Mark Novak is kvelling in his 15 minutes of fame. Well, make that 15 seconds.
The District of Columbia rabbi and cantor, who founded and leads the alternative Minyan Oneg Shabbat, made a cameo appearance on the Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of Potomac.
The clip is brief. But it got a lot of people in the Jewish community wondering: “Who’s that rabbi?”
The Real Housewives of Potomac, which depicts the exploits, rivalries and lavish lifestyles of six women from the wealthy Potomac enclave just outside of Washington, is part of a franchise of Housewives programs known for cattiness and rumor-mongering. Earlier versions featured women from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills and Washington. (Remember the White House state dinner incident when the Salahis crashed the party? That was a “real housewife.”)
It turns out that one of the Potomac wives, Katie Rost, is Jewish, and Novak performed a baby-naming for her then-toddler twins. “A producer googled and found my website and called me,” Novak reported, adding that she must have liked what she saw on his rebmarko.com website.
“Right away my defenses went up,” he admitted. “’Why are you calling me and what are you looking for?’ I asked. We don’t even have cable TV, and I wouldn’t watch that show anyway. But I did know about it” from the grapevine.
Novak did a bit of investigating and concluded that the production company was aboveboard and he thought, why not try it. He heard that at least one other local rabbi was approached and turned it down. But for Novak, outreach is a key element of his rabbinic profile, so why not?
The episode he appears in was shot last spring. After it ran on Jan, 24, Novak said this about his role: “They cut out all the parts that were communal and holy.”
As a freelance rabbi, Novak frequently performs weddings, baby namings, funerals and other life cycle events for Jews who are unaffiliated with a congregation.
While the production company required that he not meet with Rost until the day of the filming, Novak said he built in an escape clause. “I said that if I had any concerns that this wasn’t right [Jewishly], I was out. They agreed,” he said.
On the day of the filming, he met with Rost and learned a bit about her.
It turned out that all of the Potomac “housewives” are African-American and/or biracial women. Speaking with Rost, he learned that her mother, Rynthia, a well-known philanthropist, had gone through a conversion and married a Jewish man who died in 2000. After her father’s death, Rost told Novak that she converted with a local rabbi. With her mother, Rost runs the Ronald F. Rost Charitable Foundation, which provides extracurricular programs for children in need. “They’re good people, good people,’ Novak said.
“Katie is a model, strikingly beautiful,” Novak added, “I’m not her rabbi, but she’s also lovely inside. I think we struck up a nice rapport. She was engaged, at the time to a man who goes to Washington Hebrew [Congregation]. I’m not sure if they got married yet.” He suggested that we’ll have to wait for the show to air a wedding to know for sure.
Novak, who is also a mashbia, a spiritual director, sat with Rost and used a guided imagery exercise that helped her imagine her children’s Jewish growth into adulthood – through bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings. At the ceremony, which is glimpsed in Sunday’s episode, a tallit – prayer shawl – is held over the children and family, and Novak has the attending family and friends create a spur of the moment English acrostic – alphabetical prayer – with their wishes for the children.
This creative approach to Judaism is something that Novak uses in his Minyan Oneg Shabbat, which meets at the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Chevy Chase Circle. The gathering offers opportunity for meditative prayer, singing, chanting, thoughtful gathering and a Torah reading that inspires discussion among the one to two dozen attendees. The service, which takes place the first and third Saturday morning of each month, is followed by shared fellowship at a potluck lunch. Beyond the services, Novak’s minyan also meets for social and Jewish learning opportunities. There’s an open mic havdalah, at the end of Shabbat, when participants share a talent, perhaps a song, a story, a skit, in a casual setting.
“I think I’ve created a laboratory shul,” Novak said, noting that there is an actual synagogue called the Lab Shul in New York, but his evolved independently. “My intention was to create a place that was a sanctuary for people to experience the deepest part of their souls through a Jewish lens.”
“We borrow, like my mentor Reb Zalman [Schachter-Shalomi] from other traditions and see what we learn on these other paths while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the Jewish path,” Novak said. The late Schachter-Shalomi was an influential rabbi and founder of the Jewish renewal movement. “So … the Sufis are chanting. Let’s take a pasuk [a verse] and repeat it over and over. Let’s offer a chassidic teaching, then let’s sit with it and chant it and see how deeply we can take it to personalize it and integrate it into our lives.”
So while Novak kvelled in the glow of his brief cable reality TV fame, his real work as a rabbi continues — reaching out to Jews, affiliated or not and guiding them on their spiritual journeys. That could be in his first and third Saturday morning services, or in his encounters with Jews who need a rabbi for a lifecycle event like a baby naming or a wedding, or in private sessions with those seeking to deepen their spirituality and inner lives. “Most people live with a pediatric understanding of God,” he said. “And in any group of 10 Jewish people you will have different understandings of God. This is the kind of community where we have these conversations.”
For the second episode, in which Novak appears, visit bravotv.com/the-real-housewives-of-potomac/season-1/ep-2-divas-queens-and-bubalas.
For information on Minyan Oneg Shabbat and Rabbi Mark Novak, visit minyanonegshabbat.org.