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There’s no business like shul business

Rabbi Moshe Rothblum retires after 35 years on the bimah at Adat Ari El

by Sarah Price Brown

October 26, 2006 | 8:00 pm

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The consensus among those who know Rabbi Moshe Rothblum is that if he had not become a rabbi, he would have been an actor. If he were not retiring after 35 years on the pulpit, he would be basking in Broadway's bright lights or Hollywood's glitz.

But that is just the word on the street. The truth is, Rothblum would have been a theater director.

"I'd be too nervous to be an actor," he said in a calm, gentle voice, speaking from a leather chair behind his desk.

Rothblum's desk is clean. There are no piles of paper, scribbled-on Post-it Notes or pens scattered about. The lack of clutter makes him feel as if he has everything under control, he says. He, too, looks neat, dressed in a gray suit, blue shirt and red tie.

Every year since he has been at Adat Ari El, a Conservative congregation in Valley Village, Rothblum has directed a play for high school students. In addition to "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," he has staged "My Fair Lady" and his favorite, "Man of La Mancha."

It makes no difference that the themes of many of the productions are not explicitly Jewish. What matters is that teenagers get a chance to get to know the rabbi, he said. Rothblum has inspired a number of them to pursue careers in drama, including the daughter of Associate Cantor Judy Dubin Aranoff and his own son, David Rothblum, a 29-year-old actor in Los Angeles.

Rothblum, 65, directed his first play at age 16 at Camp Ramah. Theater had always captivated him; it was in his blood. Rothblum grew up in Los Angeles with a father who directed and acted in Yiddish plays and a mother who was a dancer. They were Zionists but not religious.

At 18, after spending summers at Camp Ramah, Rothblum decided he wanted to be a rabbi.

"It was the theatrical aspects of religion that drew me to religion," Rothblum said. He prides himself on the way he has led services over the years, remembering to take their "programmatic value" into account.

"One of the things that I think I did very well was balance when the music came in, when the speaking came in," he said. "The flow of the service was always very important to me." Still, he stressed, "It was a totally spiritual thing for me. It wasn't like I was putting on a show."

In his sermons, Rothblum has used humor, emotion and often spoken in accents. ("I can do Irish, Italian, French, Russian, Yiddish, British," he said.) He has even sung sermons to capture congregants' attention.

"Having an important message to tell is not enough," Rothblum said. "It's the way you tell it, sometimes, that makes the difference." Lorin Fife, a former president of Adat Ari El, recalls the first time he went to the temple, 25 years ago.

"We walked into Purim services, and it was total chaos," Fife said. "There were kids running all over the place. There was this wild rabbi speaking in this funny Irish brogue, wearing some bizarre hat on his head and waving red and green flags to control the booing when Haman's name was yelled."

Fife loved it.

"The thing that really attracted me was the energy within the congregation and the fact that people were combining prayer with having a really enjoyable time," said Fife, 53.

The rumors about Rothblum's penchant for acting are not entirely off base. Last year, he made a cameo appearance on "CSI: New York," in which he recited Psalm 23 in Hebrew. He also joined the Screen Actors Guild.

Around the office, Rothblum likes to say, "There's no business like shul business."

He says it with a smile when things are going well or with a roll of the eyes when things are going badly.

If anything rivals Rothblum's love of theater it is his passion for music. He has released a couple of CDs with original songs and new melodies for traditional prayers. His version of "V'shamru," which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version -- "V'shamru, v'ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat" -- is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

"He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum," musician Craig Taubman said. "It's the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine."

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called "One Shabbat Morning," which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him "Moshe" or "Rabbi." Boni Gellis, Rothblum's assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him "my rabbi."

"I like to call him 'Boss,'" said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum's place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition. Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

"He has a very gentle touch," said Bernhard, 40. "It's not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It's been more by offering up words of wisdom."

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

"There're the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. ... They're inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you," Getzug said. "What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand."

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