December 14, 2006
frdy nt efis
Right now, they are sampling five different cholents, as part of his first-ever Cholent Cook-Off.
But there's a problem: Cholent No. 4 is too popular, and they've run out of No. 4 cards. Since they can't make new ones on Shabbat, the rabbi needs to improvise. He sees that cholent No. 5, his own, has gotten no reaction, so he announces that No. 5 cards will now count for cholent No. 4.
It's another day at the office for Rabbi Effie, the head of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) on the West Coast.
Rabbi Effie's specialty is dealing with teenagers. On this night, a happy group of teens is buzzing throughout his modest but welcoming home, and they are filling its many "play areas."
Within about a minute, he asks a 10th grade YULA girl how her science project is coming along; he tells a Shalhevet boy that he hasn't yet received his paperwork for the "regionals" (the nickname for their big annual Shabbaton in December); and he introduces a kid from Natan Eli to a kid from Shalhevet (where he gives a class on comparative religion).
The rabbi has some extra stress tonight, because the housekeeper didn't show, and his 9-month-old baby girl is having trouble sleeping. His wife and partner, Sara Leah, a New York frummie who could have played the lead in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," is commuting between the baby's bedroom and the kitchen, handing out little cholent containers, directing traffic between the crockpots and matching her husband's affinity for delivering instant soundbites to an easily distracted generation.
As the climax of the evening approaches -- the reveal of the best cholent -- Sara Leah is helping her husband gather everyone in the kitchen. They interrupt a high-intensity foosball game, kids playing cards and board games and others just being loud for no reason. It's clear they don't mind yelling above the din of the crowd to get people's attention.
Every party has a star, and for my money the star of this party is a stocky, Moroccan version of John Belushi (kids, go rent "Animal House" or "The Blues Brothers") who goes by the name of Ouriel.
This 23-year-old character recently joined the staff at NCSY, and tonight he will announce the winner. When he introduced the five cholents a little earlier, he used references to the movie "Borat" and the MTV show "Yo Momma!" to make fun of everything, including the crockpots. He picked on a fancy-looking crockpot (my daughter's) by referring to MTV's "Pimp My Ride," revealing with a perfect deadpan that this particular crockpot came equipped with a DVD player and a navigation system.
When Ouriel announces the final scores, he shows no mercy for the losers, which plays well with a crowd raised on "American Idol." As the contest comes down to the two finalists, he lowers his voice to build suspense. He's no fool. He knows that the grand prize -- a $20 gift certificate at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf -- will not build suspense on its own, so he must compensate. By the time he announces the winner (cholent No. 4, Sephardic style) and ridicules the runner-up cholent's Polish Ashkenazi lineage, it's clear that the yelling and celebrating have nothing to do with the winning of a free chai latte.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Effie is schmoozing with a 15-year-old boy from Beverly Hills High, trying to entice him to come to the regionals ("the food and the speakers will be amazing"). He also reconnects with an alum who is now at USC and who tells me that in his last year of high school he rarely missed a Friday night of E=MC2.
E=MC2 is the somewhat corny name for Rabbi Effie's Friday night drop-ins (Effie's = munchies plus chillin' and cholent), but corny or not, the kids have been coming. What started as impromptu invitations to a few high schoolers three years ago has become a weekly happening for the teens of the hood.
Outside, I ask a Shalhevet girl who is a friend of my daughter why she likes going to Effie's, and she replies that it makes Shabbat "less boring."
Rabbi Effie is very aware that "not boring" is the secret password to win over teenagers. If you hear what this sharp-dressing 28-year-old has to sell -- lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, learning Torah, eating kosher, honoring the Shabbat, honoring your parents, visiting the sick, avoiding gossip, saying your brachas, etc. -- you understand why he needs to avoid boredom at all cost.
He heads two organizations on the West Coast: NCSY, which runs programs for teenagers in Jewish day schools, and JSU (Jewish Student Union), which works with Jewish teenagers in public schools. As he sees it, he encourages both groups of kids to do the same thing: strengthen their connection to Judaism, whether their level of Torah observance is high or nonexistent.
Although he doesn't shove the Orthodox label down anybody's throat, he makes no apologies for his Orthodox agenda (NCSY does, after all, fall under the Orthodox Union umbrella), nor for the fact that he would love to see every Jewish teenager in America keep the Shabbat and eventually marry Jewish.
He's smart enough to take what he can get. He once pleaded with a teenage girl who was completely disconnected from her Judaism to try honoring the Shabbat for just 10 minutes: light the candles, he told her, and stay off the Sidekick, the iPod and the TV for 10 minutes, and try it again next week, this time for 20 minutes.
He believes that if he can keep the kids busy with their Judaism, they'll spend less time wasting their lives away on things like MySpace and YouTube.