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Playing drama card, Shomrei Torah packed them in on Purim

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Shomrei Torah’s Purim shpiel brought an off-Broadway flavor to Wayne. Eric Weis Photo

Purim is supposed to be a holiday of celebration and rejoicing, but faces were grim on Purim night a year ago at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne.

Barely more than a minyan had gathered after Shabbat to hear the megillah reading.

“The truth of the matter is that in our community, child-centered celebrations like Purim and Simchat Torah do better during the week than on a Saturday night,” Rabbi Randall Mark said.

Beth Julie, one of the shul regulars who did show up, didn’t want to accept the demographic decree.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “We have to do something about it.”

So, taking a page from Mickey O’Rourke and Judy Garland, Ms. Julie decided to put on a show. A Purim shpiel – with the high ambition “to actually try to make it as close to an off-Broadway production as we could,” she said.

She set to work immediately creating a musical revue, which retold the story of Purim through rewritten popular songs.

Before last Passover, she already had her first numbers, and was able to bring the synagogue’s leaders on board.

By January, she had 17 songs finished and began casting, rehearsing, and hiring professional musicians and sound and light men.

When Purim rolled around this year, she was expecting maybe 100 people to show up – the cast of nearly 30, their families, and maybe a few more.

Instead, more than 200 people filled the sanctuary.

“It was far beyond anything we had anticipated,” Ms. Julie said. “I never in a million years expected this.”

Ms. Julie has no professional background in musical theater. She holds master’s degrees in genetics and biostatistics and she works in her husband’s medical practice. But she loves to sing and to write. Shomrei Torah got a taste of her talent a couple of years ago. When she was asked to emcee a tribute to a fellow congregant, she wrote a tribute and set it to the melodies of haftarah trope.

She wrote the Purim show – called “Hang On, Haman” – as a musical revue rather than a straight drama – meaning that many congregants could take a turn singing in the voices of Mordecai, Ahasuerus, Esther, or Vashti.

As the excited anticipation grew last winter, the congregation decided to decorate the social hall as a middle Eastern shuk, and offer post-megillah desserts and wine tasting, and offer Pesach wine for sale, even as the actors transformed the sanctuary into a stage.

“It was a huge amount of work, but it was worth it,” she said.

“We did one song to ‘Dancing in the Streets’ and we got people up dancing with us. We had teenagers who loved it.”

“It was more people than anything we’ve seen since Yom Kippur,” said Rabbi Mark, who, as one of the King Ahasueruses, sang a duet with a Queen Esther to the tune of “Hey Jude.”

Ms. Julie already has begun work on next year’s production, which she promises will be “all new.”

“People are coming out of the woodwork now, telling me they want to be in the play next year,” she said. “I’ve had five men come to me and say they want to sing next year.

“If it’s what they want, I’m going to give it to them. Anything that can connect the community to our religion, to the holiday, to God, I’ll do it. I’ll do it as many times as it can happen.

“To do it at this level is a huge amount of work, but it was great, and it was worth it.”

Meanwhile, for other synagogues looking to engage their members on Purim, Ms. Julie is selling the script, with the proceeds to benefit her congregation.

“If we could engage our congregation, this could work for everybody,” she said.

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