Latke-eating contest illustrates new life at synagogue

About a dozen kids sat around a long table Sunday afternoon, waiting for the signal.

Before each of them was a plate loaded with latkes, the potato pancakes of Hanukkah. Whoever cleaned his or her plate first could claim the title: Champion Latke Eater of 2011.

The contest began and ended in a pan-fried blur, with parents cheering, cameras clicking and a lot of determined chewing. The ultimate champ was a curly-haired youngster who, taking the event seriously, had pushed his sleeves up past his elbows.

But the real winner, some congregants might say, was the synagogue itself, a once-fading institution that is enjoying a renewal after an infusion of youth and whimsy and a newfound willingness to try the unexpected — such as a latke-eating contest.

It wasn't long ago that Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah — a Modern Orthodox congregation near Mount Washington — was facing a grim reality: Its members were aging and dying off, and few new families were joining.

But that situation began to change about a year and a half ago, when the synagogue hired 29-year-old Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, said Jeff Forman, the congregation's president. The previous rabbi, Elan Adler, left Baltimore to move to Israel.

The new rabbi and young father didn't waste any time. He encouraged the congregation to attempt all sorts of firsts: a shofar-blowing contest for the High Holidays, a chocolate Seder during Passover and, for Hanukkah, a rock concert, eating games and an attempt to create Baltimore's largest latke.

The potato pancake was a pizza-size creation that the rabbi happily showed off Sunday, parading it through the crowd on a platter as congregants whooped and pumped their fists.

"We just didn't do this stuff," Forman said of the old days. "We didn't do any of it."

Of Shapiro — who was officially installed as the synagogue's spiritual leader in November — Forman said, "His energy is boundless."

Forman credits Shapiro for increasing the size of the congregation by nearly a third, to about 300 families.

On Sunday, the congregation's large parking lot was nearly full, and Forman guessed that more than 200 people had showed up — including plenty of seniors, but even more families with small children.

"If all it is is prayer and that's it, bow and recite and do it again next week, it may not give you a reason to keep going," Forman said. "But if you have things like this, it's a vibrant place — people say, 'Let's be a part of that.'"

After the latke-eating contest came the afternoon's headline act, a performance by a rock band from Israel called Soulfarm.

The music was loud and the band members authentically roguish, with shaggy haircuts, tattoos and indoor sunglasses. Young parents danced, and a few older women couldn't help but tap on the tables to the beat. Shapiro, in worn blue jeans, spun around to the music, his baby son, Avi, in his arms.

Shapiro says that when he first got to Baltimore, one of the already planned big events for the congregation was an appearance by Fran Drescher, an actress who hasn't had a major hit in a decade.

"I don't think you're going to get young people by bringing in Fran Drescher," he said dryly.

Shapiro said he suspects the kids who ate the potato pancakes and danced Sunday will always remember it when they think of Hanukkah.

Leon Vinokur was one of the proud parents Sunday, aiming the camera at his 3-year-old daughter, Noa, during the latke contest. His wife, Nisa, helped make the giant potato pancake. The family joined Moses Montefiore four months ago, mainly for such events.

"They make it feel like a vibrant community," said Vinokur, 40. "There's a sense of belonging and that you're excited to be Jewish."

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