The Purim that Disney ‘pledged’ $300,000 to my congregation


As many in the Washington area may recall, in the fall of 1993 the Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a new theme park in Prince William County highlighting United States history.  At the time, I served as rabbi of the county’s only Jewish Congregation Ner Shalom.

When Purim approached early the next year, I wrote a spoof in  Ner Shalom’s February bulletin in which I announced the receipt of a letter from Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner, “the numero uno mouse, the big, big cheese of the most famous entertainment conglomerate in the world.”

Eisner shared in this pretend communication Disney’s desire to work closely with Prince William religious groups to ensure Disney America proceeded with a high degree of community understanding.  In fact, to demonstrate Disney’s goodwill, a $300,000 check to Congregation Ner Shalom’s building fund to help cover the expense of building its first synagogue had been enclosed.  Though the gift. Eisner said in the letter, ”carried no expectation of any quid pro quo, the ‘Michael D. Eisner Sanctuary’ certainly has a nice ring to it.”

Eisner also offered a windfall of additional benefits including: free appearances by Mickey, Minnie and Pluto at b’nei mitzvah parties, complimentary round trip bus transportation from the park to Ner Shalom for out of towners desiring to attend Friday evening services, special access to Disney America’s 7.000 foot replica of Mt. McKinley for overnight family retreats featuring sound and light reenactments of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, a jet pack powered Tinker Bell swooping out of the night sky to light the congregation’s outdoor Hannukiah and sprinkle the children with dreidel dust (“now that’s a shamash” added Eisner), and unlimited use of the mikveh to be included in the American Jewish Experience exhibit.

“As you can see,” Eisner concluded, “we want Ner Shalom to feel at home with Disney.  We don’t want to be perceived as coming into Prince William County like some Pirates of the Caribbean who took from others without giving anything in return.  No, we’ve learned it’s a small world after all.  Disney’s vision for the future, it is to succeed, must be shared one.”

I assumed the spoof would bring a good laugh.  For many it did.  But quite a few others thinking Eisner’s letter and check were true began rejoicing.   Even though such Purim spoofs are a rabbinic staple, I was chastised in some quarters for falsely raising the congregation’s hopes.  At a board meeting, one longtime member accused me of being immature and not realizing that “if the rabbi writes something, people believe it must be true.”

However, things changed after the story appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.  From there, The Washington Post picked it up, publishing a prominently placed item on Purim day headlined:  “Alas, No Bar Mitzvah for Mickey: Rabbi’s ‘News’ of $300,000 Disney Gift Surprises Congregants.”

Since Ner Shalom hardly possessed a profile beyond Prince William County, the article immediately put the congregation on the greater community’s map.  Indeed, members now began calling to extend thanks for the spoof because of the positive publicity it had generated.  Apparently, I’d matured significantly in a very short time.  By 9:30 a.m., I’d already fielded interview requests from several local radio and television stations.

However, an hour later my phone went eerily quiet.  The spoof story now had suddenly disappeared from media radar screens.  Why?  Because at that very hour a depraved Jewish zealot, Baruch Goldstein, diabolically perceiving the Scroll of Esther not as license to jocularity but, rather, to mass murder, walked into the Muslim prayer hall at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and gunned down 29 people while injuring 125 others.

Though Goldstein’s rampage put attention on the spoof quickly to bed, I still thought Eisner would be intrigued to learn of it.  An acquaintance of my father who happened to sit on Disney’s corporate board agreed to pass it on to him.  But, I never heard from Eisner.  Meanwhile, Disney America was soon abandoned due to projected traffic issues, the inclusion of a controversial slave exhibit, and its close proximity to a hallowed Civil War battlefield site.

Flash forward twenty-two years to this July.  During a weeklong stay in New York City, my wife and I decided to take a day trip to the Hamptons.  Walking in downtown East Hampton, I identified a familiar looking face under a baseball cap coming toward me.  At that moment, I felt a memorable element in my life had come full-circle.  I stopped alongside the man and, with calm excitement, and said, “Michael Eisner.”  Along with his son, he stopped, albeit hesitantly if not warily.

After quickly introducing myself and referencing Disney America, I wondered if he remembered receiving the spoof.  “Vaguely,” he responded, still seeming a little disconcerted to be recognized.  When asked if I could send a copy to him directly, he declined.  The interaction didn’t last very long and while I can’t say he was all that thrilled to have our lives cross, he did consent to a photo.

In mentioning this experience to a colleague in Tyler, Texas, Rabbi Neal Katz (no relation), I indicated that while meeting Eisner represented a big deal to me running into me hardly registered with him.

Neal consoled me with an account of a relative who, according to family lore, enjoyed a modicum of celebrity status as a musician, manager of a couple of well-known entertainers, and good friend of Itzhak Pearlman, who once gave him a violin when his own instrument had been stolen.

When Pearlman performed in Tyler a few years ago, Neal met him  backstage.   He related that Pearlman had been friends with a deceased member of his family who the virtuoso violinist had once even gifted a violin.  Pearlman responded, “What was his name?”  When Neal told him, he summarily dismissed the notion:  “Never heard of him.”

I felt better after hearing this.  At least my limited encounter with Michael Eisner was grounded in reality.  And it brought wonderful memories of my tenure at Ner Shalom.

Rabbi Jonathan R. Katz lives in Sarasota, Fla.

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