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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.
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.
Dressed in a violet-blue, light summer wool Versace blazer, white shirt, black slacks, and matching tie, Frank arrives at Mims Restaurant in Boca Raton at 10:00 a.m. this Sunday for a small wedding ceremony scheduled for 10:30 a.m.
He's wearing black mesh slippers, not his usual Gucci loafers, because a portion of his right foot was scraped to the bone last month in a motorcycle accident. He was driving on the turnpike headed to Bike Week in Daytona Beach when he passed a truck and hit a cone. He fell on top of the bike and rolled onto the pavement.
Frank chats individually with the bride and groom and attendees, then changes into his rabbinical robe and a handmade white yarmulke with gold embroidery. He puts on a long gold necklace with a mezuzah pendant, a gift from his father. A diamond-encrusted initial ring draws attention to his left pinkie. Dangling from his right wrist is a gold charm bracelet with ten symbols of Jewish religious rituals.
It's the second marriage for both the bride and groom; she is Jewish and from South Florida, he is an Italian Catholic from New York. She wears a smart beige skirted suit; he's decked like the black-tuxedoed groom atop the wedding cake. They stand facing each other holding hands while Frank, his head a foot or two from the couple, leads the ritual. The ceremony, held in one corner of the dining room, is intimate and draws sentimental tears and sighs. The cake is cut; children nibble on bagels with lox and cream cheese. "It's hard enough to find someone in this world without getting into who's what religion," comments the groom about the propriety of the interfaith wedding. Another man in attendance, the psychologist and best-selling author Leonard Felder, claims Frank's role in contemporary Judaism is an important one: "People need to respect the orthodoxy, but somebody has got to be out front to keep up with the changing future. Somebody's got to challenge the establishment."
Frank's twenty-minute wedding ceremony covers all the essentials and is punctuated with his exuberance and levity. "I've got it down to a science," he says. "Not too long, not too short."
Udi Manor, Frank's trusty aide, collects the fee for the service and then briefs his boss on the next appointment, scheduled for 12:30 p.m. at a banquet facility in Davie. Speeding and weaving through I-95 traffic, Frank decries the "hypocrisy" among some other rabbis. He tells of a female rabbi, the leader of a gay congregation, who will perform same-gender marriages but not interfaith marriages. "Either you're prejudiced or you're not prejudiced," Frank reasons. "Why does everybody think they're holier than thou? I don't hold that view at all. It's just hypocritical all the way around. Our history is interfaith over the centuries. Assimilation is what's helped us thrive and survive. We believe that religions are meant to bring people together. We don't turn people away."
Ahead of schedule, Frank stops for a shot of wheat-grass juice at the Bread of Life health food store in Davie before heading on to the Signature Grand banquet hall for another wedding. This one is fairly elaborate. The bride is perturbed with all the fuss and is uncomfortable in a tight-bodiced gown equipped with a veil and an extra-long train. Minutes before stepping down the aisle between 150 people, she pleads to a higher authority, "Just get me to the reception, please."
The next service, at 2:00 p.m., is held at Frank's synagogue, a modest and warm contrast to the previous ceremony. The bride is 71, the groom 80. They met at the mailbox in their building. Celebrating the event is a handful of the couple's adult children and friends. The reception will be at the Rascal House restaurant. "A lovely ceremony. Wonderfully sweet," coos Belle Goodman, a friend of the groom. She says Frank's ceremonies aren't as formal or serious as other Jewish weddings she's attended. "He's not so tiresome. The others seem endless."
Two more weddings to go and Frank breaks for lunch at Miami Juice (which Frank likes to call Miami Jews) on Collins and 163rd Street. He orders broiled salmon with brown rice and a papaya-orange juice. Is it kosher? "The true essence of being kosher is being healthy," he explains. "I don't have eggs and dairy and meat to mix, so I'm kosher anyway." He tells of his cousin Leon, who is strict Orthodox, and the problem they have trying to find a place to eat together. Frank doesn't like the nonmacrobiotic menus in kosher restaurants and Leon has to have the kosher label. "I tell him let's go to a health food store and eat healthy food; don't worry if it's not kosher."
The cousins clash over other things because of their religious positions. "My cousin is very much into the Kabalah, the book of Jewish mysticism, and he says to me, 'Loring, how about one day we do a Kabalah class?' I say, 'Great, Leon.' So I start calling people on the phone to get a lot of people to come. He calls me about a week before the Kabalah class. He says, 'Loring, I forgot to mention to you, I can only teach Kabalah to people who are Jewish. So anybody who comes to the class who's not Jewish, we'll have to turn them away.' I told him that's not my style, man. I'm not going to stand at the door and say, 'What's your religion? Show me your ID card; you can't come in.'" The class at Frank's synagogue is canceled.
The 5:30 p.m. wedding at Celebrations, another banquet hall in Plantation, is a mixture of Jewish and Baptist, long red and blue sequined bridesmaids dresses, Kenny G music, and the smell of garlic bread wafting in from the kitchen. After the pronouncement of "husband and wife," someone yells, "Let's eat!"
Viewed while crossing the drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway on Southern Boulevard toward Palm Beach, Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago looms like a Castilian castle. Arriving right on time for the 7:00 p.m. formal affair, Frank changes clothes in the driver's seat of his Mercedes, from a blue Versace blazer to a white Neiman Marcus tuxedo dinner jacket. Adam Gottbetter and his bride pose for photographs on the coral-color gravel driveway in front of the villa. They met at the Caribou Club in Aspen and will honeymoon in Thailand, Singapore, and Bali.
Gottbetter was impressed with Frank the first moment he met him last month. The 29-year-old commercial real estate attorney from New York City flew down to interview Frank as a candidate to perform his wedding. They met at the Marriott in Boca Raton. "He drove up to the interview in a white Mercedes E300 and walked out carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. I said, 'That's my kind of guy. He's hip and young for his age. He's not some putz.'"
Gottbetter rented Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach for his white-tie wedding and invited 200 guests. Rather than the traditional wedding march, the band plays a funky interpretation of "Long Live the Queen" when the bride strolls down the curving outdoor stairwell, toward the pool and chuppah canopy, where her groom awaits her. Amid the Gatsbyesque setting of ice sculptures, caviar, and the famed Peter Duchin Band playing high society tunes, Frank performs the ceremony at sunset. The Jewish glass-stomp and then "Mazel tov!" ("Good luck!" in Hebrew), and the rejoicing begins. Afterward, in a cozy nook bar sporting a heroic painting of Trump titled "The Visionary," Gottbetter leans forward and expresses his appreciation for Frank. "You know, he's a little strange," he whispers. "He's out there. But in a positive way. I respect that. I like that he's a real person, not a phony."
Frank collects $500 for the service and heads home to Miami Beach. He says he's not getting rich. "Whatever," he says. "I'm not doing it for the money. If my father had not passed away I wouldn't be doing this now. And I might have been better off financially. But I love what I do. I'm happy."
He tells a joke, one of many he's delivered with a professional comedian's timing during the day: "This one," says Frank, "symbolizes totally the essence of what it's like to be Jewish. You have to have something to complain about." It goes like this: A man was stranded on an island. While he was stranded, he built two synagogues. When he was rescued years later he was asked why he built two synagogues. He replied that in one synagogue he worshiped every day. "I love that synagogue; it's my favorite synagogue." The other one? "I would never set my foot in that one."
When it comes to handling criticism from those rabbis who disapprove of him, Frank takes his mother's repeated advice: "Forget about them. Move on.
Ray Martinez's article "Rabbi with a Cause" (April 17) incorrectly described Loring Frank's astrological sign. Rabbi Frank is an Aquarius, not a Pisces. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published: