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“You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Why Does a Synagogue President Become the Easter Bunny?

This article was originally published in the Florida Jewish Journal, April 2019. You can read the full article here.

I am Jewish and the president of Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, and for the last few years I have celebrated Easter.

That’s right, I go to an Easter dinner with hundreds of families and dress up as the Easter Bunny.

I am certain that most Jews, and certainly most synagogue presidents don’t go to celebrations dedicated to Christ’s crucifixion and have never played the Easter Bunny.

Celebrating Easter and playing the Easter Bunny is not even remotely inside of my “Jewish comfort zone.” This year was my second year as the Bunny and my sixth year celebrating Easter and I am still not comfortable.

Every Easter Temple Beth El sponsors a community Easter dinner for underprivileged families and children at the Wayne Barton Study Center in Boca Raton. We provide a wonderful Easter dinner and experience to hundreds of families and children who otherwise would likely go without. It is at the Easter dinner and celebration that, among other things, I play the Easter Bunny.

This past year after helping set up for the dinner, I went to the Boca Raton fire house and put on my hot and cumbersome Bunny outfit. Once transformed to the Bunny, I came back to the dinner in a fire truck with sirens blaring and lights flashing. I pranced around, gave out gifts and candy, played with little kids and danced with reluctant adults. Since my sex as a Bunny was not clear, I danced with both men and women.

Whenever a dignitary started to give a “speech,” I launched into a wild Bunny prance and got everyone laughing. Some of the dignitaries, like our senior rabbi, are still not talking to me.

But just to be clear, playing the Easter Bunny and celebrating Easter is outside of my Jewish comfort zone and not something that I ever remember being taught about during my many years of religious education.

So, why do I do it? Why do I give up a perfectly wonderful beach day to put on a hot and uncomfortable outfit and attend an event to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion?

I do it because Leviticus 19:18 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and those words do not have any restrictions or qualifications based upon race, religion, sexual orientation, income bracket or age.

It’s easy for me to love my neighbors who agree with me, have similar backgrounds and look and act like me or my family. To love, cherish and respect my Jewish neighbors is a given and effortless; it doesn’t take a lot of effort for me to be nice to, and go out of my way for, fellow Jews. Jews are inside my Jewish comfort zone.

It is when I get out of my Jewish comfort zone that I find I have the most impact and must make the most effort.

At the Easter dinner I try to understand, empathize and work at the level of those whom I am there to serve. If I am performing tzedakah for underprivileged Christian children, I must to be an identifiable role model for children at an age appropriate level.

Unfortunately, being a Jewish role model for young minority Christian children simply doesn’t give them enough of an identifiable context to have much lasting impact. So, I dress up as the Easter Bunny and serve Easter food to the kids. The children do not have to process the fact that Jews are helping them. We are just kind adults and I am simply the Bunny.

There is no shortcut to this process of tzedakah; it requires me to understand and participate in the unfamiliar traditions of the children’s most popular holidays.

True tzedakah and love for those unlike us takes effort, time and flexibility. It requires the willingness to listen to the wants and needs of those who we are trying to help. And it requires me to get out of my Jewish comfort zone.

So, how is it “Jewish” to dress up as the Easter Bunny, serve food to families that I don’t know, give out Easter candy and gifts to small children and make fun of myself in front of hundreds of adults, all in sweltering heat and buried in an uncomfortable costume?

It’s because being a Jewish Easter Bunny brings to life the commandment contained in Leviticus 19:18 and allows me to love my neighbor as I would love myself or my own children.

Mark Sunshine

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