LA synagogue hosts ‘Mitzvah Mania’ with Jewish pro wrestlers

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Colt Cabana, real name Scott Colton, is used to walking out to crowds of hundreds of fans as a member of All Elite Wrestling, a popular show that airs on channels like TBS and TNT.

On Sunday, he will be wrestling at a synagogue.

Temple Beth Am, located in the largely Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles, is putting on “Mitzvah Mania,” a one-time show with mostly Jewish wrestlers. It is pegged to another event taking place this weekend: “WrestleMania,” the annual marquee event for the WWE, the biggest professional wrestling series in the country.

“Mitzvah Mania” will take center stage at the synagogue and will typically include about 900 member families who will host more traditional programs, such as Shabbat dinners, adult education offerings and text study.

“We’re trying to do something different that synagogues haven’t seen before,” said Ari Fife, the synagogue’s director of programming and engagement.

The show, which is being billed as the first of its kind, will feature six matches, five of which will feature only Jewish wrestlers operating at various professional leagues, and one with a Jewish referee.

In addition to Cabana, attendees will see former Jewish WWE stars Lisa Marie Varon (or Victoria, as she was known in the ring) and Chris Mordetzky (a two-time National Wrestling Alliance champion known as Chris Masters and later Chris Adonis).

“Certainly in America, this is the first time every match on the card has been represented, Jewishly,” said Jeremy Fine, a Chicago-area rabbi who planned the event.

The story began about seven years ago, when Fine, who runs the Jewish sports blog “The Great Rabbino,” went to his first independent wrestling show and saw Cabana, a native of Deerfield, Illinois.

Fine was living in Minnesota at the time, and he recalled telling some of his family about the show. When they suggested putting on a wrestling show at the synagogue, he thought the idea was crazy. (Fine’s old synagogue is still innovating: they recently built an ice skating rink.)

“They were very persistent,” Fine told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We did it, and it was a huge success. And by our second show, we sold out in a blizzard in Minnesota on Wednesday night.

Fine completed three wrestling exhibitions at Temple Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul Jewish with Israeli athletes and entertainers – “Mitzvah Mayhem,” “Hanukkah Havoc” and “Exodus.” He became his own wrestling company, 2econd Wrestling, which puts on shows near his current pulpit in Chicago and around the country, including Sunday’s event in LA.

A wrestling event at the Temple of Aaron Synaggue in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Darin Kamnetz/F1rst Wrestling via JTA)

“Mitzvah Mania” will be Fine’s most Jewish show yet.

Fine approached Beth Am about the event to tie it in with “WrestleMania,” which rotates its location and is being held this year at nearby SoFi Stadium. Fife said the synagogue’s senior staff were hesitant about the idea, even as they wanted to hold more unique events.

Fife, who grew up a wrestling fan himself, said there was a “lack of understanding of what wrestling really is” at first. For the uninitiated professional wrestlers in the likes of WWE and AEW, Olympic style wrestling is not far off. In addition to being athletic performers, wrestlers like Cabana are also entertainment personalities, complete with elaborate costumes and character backstories.

Fife said when everyone understood the storytelling aspect of the sport – and were convinced it’s not as violent as they thought – the idea was approved.

“Mitzvah Mania” is sponsored by several Jewish organizations, including Maccabi USA, BBYO and the Jewish National Fund. Fife said Beth Am received a grant from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation to help put on the event.

Fine said Jewish interest in wrestling has increased in recent years, thanks in part to Maxwell Jacob Friedman (known as “MJF”), the current AEW world champion and an outspoken Jew. Earlier this month, for example, Friedman celebrated his “re-bar mitzvah” as part of “AEW Dynamite” night on TBS. Jewish fans were also delighted when Goldberg, one of WWE’s late 1990s and early 2000s stars, returned to the ring in 2015.

The overlap between Jews and wrestling extends beyond the ring, Fine said, arguing that the biblical connection – from Jacob wrestling with angels in Genesis to intellectual wrestling rabbis in the Talmud.

“If we take that and put it in the context of warfare, we are storytellers at our core,” Fine said. “We’re listening to the stories, and we’re incorporating them into our lives and we’re building them up. And so wrestling is the biggest platform to struggle, to wrestle and to create stories to a great extent that present us with a story to think and root for what is good and boo what is bad. That’s the story of Purim!”

He said it is important for rabbis to go beyond the usual work of teaching the weekly Torah portion, or talking about anti-Semitism and Israel. Many wrestlers that Fine has worked with will ask him questions about Judaism – from asking questions about holidays to basic questions about what a synagogue or JCC is.

“If we’re really going to defeat anti-Semitism, if we’re really going to be able to have an intellectual conversation about the modern State of Israel, what better way to do that than to get rabbis into in niche communities and actually having those conversations, and not just talking to the communities that agree or have heard it before?” Fine said.

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