Rabbi Elliot Dorff twirls across the dance floor. His beautiful young partner reaches out her hand, and together they do a quick step and spin into each other’s arms. No, this is not a comedic doodle on the page of a bored rabbinic student’s notebook; it’s a rehearsal for “Dancing With the Rabbis.” At 6 p.m. April 3, Dorff will be stepping on stage in the Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University (AJU) to compete with four of his fellow clergy members for the coveted mirror-ball trophy, and he wants to win.
When Glorya Kaufman, a philanthropist with an interest in dance, came to Gady Levy, vice president of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, offering a donation for a program that would get people dancing, Levy knew just what to do. He’d been watching “Dancing With the Stars” on television, mostly because he was curious about the controversy swirling around Bristol Palin, and the idea dawned on him that it would be funny to do “Dancing With the Jews.” A few tweaks later, “Dancing With the Rabbis” was born.
“I wanted people to come and say, ‘Wow!’ ” Levy said.
At first, Levy was unsure whether rabbis would be open to the idea, but he was pleasantly surprised by the response. “There’s a real buzz,” he said. “We’re having a blast. The whole point is to get people to come, to stay and to dance.”
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, didn’t have to be asked twice. “Gady approached me with a sense that if I said yes, he could go to other rabbis and they might say yes, too,” Artson said.
Levy’s plan worked. In short order, he signed up Dorff, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Rabbi Nina Feinstein and Rabbi Zoë Klein.
Artson is humble about his chances for victory. “I don’t think I’m going to be discovered and leave my rabbinate behind,” he joked. But he’s enthusiastic about the chance to do something far outside of his normal routine. “I know that I play it safe. And I know that I’m happiest when I push myself out of my comfort zone.”
Despite describing himself as “petrified” to get on stage and perform, Artson thinks the event will be an enriching experience for all involved. “The serious value is having rabbis say that it’s OK to just have fun,” Artson said.
Dorff agrees that the show will be an amusing experience. “People are going to have a good laugh, and that’s really fine.” He is working hard to make sure he’s only partly humorous on stage. He’s been rehearsing for several weeks and feeling the burn. “An hour and a half of this is really grueling,” the 67-year-old Dorff said. “I had no clue how much work it was going to be.”
He also takes solace in the fact that “Dancing With the Rabbis” is “all part of evolving Jewish culture.” Reflecting on his own childhood, Dorff said, “My own hometown rabbi was very uptight. I don’t recall seeing him dance with his wife, ever.”
Times have changed, even since Dorff was in school, where the conversations often revolved around, “May the rabbi go to shop at the grocery store, and if so, may he do it in jeans?”
The audience won’t be disappointed, Dorff believes. “My guess is that the dances will look much better than anyone would expect.” And for those worried that the dancing might be a bit too racy, Dorff promises, “We’re doing the good type of dancing. There will be no golden calf on the stage.”
On the night of the show, the five rabbis will perform with their partners, then the audience will judge the winner, who will be rewarded with a charitable donation to the cause of their choice. The show will be followed by hors d’oeuvres and wine for all, and audience members will get a chance to try out their own skills on the dance floor. There will also be a special guest appearance by dancers Louis Van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff from the series that inspired it all — “Dancing With the Stars.” Levy confirms that it will be a special night for Smirnoff, whose father is Jewish.
Smirnoff won’t be the only woman tearing up the dance floor, though. Feinstein, and Klein of the Reform synagogue Temple Isaiah, will also be strutting their stuff. “I know it’s been advertised as five of the leading Conservative rabbis competing,” Klein said, laughing. “I’m really pleased to be ordained in two seminaries.” Klein plans to represent L.A.’s Reform Jews and to wow the crowd with her tango.
When asked if she has any experience dancing the sultry Latin dance, Klein is quick to respond. “Had I selected ‘crazy girl on the dance floor,’ I would have had a lot of experience.”
Klein was a little scared to accept the challenge of training for the show, but she knew that it was something she had to do. “Sometimes, when you’re very afraid of failing at something, that’s the very thing you should push yourself to do,” she said. “It’s hard, but it’s hard in a really exhilarating way.”
Both Dorff and Artson have been hearing from their students about the upcoming show. “I can’t walk down the hall without people doing little dance steps,” Artson said.
“I’m getting so razzed about this,” Dorff concurred.
Artson is secure in the knowledge that no matter how foolish he and the other rabbis might look on stage, they’ll probably exceed expectations. “The great thing about dancing rabbis is the bar is very low,” Artson said. “It’s kind of like a talking-dog contest. You don’t criticize the dog for not being eloquent; you’re amazed that it can speak at all. No one is expecting Rabbi Borovitz or Rabbi Dorff or myself to demonstrate incredible skill on the dance floor; they’ll just be impressed that we don’t hurt anybody or break anything.”
And whether the audience cheers or howls with laughter at the dog-and-pony show up on stage, “Dancing With the Rabbis” promises to be an event like no other.
Tickets are still available. For reservations and information, visit wcce.ajula.edu/dwr.