The growth of a new Jewish community came from the grief of a little girl.
Marilyn Shinbein was 10 when her grandmother died and her bereaved mother turned away from Judaism. The family stopped religious observances such as keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath.
"She felt that she's not going to pray to God anymore because he took her mother at such a young age," Shinbein recalled. "She was really upset."
But, Shinbein added: "I felt confused. All of a sudden we were nothing."
Decades passed. Shinbein became a banker in Manhattan and married Robert, who worked at the New York Stock Exchange. The couple retired and moved to Pasco County. Then they gravitated back to temple.
Shinbein also organized a chavurah, or Jewish fellowship group, in her Heritage Pines community, where once a month residents gathered for Shabbat services they led themselves.
"I picked up my relationship with God," she said.
Then she found herself at the same spiritual crossroads as her mother.
Shinbein's daughter, Eileen, died in February after battling lymphoma for three years. Eileen, 40, left behind two young children.
Shinbein, 69, felt pain and angst, and understood the urge to turn one's back on God. She knew how her mother felt nearly 60 years ago.
"I felt the same way," she said.
But she went the opposite direction.
• • •
Rabbi David Levin of Temple Beth David in Spring Hill, where Shinbein had attended services, stepped in as soon as he learned of her daughter's battle with cancer. Eileen lived in Massachusetts. Levin called her every day for the last six months of her life.
When Eileen died, Levin flew up for her funeral in New Jersey and stayed in contact with the family.
"It just grew from then on," Levin said.
Soon after Eileen died, Shinbein decided to open the chavurah to people outside Heritage Pines. The shul in Spring Hill was a little far for some people in Pasco, and there are annual membership dues. Shinbein envisioned a more informal gathering that would be less intimidating for people who hadn't been to synagogue in a long time.
An anonymous donor provided space at a local hotel, and Shinbein invited Levin to lead the service.
The first service in June had more than 100 people — a crowd so large that they got split into two services. People came from all over: Sebring, Wesley Chapel, Lakeland, as well as New Port Richey and Hudson.
"It was very uplifting to have so many people come," Shinbein said.
Next month they're moving to another hotel with more space.
"We all feel that there a lot of 'closet Jews', " she said.
• • •
At the service, people sang Hebrew songs like Shalom Alecheim and Lecha Dodi, they read from the prayer books, put arms around each other and enjoyed the companionship after so long not worshiping as Jews. Levin sang with his daughter, an opera singer who was visiting from Chicago.
Volunteers pulled together to make it all happen, Shinbein said.
Linda Weeks baked everything, including the challah and desserts. After the service, people gathered to talk, eat and ask when the next service would be.
Arlene Krusch of Hudson had been attending the group at Heritage Pines and brought her brother to the community service.
"It was wonderful; it was very well received," said Krusch, who saw her brother's eyes watering during the service. "There were chills, you could just see the looks on the people's faces."
She credits the rabbi, and is thankful that Shinbein put it all together.
"He's a very caring rabbi; he is a true mensch," a Yiddish term for a person of great dignity and honesty, Krusch said. "And she's doing a fantastic job," she said of Shinbein.
When Shinbein first invited Levin, he was thrilled about the idea, though he admits he was pleasantly surprised by how many people actually came.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "We didn't think we'd get so many people. It was very surprising."
"There are a lot of people here that are unaffiliated; they need to have a belonging."
The rabbi, who is originally from South Africa, said people from all backgrounds came for the service: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
"These people seem to want it very, very badly. They want to learn. They're really quite serious," he said.
The group is looking for a traveling Torah, a set of the sacred scriptures that are shared by communities that can't afford their own. For now they go without a Torah, because it's too expensive to buy one and hard to find one to borrow.
"You never know what can happen," Levin told them. "Just crawl before you can walk."
He realizes all this is in large part a result of the struggles Shinbein has gone through.
"From a negative can come a very strong positive," he said.