The sermons in Rabbi Chezi Zionce’s temple Beth Tikvah almost always start with a joke.
“Have you heard the one the about the girl who brings home the boyfriend studying at the yeshiva?”
He’s got a folder full of them on his computer that he’s passed on to other rabbis.
“Shofar so good.” (Shofar is a ram’s horn sounded at temple services on High Holy Days.)
It’s a style of Judaism that the rabbi thinks is overdue.
“For far too long religion has subjected people to sitting in a serene, morose place, but I want to make Judaism fun,” Zionce said.
“I’m trying to instill life.”
Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, there is also a serious side to Zionce. He follows a fairly strict style of Judaism — always wearing a yarmulka and never driving on the sabbath.
“I believe there are many ways to observe God, and all are equal, but personally, I am a traditionalist.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself, he says.
“God doesn’t want people to be sad,” he said.
Over the years while working in Canada, South Carolina and now Naples, Zionce has figured out ways to mix his two styles into one that provides both “tradition and modernity.” The message, the history and the purpose are still the same. But the delivery might occasionally be a little different.
The joke goes that in an Orthodox synagogue, where women and men sit separately, they sleep separately while the Rabbi talks. In other temples where the congregation sits together, they sleep together. In Beth Tikvah, women and men sit together.
“But nobody sleeps in my synagogue,” Zionce said. “I want the people up singing and praying with gusto.”
Last week, as part of the Jewish New Year celebration at Beth Tikvah, Rabbi Zionce lead his congregation down to a bridge over the canal along Airport Pulling Road for a Rosh Hashanah tradition called Tashlich. Dressed in a pressed suit and Stetson fedora but wearing a pair of black Crocs sandals, he and others threw bread crumbs into the water to symbolize a casting away of last year’s sins.
It’s a tradition Zionce enjoys and thinks is good for the congregation. In 91 degree weather no one is going to fall asleep. And the fish get fed to boot, he says.
Afterwards he joined hands with some of the children and started dancing. A few of the congregants pulled him aside to make sure cars could pass over the bridge.
“I want them to be comfortable, I want them to see that I’m one of them,” he said. “And I like making people happy.”