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Jewish Journal

Former Actor Takes Rabbi Role at Motion Picture Home

by Adam Wills

August 3, 2006 | 8:00 pm


Before Arthur Rosenberg became a rabbi he played one on TV. He starred as an Orthodox rabbi on "Chicago Hope" and as a Reform rabbi on "The District," in addition to playing doctors, lawyers and police chiefs on shows like "Knots Landing," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The X-Files." The former character actor says people sometimes recognize him for his turn as Kevin Bacon's uncle Wes Warnicker in the 1984 film "Footlose."

But now Rosenberg, 60, has moved on to a new role -- the first staff rabbi hired by the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Wasserman Campus in its 58-year history.

"Being an actor, it's constantly about you. How do I look? Do I have enough lines? Is the camera on me? How was my performance?" said Rosenberg, sitting behind his desk in a chaplain's office that could easily double for a closet. "This job that I have here is not about getting more, and it's not about me. It's about being present for other people and helping them to find a connection with the Divine."

Rosenberg entered the rabbinate last year, at an age when most rabbis are considering stepping down from the pulpit. And while his journey from bar mitzvah to smicha (ordination) wasn't an easy road, he has found his second calling among his entertainment industry peers at the Woodland Hills campus. His attention is now focused on aiding families with reconciliations and farewells, while also trying to foster a sense of community among retirees who require regular care.

"When I came here there were people who lived next door to each other who didn't know each other," he said.

Early in his acting career Rosenberg assumed Judaism wouldn't play a large role in his life, especially as he didn't encounter observant Jews in the industry. "My deal was to be an actor," he said. "Being in show business, you couldn't say, 'It's Friday night, it's Shabbos, the show don't go on.' If you're doing 'Hamlet,' you're doing 'Hamlet' Friday night and Saturday evening."

Not that he was particularly interested in his faith at the time. Rosenberg stopped going to his family's synagogue in Forrest Hills, N.Y., the night he came home from his bar mitzvah in 1959. He said his father told him to put the money, checks, bonds and gifts on the family table.

"I thought we were going to see what treasures we got, sort of like after Halloween," he said. "My father said, 'OK, you can keep the gifts and the savings bonds. Sign over the checks and give me the money.'"

When Rosenberg asked why, he said his father responded, "Who do you think is going to pay for all of this?"

"I felt like I was a man in the morning because I could read from Torah, and I was a boy again in the evening," he said. "I projected that onto being Jewish and going to temple. I went as far away from Judaism as you could go for the next 33 years."

Rosenberg focused his attention on acting, attending the School of Performing Arts High School and Stella Adler Studio in New York and Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, and working summer theaters in New Hampshire. In addition to stage work, Rosenberg spent more than three decades in television and feature films, with parts in "10," "Being There" and "Cujo."

In 1992, his life was shaken up once again by a bar mitzvah. This time he'd been invited to watch his friend's son read from the Torah at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana. It was the first time in 33 years he'd set foot in a synagogue, and he left that foot sticking out in the aisle as he sat in the last pew at the back of the shul.

"When Rabbi Akiva Annes stood up on the bimah, he looked over the congregation and he didn't say a word, he just smiled and I started to sob," Rosenberg said. He took his crying as a sign, and the next day when he saw the rabbi taking a shower across from him at the Mid Valley Athletic Club, it confirmed to him that this was more than just a coincidence. "I ran over and said, 'You're the rabbi!' He said, 'I'm naked, go away.'"

Rosenberg continued attending services at Temple Judea, and then started taking adult education classes. It wasn't long before he joined the pararabbinic program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and when he returned from the college's Cincinnati campus he told Temple Judea's clergy he wanted to become a rabbi.

"They all looked at me and said, 'You're too old,'" he said, adding that the rabbis pointed out to him it was a five-year program and that he'd be close to 60 by the time he graduated.

After serving several terms as head of Temple Judea's adult education, Rosenberg eventually tracked down a school in Manhattan that was willing to transfer completed course work from HUC-JIR and the University of Judaism. The interdenominational Rabbinical Seminary International allowed him to study with rabbinical mentors in Los Angeles and online.

When it came time to do his yearlong internship prior to his ordination, he thought back to the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Wasserman Campus, where he had had his gall bladder removed in 2001. He remembered that no rabbis had stopped by to visit him before or after the surgery, so he called the Woodland Hills campus and asked to speak with the rabbi. Instead, he got the chaplain, the Rev. David Grant, who has been with the home for 13 years.

When Rosenberg got together with Grant a few days later, he expected to chat over coffee. Instead, he found himself leading a discussion on the Torah portion of the week, Vayigash, in front of five residents in wheelchairs.

"I had the Jewish baptism by fire," he said. "We had a good conversation, and I got a call the following week asking when I wanted to start doing Shabbat services."

After his yearlong internship, the Motion Picture and Television Fund hired Rosenberg for a 20-hour per week permanent position. He leads 40-minute Shabbat services on the last Friday of the month for long-term care, and a campus-wide morning service, as well as a 45-minute Torah study, on the first Saturday. Rosenberg also leads the center's holiday services at the Katzenberg Pavilion. When he isn't serving on the center's bioethics committee or its palliative care team, Rosenberg's time is devoted to one-on-one time with patients.

"He does a good job. He's well liked. I couldn't say enough good things about his relationship with the people," Grant said.

Despite the glitz and glamour associated with Hollywood, the residents of the Wasserman Campus are often the people who toiled behind the camera: gaffers, electricians, editors, directors, costume designers, makeup artists and accountants.

"Most actors don't work long enough to get pension credits to get into the home," Rosenberg said.

Mort Schwartz, 80, has been living at the Woodland Hills center for more than two years. Wearing a red kabbalah string around his wrist -- a gift from one of his children -- he is a regular at Shabbat services, which have grown from five or six to 20 or 25 people each week since Rosenberg first arrived in 2004. The former costume designer is mostly irreligious, yet he shows up to Shabbat services and disagrees regularly with the rabbi.

"I still don't believe what he has to say ... yet," Schwartz said. Rosenberg describes Schwartz as the perfect Jew -- someone who participates, learns what he wants to learn and rejects what he wants to reject.

"He's a committed person, and that's what I love about him," he said. Having a regular rabbi on the Wasserman Campus has also had an impact on the staff as well. Marcelle Eshelman grew up in an interfaith family and describes herself as spiritual rather than defining herself by faith in Judaism or Christianity. An assistant with the activities department, she helps the rabbi with the Hamotzi and serving wine for Kiddush.

"Having somebody so spiritual to come over and talk to you about simple things and bring you back into this special place ...is something you didn't think was possible," she said.

Many residents at the Jack H. Skirball Health Center also credit the rabbi for his efforts to foster a sense of community in an ambulatory setting.

Barbara Kramer, 83, has spent almost eight months by herself in a long-term, fully assisted care unit. The wife of a former studio executive, Kramer is the only patient on her floor who can walk and she spends most of her time holed up in her room reading voraciously or writing on her laptop computer.

Since she stays up late and sleeps until at least 10:40 a.m., she misses religious services. Still, Rosenberg has taken it upon himself to get Kramer socializing with other residents. He introduced her to yearlong roommates Sally Lieberman, 81, mother of "thirtysomething" director Robert Lieberman, and Marion Doran, 96, mother of "The Firm" producer Lindsay Doran.

"I could understand how she's new and she wasn't exactly thrilled to be here. She would rather be in her own home," Lieberman said.

While moving into the Wasserman Campus hasn't been easy for her, Kramer recognizes Rosenberg's efforts to make the transition easier. "I think he's wonderful," she said.

Even though he becomes involved in their lives, Rosenberg says he maintains a professional distance with residents and hospital patients, and doesn't take his work home with him.

"I need to be here for you, but you don't need to be here for me. That's why I have a wife. She's there for me. I don't suffer through somebody else's problems. I accompany them as they work through theirs," he said.

When he isn't working for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, Rosenberg spends his time officiating at lifecycle events, like weddings, bar mitzvahs and baby namings.

"My goal is to reach every Jew, one Jew at a time, and try to see if it's possible to get the unaffiliated into community somehow," he said. Although he still has an agent, Rosenberg hasn't worked an acting job since his ordination. He even turned down a third chance to appear on screen as a rabbi, because the television comedy made fun of the part and he didn't want to hold up the position of rabbi to ridicule.

Rosenberg said he's simply reached a point in his life where he'd rather give back to others, especially those who share a show business connection. And, he says, the Wasserman Center is the perfect pulpit for him.

"I'll stay here as long as they want me. And then when they don't want me, I'll move in," he said.

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