audience of about 150 people -- not shabby for a Tuesday night in the Valley -- took the 90-minute show to heart and appeared not only to have a great time but to have learned something as well.
Mayer's journey to rabbinic performance artist began in what the 32-year-old, raised in Manhattan, calls a typical Reform Jewish family.
"We went to synagogue for the High Holy Days, did Passover and Chanukah at home, did the yahrtzeit for our deceased relatives and attended Hebrew School when I was in town," he recalled. "So when I became a rabbi working with kids, it was the same thing -- I had me as a student."
During the late '80s and early '90s, Mayer attended Tufts University where he "created" a major in architecture. But in the back of his head was the thought of attending rabbinical college. So he applied for and was accepted at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
"I thought, I'll go there and find out if there is a God and then serve on His team with a title or I'll find out there is no God and then go into architecture with a clear conscience," said Mayer.
Mayer attended HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem. At the Los Angeles campus he was distinguished among his colleagues as the class clown.
"They voted me, 'Most Likely To Become a Weatherman,'" joked Mayer. "It's just the way I see things ... it's religion, not tragedy. It doesn't mean we have to be morose about it."
In addition to his ordination, Mayer scored another milestone during his graduate years when his chevruta (study) partner introduced him to Jane Beuth, who was working toward her degree in social work. The pair married, moved to New York to complete their respective master's courses and then returned to Los Angeles in 1997 when Mayer was offered the position of assistant rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana.
Rabbi Donald Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea, said he was impressed with Mayer's abilities and attitude from the moment they met when Goor was a guest lecturer at HUC-JIR.
"Brian was methodical in that no matter what, he kept his eye on the goal," Goor said. "He did this with determination and tremendous humor. His background as a performer, as a magician, was part of his rabbinate and made him beloved by both youth and adults."
Goor also admires Mayer for his "unique mind-set."
"Many rabbis focus solely on Jewish tradition. Brian focuses on the present and the future. He is willing to ask serious questions and find sometimes quite radical answers in order to meet his goal of helping [people] find holiness in their everyday life."
Mayer said his philosophy is not opposed to organized religion but sees that for many people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, it has its flaws.
"Religion is about defining a goal and defining a path. Organized religion is a prepackaged set of goals and paths to those goals, which works wonderfully for some people. But in this enlightened world we live in, there are people who want to pick and choose their own paths. For them, the package doesn't work. It's like when you get the Kellogg's Variety Pack: you want the Froot Loops and the Cocoa Krispies but then you have to take the Frosted Mini-Wheats, too."
So, what's the most important lesson he hopes people learn from his show?
"Stop pretending it's going to happen by not doing anything. Ask yourself, what connects for me? Where do I find God? Is it walking in the woods, is it painting? Find out what it is and start doing it once a week. Make that your spiritual practice."
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