It happens often in both churches and synagogues: the board is searching for a new minister or rabbi, someone young with fresh ideas who will appeal to the younger people in the community. Once the perfect candidate is selected and tries to implement changes needed to increase membership, the board becomes polarized and seems to do everything it can to block the new leader from carrying out any kind of plan.
That’s the situation faced by Rabbi Sam in this perceptive play by Charlie Varon, and brought to vivid life for its Toronto premiere by director Ari Weisberg.
In a richly layered performance by Ron Boyd, Rabbi Sam sets about trying to win over the board with his plan to reinvent Judaism for the 21st century. You would think the board of a synagogue facing declining membership would welcome such an opportunity, but these are people who have their own personal agendas.
When Rabbi Sam dangles a $2-million proposition from a secret benefactor, they become increasingly suspicious and begin orchestrating his ouster. The leader of the charge is Jerry Gomberg, a man with a near obsession over the activities of outspoken Islamic leader Louis Farrakhan. Martin Edmonds does a superb job of bringing this all-too-real character to life.
Suddenly the new rabbi finds his every move being tracked and questioned as the battle lines are drawn between those who support him and those who want him fired.
Among his supporters is Sarah Schimmel, played with great warmth by Marion Hirschberg. A scene in which she helps the rabbi prepare borscht provides an opportunity to learn about his late wife and the son he is struggling to raise.
Meanwhile, the board members are meeting secretly to determine Rabbi Sam’s fate.
The irony that a group of people brought together by faith should become so adversarial is not lost on the author, director or cast members. Sadly these types of boards and board members are all too prevalent, not only in churches and synagogues, but also in community and non-governmental agencies
Over the past few seasons, Teatron, under Weisberg’s focused leadership, has created a repertory company of dedicated performers, many of whom appear in this production. It is also encouraging to note the number of performers who are making their debuts with the company. Weisberg continues his global search for plays that enrich our understanding of Judaism, yet at the same time have resonance for people of other faiths.
As you watch Rabbi Sam – and I highly recommend that you do – you will frequently want to say, “That’s just what happened with our group...” It is the universal truth of the play that makes it so winning.
Rabbi Sam is on stage in the studio theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until Jan. 13. There is no performance on Friday. For performance times and ticket prices, visit www.teatrontheatre.com. To purchase tickets call 416-781-5527.