Like all rabbis and other communal leaders, Joseph Prouser has traveled a largely unmarked and seriously potholed road as he tried to keep his synagogue, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, together, sane, and at least relatively happy.
Unlike his Orthodox colleagues, he does not have the guidance of the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, with its straightforward reliance on tradition and halacha; he also does not have the freedom that other Conservative as well as Reform and generally progressive rabbis have to redefine it on their own terms.
He’s the leader of an egalitarian but otherwise traditional Conservative shul, with a congregation that’s devoted to the shul, and in general past the age where they’d have children at home.
Rabbi Prouser has negotiated the path during this pandemic year by leading masked and socially distanced Shabbat services outside almost every week; he’s shortened them as necessary and had to concede to the cold to the point of canceling them just a few times. Otherwise, congregants have been bundled and blanketed outside, with hot tea at hand.
Now, there’s Purim.
“The pandemic was declared on Shushan Purim last year, so we’re really coming full circle,” Rabbi Prouser said.
As for his plans, “We’re having a drive-in Purim,” he said. “This is a first for us. “Ora” — that’s his wife, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion — “will read the megillah live, outside, from under a shelter, and we will have a sound system project it so that people can hear it clearly from their cars.”
The evening will include “gloved and masked waiter service,” which will include the megillah and refreshments, brought to cars. “The one dramatic change from our usual routine is that we are not serving liquor,” Rabbi Prouser said. “There is a fine distinction between serving liquor inside and knowing that people will drive home — we also know that they have designated drivers — and actually bringing it to their cars. We will not serve liquor to people in cars.”
Everyone will be “safe and warm and separate in their cars,” he said. “Our motto is honk when you hear Haman.” He expects cacophony — carcophony? — when the villain’s name is read.
“The logistics are challenging, but we are making sure that everyone can hear but we also won’t disrupt the neighbors,” he added. That’s easier for Emanuel than it might be for other synagogues because there’s the shul building on one side of the parking lot and a funeral home on the other, and the reservoir is right across the street. Still, “although we’re pretty sure it won’t be disruptive, we’re communicating with the neighbors to warn them about what we’re doing,” he said.
“Not to push the metaphor too far, but of all the holidays on the calendar, it is just Purim that conspicuously excludes the name of God. Human being are in control. Here, we are placed in the driver’s seat. There is some poetry in hearing the megillah from the driver’s seat.”
It reminds him of a famous line by Jack Kerouac, from “On the Road,” a line that he knows he’ll quote at some point on the eve of Purim, probably as part of his introduction to the megillah reading.
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
That’s normally a hard question to answer; on Thursday evening, it will be clear. To Temple Emanuel’s parking lot.