One day, three Christian ministers showed up at the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, California and took Rabbi Eliyahu Fink surfing. The pastors had come to stage an intervention: It was finally time for the 32-year-old Orthodox rabbi, who had never been in the ocean, to take the plunge and immerse himself in the lifestyle of the eclectic seaside community where he has been working and living with his wife and two sons for more than five years.
Kevin “Rev Kev” Annas, Anthony “Gladamere “ Lockhart, and Jerry “Doc” Bentley, known collectively as The Church Hoppers, didn’t show up last May at “the shul on the beach” unannounced. The ocean-phobic Fink had invited them to film an episode of their new “Church Rescue” unscripted television series at his synagogue. The segment airs December 23 on the National Geographic Channel.
We’ve seen this kind of show before. What Gordon Ramsay does for failing restaurants in “Kitchen Nightmares,” the Church Hoppers do for struggling religious congregations. The business-savvy ministers travel the country helping churches and other faith-based institutions (hence, Fink’s shul) better establish themselves in the marketplace so they thrive instead of going under, as so many small congregations do. The promo material for the series promises the trio will “use the wisdom of Scripture and a little Southern ingenuity to pull off inspiring interventions.”
Fink’s synagogue has been on the Venice boardwalk since the first half of the 20th century, one of several shuls that sprung up to serve the summer bungalow residents who came to the beach to escape the heat. Then, with the advent of air conditioning, the number of beach dwellers declined.
The synagogue was revived and saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, after Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a dynamic young Orthodox rabbi turned it in to the Pacific Jewish Center and aligned it with the ba’al teshuva movement.
According to Fink, who practices his own brand of “compassionate and passionate Orthodoxy,” the shul now attracts approximately 75 people on Shabbat mornings, and about 200 for High Holiday services — most of whom are Baby Boomers.
Fink explained to The Times of Israel that, although it will look on screen as though Annas, Lockhart and Bentley just show up at the shul, it actually took quite a while to hammer out the terms by which he and the synagogue’s board would agree to participate in the filming.
“We wanted to make sure that we were not portrayed in a bad light, or that we would in any way be understood to be Christian,” the rabbi said. “There were a lot of negotiations and we felt we could trust the producers that the show would be positive toward religion and not portray it in the negative way we often see in Hollywood.”
Reluctant to reveal any spoilers, Fink, who has a law degree from Los Angeles’s Loyola Law School and got rabbinical ordination while studying at Baltimore’s Yeshiva Ner Israel, would only speak about what is already shown online in preview clips.
In one segment, the ministers take the rabbi out to meet and shmooze with locals on and around the famous Venice Beach boardwalk just steps away from the shul.
Those who know the communicative Fink as an avid blogger and constant user of social media (he’s planning to do a live chat on his website during the show’s airing), might be surprised to learn that before the Church Hoppers showed up, he had not made any real effort to reach out to the local community.
“I have been focused on LA’s Jewish community and my international online network. I’ve now learned there is value in being known on the boardwalk, in being part of the community,” Fink said. “I used to be apologetic, but now I see that being a rabbi can afford me a sort of celebrity status here on the beach.”
And speaking of celebrity status, another clip shows the rabbi getting a surfing lesson from Izzy Paskowitz, a member of the world’s most famous Jewish surfing family (Izzy’s eccentric father Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz brought surfing to Israel).
So how did Fink do? “Not great, but not bad,” Paskowitz told The Times of Israel. He recalled that the weather conditions were not optimal that day, but that Fink persevered nonetheless. “On his last wave he stood up for enough time that it counted!”
Paskowitz, who took particular note of the rabbi’s “oh so white” feet, was honored to have been part of the show. “It was a great experience. I was glad to meet Kev, Glad and Jerry. My first impression was these guys really give a shit about people and their mission,” he said.
“And I was super stoked to be in the company of the rabbi,” he added.
Fink is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame and plans to ride the publicity wave as far as it will take him and his shul. Regardless of whether his participation in the show actually results in more members for the Pacific Jewish Center, the sight of the rabbi in his wet suit will not soon be forgotten.
“People will look at this and say, ‘There’s an Orthodox rabbi I can relate to,’” Fink said.