Rabbi with a Cause

For Loring Frank, South Florida's freewheeling rabbi of the people, Judaism is all about inclusion

Frank's synagogue is the same one his father founded in 1972, the All Peoples Liberal Synagogue, situated on the second floor of an old office building at the corner of 75th Street and Collins in Miami Beach. The name comes from Isaiah 56.7: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, sayeth the Lord, God." He has no dues-paying members but rather an informal congregation that numbers about 5000. Last year he drove 45,000 miles around South Florida performing in the neighborhood of 350 weddings, 50 baby namings, 100 funerals, 30 bar/bat mitzvahs, and 100 conversions. Traditional conversions to Judaism take between six months and a year. Frank can do a conversion in eight hours, with a break for lunch. He explains the significance of all the major holidays, teaches the symbols of the religion, the life rituals with special emphasis on the Sabbath blessings, then finishes up with a ritual baptism in the Atlantic Ocean. One-day conversions are particularly controversial because under Israel's law of return any Jew is eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. His fees are all suggested donations, which go into the synagogue fund. Wedding services are between $360-$500; individual conversions are $500 and up, group conversions cost $360-$500 for each person. He estimates that he brings in about $200,000 a year to the synagogue, which pays all his expenses and the salaries for two full-time and several part-time employees.

Rabbi Emmet Frank painted the fun swirls and bright geometric abstractions hung on the walls alongside five antique pews in the narrow sanctuary. To the sides of the room are a storage room and a study with a view of the beach and a hotel pool below, where women often lie topless. Loring recalls five years ago when he was called to testify "from a rabbinical point of view" in a Palm Beach courtroom in defense of a street hot dog vendor charged with indecent exposure for wearing a thong bathing suit. Defense attorney and now-State Rep. Barry Silver led the inquiry. "'Rabbi, does this offend you?'" Silver asked. "I said, 'No, not at all.' He said, 'When you look outside your window at the beach do you see bathing suits like this?' I said, 'Yes, all the time.'" Frank didn't mention to the court that he is a frequent nude sunbather at Haulover Beach.

"Haulover is a way to express your freedom," he says. "I dated one girl who I met there on the beach. I saw her there; she wasn't totally naked, she had her bottoms on. She was so beautiful, so exotic, a very tall, beautiful woman -- my type. I like dark hair, dark-skinned women, like Brazilian types. I saw her sitting there, and she was beautiful, and I said, 'I'm going to get up the courage to go talk to her.' She started to get up and leave, so I put my clothes on and I ran up to her and I said, 'I've got to meet you, you're so beautiful.' And we met and I dated her for a while and it didn't work out. She ended up being married."

Before Haulover Beach was a nudist hangout, Frank frequented the rooftop solarium for naturalists at the Palms Hotel on Collins and 94th Street. "One day I walk over there to lie in the sun," begins Frank, recalling a slightly embarrassing situation, "and as soon as I take off my shirt and take off my pants [I hear] 'Rabbi Frank.' Oh my God, you know what I mean? A couple I was getting ready to marry walked over, 'Rabbi, how you doing? Good to see you. Can't wait till you do our wedding.' She's standing there naked talking to me. He's standing there naked."

Divorced after a brief marriage to a Jewish woman and with no children, Frank rents a twelfth-floor penthouse apartment on the beach in Surfside and enjoys the company of younger women. Five years ago he was engaged to a 19-year-old Italian. They met when she came to him for a conversion. More recently he dated a University of Miami grad student and a young Trinidadian who works in a clothing store on Washington Avenue where he was shopping for a Rastafarian yarmulke. He thinks she's Muslim.

Frank didn't always want to be a rabbi. Less a scholar than a "people person," he says he entered the University of Miami with a vague idea of becoming "a newscaster or movie star or something like that." Instead, he graduated with a communications degree and went to work in the burgeoning cable TV industry. He sold door to door and rose to sales manager for all of Florida while at Teleprompter Cable TV of New York City, and then became a partner in his own company, Bonaventure Cablevision. On the weekends he teamed up with his father, driving the family's $90,000 Silver Spirit Rolls-Royce. Three months before Emmet Frank died of a heart attack in 1987, he placed his hand on his son's head and ordained him a rabbi. Encouraged by his mother, Rabbi Frank gradually left the cable business and picked up his father's vocation. In 1991, in response to a lawsuit that alleged Loring Frank had been an hour and a half late to perform a wedding ceremony, and that questioned his rabbinical status, Frank secured an honorary rabbinical degree from Rabbi Joseph Gelberman of the New Seminary of New York City, which ordains rabbis to serve the unaffiliated. The lawsuit, which was featured on the television program Current Affair, was later dropped. Most rabbis are eligible for ordination after studying five years in a recognized rabbinical school. Much of Frank's training came from watching and talking with his father, a charismatic man who wore madras and bright pink sport coats and white buck shoes.

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