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Rabbi with a Cause
For Loring Frank, South Florida's freewheeling rabbi of the people, Judaism is all about inclusion
By Ray Martinez
Is he or isn't he? The question of whether Loring Jethro Frank is a legitimate rabbi has lingered for ten years in South Florida's rabbinical community, with the majority of his peers believing that he is not. Some have called him a phony, a businessman in clerical robe. But he continues to teach, inspire, console, convert, marry, and generally do many of the things rabbis do. The challenge to Rabbi Frank's credentials is then academic, a moot point. Unlike many other religions, Judaism has no preeminent hierarchy, no one ruling body. Rabbis are expected to follow the laws of the Torah according to the teachings they've received and their own interpretation. Frank follows the path laid by his late father, Rabbi Dr. Emmet Allen Frank, the man who pioneered the one-day conversion to Judaism. Ze'ev Chafets, in his book about Jews in America, equated Emmet Frank with a New York City television huckster when the author called him "the Crazy Eddie of American Judaism."
On a recent Sunday Rabbi Frank performed a Jewish wedding ceremony (primarily in English, with some Hebrew) for a Catholic and a Jew, a Baptist and a Jew, and a Presbyterian and a Jew. He marries couples in which neither bride nor groom is Jewish. Same-gender weddings are also no problem. "We give the people what they want," Frank says. "We don't expect them to change their whole lives just to be Jewish. Be whatever you want to be."
His rabbinical approach is particularly significant in light of last month's news about the declarations by one Jewish group that raised questions about what constitutes a Jew. The debate over the definition was escalated by the nation's oldest body of Orthodox rabbis, which formally labeled non-Orthodox Jews as non-Jews. The assertion by the 600-member Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada was unfortunate and has been repudiated by the vast majority of Jews, says Orthodox Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.
Ironically, the Orthodox union's stinging words put Rabbi Frank in agreement with Jewish leaders who do not accept him as a rabbi. "I think that it's a good thing that it came out, because it unites many of the Jewish people in solidarity: the Reform, the Conservative, the Reconstructionist, the Progressive, the New Age, the Jewish Renewal, all the categories that the Orthodox don't recognize," Frank says. "I admire and respect the Orthodox very much, and uphold their right to speak out any way they want, but they are practicing the way it was meant to be practiced centuries ago. Things have evolved and changed, and I think we need to change and evolve. This country is based on freedom of religion, freedom of choice, and I support all people practicing their faith."
Approximately 10 percent of American Jews consider themselves Orthodox, 40 percent Conservative, 40 percent Reform, and 10 percent other. About 85 percent of Jews in South Florida do not belong to a synagogue or temple, and 52 percent are married to persons of another faith. (South Florida recently surpassed the Los Angeles area as the second most populous Jewish region in the country, after New York.) Only five percent of rabbis nationally perform interfaith weddings. Clearly, Frank has a niche.
"There's a big difference between what the people want and what the rabbis are doing," Frank says. "And that is one of the main commandments over the centuries, for the rabbis to go out into the community and find out what the people are doing and be there to serve them. Now, I don't profess to be an Orthodox rabbi or a Conservative rabbi or even a Reform rabbi; I'm more of a community-type rabbi. I'm out in the community for all people."
All people includes the cotton-candy lady and the elephant trainer, a couple Frank and his father married during a Ringling Brothers circus appearance in Miami Beach years ago. The Jewishness of the bride and groom were strangely complicated in that interfaith wedding. "His name was O'Brien. Her name was Goldberg. Guess who's Jewish?" Frank quizzes. "O'Brien was Jewish because his mother was Jewish. She was not Jewish because her father was Jewish, her mother wasn't." In Orthodox doctrine only a person born of a Jewish mother or a person converted to the faith under Orthodox standards can be considered a Jew.
The faith of the bridesmaids was never in question. They were elephants.
Frank is a realist who makes Judaism his business. He's a spirited 47-year-old with an Everyman's yen for material pleasure. While some cynics may sneer at such a man of religion, Frank happens to love his work and is refreshingly unhypocritical about it.
Uninterested in the kosher label, he's a macrobiotic man, avoiding meat and dairy in favor of organic foods like wheat grass, brown rice, and miso soup. He jogs four miles a day. He's a sun worshiper, his body taut, bronze, and lit by bright green eyes.
He rides his Harley-Davidson with the license plate RABIKER. He supports legalizing drugs (he smoked pot in college) and is not against casino gambling in South Florida. "I don't believe that any of us are victims. I believe that all of us are volunteers," he says. "God gives us our own free mind; what we do with it is our own choice." He's early to bed and early to rise, and avoids nightclubs for the most part because of the cigarette smoke, although he enjoys the outdoor section at Amnesia. He'll tell you he's a Pisces.