ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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Match made in heaven

LA synagogue hosts ‘Mitzvah Mania’ with Jewish pro wrestlers

Temple Beth Am, located in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, is putting on a one-off show on April 2 to coincide with this weekend’s ‘WrestleMania’

Professional wrestler Maxwell Jacob Friedman attends the UFC 282 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 10, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Professional wrestler Maxwell Jacob Friedman attends the UFC 282 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 10, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Colt Cabana, real name Scott Colton, is used to walking out to crowds of hundreds of fans as a member of All Elite Wrestling, a popular show that airs on channels such as TBS and TNT.

On Sunday, he’ll be wrestling at a synagogue.

Temple Beth Am, located in Los Angeles’ heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, is putting on “Mitzvah Mania,” a one-off show with mostly Jewish wrestlers. It’s pegged to another event taking place this weekend: “WrestleMania,” the annual marquee event for the WWE, the country’s largest professional wrestling series.

“Mitzvah Mania” will break new ground for the synagogue with about 900 member families that typically holds more traditional programming, such as Shabbat dinners, adult education offerings and text study.

“We’re trying to do something different that synagogues haven’t seen before,” said Ari Fife, the synagogue’s director of programming and engagement.

The show, which is being billed as the first of its kind, will include six matches, five of which will feature only Jewish wrestlers who perform at various professional tiers, and one with a Jewish referee.

In addition to Cabana, attendees will see former Jewish WWE stars Lisa Marie Varon (or Victoria, as she was known in the ring) and Chris Mordetzky (a two-time National Wrestling Alliance champion known as Chris Masters and later Chris Adonis).

“Certainly in America, this is the first time there’s been representation in every match on the card, Jewishly,” said Jeremy Fine, a Chicago-area rabbi who planned the event.

The backstory started about seven years ago, when Fine, who runs the Jewish sports blog “The Great Rabbino,” went to his first independent wrestling show and saw Cabana, a fellow native of Deerfield, Illinois.

Fine was living in Minnesota at the time, and he recalled telling some of his congregants about the show. When they suggested putting on a wrestling show at the synagogue, he thought the idea was crazy. (Fine’s former synagogue is still innovating: they recently built an ice skating rink.)

“They were very persistent,” Fine told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We did it, and it was a huge success. And by our second show, we were sold out in a Minnesota blizzard on a Wednesday evening.”

Fine ended up hosting three wrestling shows at Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul Jewish with Israeli athletes and entertainers — “Mitzvah Mayhem,” “Hanukkah Havoc” and “Exodus.” It turned into his own wrestling company, 2econd Wrestling, that puts on shows near his current pulpit in Chicago and around the country, including Sunday’s event in LA.

A wrestling event at Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Darin Kamnetz/F1rst Wrestling via JTA)

“Mitzvah Mania” will be Fine’s most Jewish show yet.

Fine had approached Beth Am about the event to tie it to “WrestleMania,” which rotates its location and is this year being held at nearby SoFi Stadium. Fife said the synagogue’s senior staff was hesitant about the idea, even as they set out to hold more unique events.

Fife, who himself grew up a wrestling fan, said there was initially “a lack of understanding of what wrestling really is.” For the uninitiated, professional wrestling in the likes of the WWE and AEW is a far cry from Olympic-style wrestling. In addition to being athletic performers, wrestlers like Cabana are also entertainment figures, complete with detailed costumes and character backstories.

Fife said once everyone understood the storytelling aspect of the sport — and were assured that it’s not as violent as they thought — the idea was approved.

“Mitzvah Mania” is sponsored by a number of Jewish organizations, including Maccabi USA, BBYO and the Jewish National Fund. Fife said Beth Am secured a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to help put the event on.

Fine said Jewish interest in wrestling has increased in recent years, in part thanks to Maxwell Jacob Friedman (known simply as “MJF”), the current AEW world champion and an outspoken and proud Jew. Earlier this month, for example, Friedman celebrated his “re-bar mitzvah” as part of an “AEW Dynamite” night on TBS. Jewish fans also cheered when Goldberg, one of the stars of the late 1990s and early 2000s WWE craze, returned to the ring in 2015.

The overlap between Jews and wrestling extends beyond the ring, Fine said, arguing that the connection is biblical — from Jacob wrestling with an angel in Genesis to rabbis intellectually wrestling in the Talmud.

“If we just take that and put it into the context of wrestling, we at our core, are storytellers,” Fine said. “We’re listening to the stories, and we’re incorporating them into our lives and we’re building up. And so wrestling is the greatest platform to struggle, to wrestle and to very much create stories that present a narrative for us to think and root for what’s good and boo what’s evil. That’s the story of Purim!”

He said it’s important for rabbis to go beyond the usual work of teaching the weekly Torah portion, or speaking about antisemitism and Israel. Many wrestlers Fine has worked with will approach him with questions about Judaism — from asking about holidays to basic questions about what a synagogue or JCC is.

“If we’re really going to defeat antisemitism, if we’re really going to be able to have intellectual conversations about the modern State of Israel, what better way to do that than rabbis getting into niche communities and really having those conversations, and not just talking to the congregants who either agree or have heard it before?” Fine said.

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