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Astoria rabbi has plan to bring in new worshipers

Rabbi Jonathan Pearl and his wife Judy Pearl know a lot about movies and Jewish people, but when they came to the Astoria Center of Israel to revitalize the waning synagogue three years ago, they never suspected their latest home had a silver screen credit.

The Conservative synagogue, at 27-35 Crescent St. in Astoria, was once used as a set for the CBS movie “Rifkin: Bounty Hunter.” The Pearls wrote a book in 1999 about the history of the depiction of Jews on television and had seen and chronicled the movie in their book, but had not realized the synagogue acted as a backdrop in some scenes.

“We were floored,” Jonathan Pearl said. “It really astounded us. It was such a wonderful confluence of events.”

The Pearls will celebrate that serendipity of their past and present coming together with a new activity at the synagogue. On Jan. 8 at 7 p.m., following the Havdalah, or after-Shabbat services, the Pearls will show “Rivkin” as well as raffle off the book they wrote, “The Chosen Image: Television’s Portrayal of Jewish Themes and Characters.” Popcorn and other refreshments will be available for sale during the event.

This is the first of what is planned to be a regular movie night at the synagogue.

“Rivkin,” which was filmed for television in 1981, is roughly based on a true story of a single Jewish father raising his son, who needs a wheelchair. Rivkin, who is played by Ron Liebman — an actor who has had roles in “Friends,” “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order” and a TV series of his own titled “Kaz” — works as a bounty hunter to support his family. Meanwhile, Rivkin’s friend, a priest named Father Kolodny (Harry Morgan), is training Rivkin’s son for his bar mitzvah.

Judy Pearl said the movie has a strong theme of interfaith cooperation and is a positive depiction of people of different religions helping each other.

“It’s very nice, the friendship it depicts between the Jewish family and the priest,” she said.

Jonathan Pearl said the bar mitzvah was filmed in the sanctuary.

The Pearls had seen the movie before when writing their book to chronicle how Jews were depicted on television. They found from their research that the images were not always broad stereotypes but often dealt in serious ways with a variety of themes such as Jewish customs, intermarriage and the Holocaust.

Judy Pearl said their book was one of the first on this subject.

“It was really a very interesting journey for us. And it was very interesting to do this pioneering book,” she said.

Jonathan Pearl said the sanctuary was first opened 85 years ago, but the synagogue had seen a downturn in attendance over the years as Jewish families moved away. Over the last three years, the Pearls have worked to revitalize it through events like these and tzedakah (charity) drives and have seen attendance rise.

“Life is being put back into the place, which is very exciting,” Jonathan Pearl said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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