At Beth Sholom, the guys stay in for this year’s whiskeyfest

Rabbi Nissan Antine

The sizzle of grilled meat, the sweet sound of Scotch swirling in glasses. Last Sunday evening at Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, savoring charred deliciousness and sipping whiskey was supposed to help fortify some Washington-area Jews for the rigors of a Pesach-induced, matzah-only week, in part the functional equivalent of Mardi Gras — a celebration for Catholics before the lean days of Lent.

Now in its 10th year, Guys Night Out is a major fundraiser for the Orthodox synagogue, with prices ranging from $125 to $500 VIP tickets and bringing in upward of $50,000, Beth Sholom president Arnie Hiller said.

The event also raises funds for other charities, including A Wider Circle, which provides basic-need items to the homeless and others; and Leveling the Playing Field, which donates used sports equipment to schools and programs serving poor kids.

But in April 2020, big events — last year’s GNO had about 500 guests — are not in the cards. As most people practice social distancing, trying to contain the invisible monster that is projected to kill thousands and sicken hundreds of thousands of Americans and others throughout the world, Beth Sholom decided to go virtual, morphing to Guys Night In.

In the absence of nourishment for the body, the synagogue tried buttressing minds and souls, helping participants prepare for Pesach.

Rabbi Eitan Cooper

Highlights included Josh London recommending using wine at the seder that “gives pleasure” and warning that vodka made of potatoes may not be kosher for Passover.

Rabbi Nissan Antine explained why in the seder “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” precedes “we were idolators and then God brought us close to him.”

Chef Michael Medina discussed Moroccan charoset, which contains dates and walnuts.

Michael Glick offered a toast in memory of his father, Allen, who died from coronavirus.

Rabbi Eitan Cooper presented the results of a poll given to participants that found that most people don’t drink Manischewitz wine at their seders and a plurality were too sad to answer the question of when they thought the baseball season would begin.

And Rabbi Haim Ovadia discussed an Iraqi Haggadah, in Hebrew and Arabic with an English translation.

Mark Eidelman, who has organized these events since their inception, said he hopes this will be the last Guys Night In. But he found the evening emotionally moving. “People were engaged and cared,” he said. “There was a great sense of community because they wanted and needed to be part of it.”

Viewers watched a matzah-baking demonstration.

Longtime member Basil Herzstein, who has been to eight of the 10 previous GNOs, termed the events “very good evenings,” during which he “met new people, connected with friends and learned from Rabbi Antine’s classes.”

The virtual program lacked “the ambience and camaraderie and connecting with people in different ways” that characterized previous years, Herzstein pointed out.

David Weisel of Potomac agreed. Although he enjoyed the sense of “connection with the community, given that we’re disconnected physically and the teaching of Rabbis Antine, Cooper and Ovadia,” he found the GNI not nearly as satisfying as the in-person events.

“They have a different feel to them that can’t be replicated” in the virtual world, he said.But, everyone stressed, the 2020 GNO has been postponed, not canceled. It’s slated to take place on Aug. 30, when organizers hope the pandemic will have ended.

This year may yet see some sizzle and swirl.

Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.

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