Tuesday, February 20, 2018
News Roundup

He found his Jewish roots before an untimely death

SEMINOLE — The RV played Jewish wedding music set to a techno beat.

Schmuel Reich, an Orthodox Hasidic rabbi, had bought the 34-foot coach in 2010 from another Jewish group, already outfitted to save souls. Two and a half years ago, he pulled up to a service station to fill his "Mitzvah Tank" with gas for the first time.

Before he left, Reich had led a 17-year-old boy through a bar mitzvah. The entire ritual took only a few minutes. The teen, Michael Schneider, told friends he was proud to participate in the ceremony that binds young Jewish males to God.

Recently, Mr. Schneider was nearing completion of his training as an aircraft mechanic. In his easygoing way, he was racing ahead with plans on multiple fronts.

"He had the patience of an old man and the spunk of a young one," said longtime friend Nick Robilotto, 19.

A job that could pay $100 an hour lay in his future. So did the motorcycle shop he wanted to open. His python, gecko lizards and a Nile monitor would all grow stronger, longer and faster.

Those dreams ended when he died in a motorcycle crash Jan. 23. He was 19.

His death has stunned a large circle of friends — including Reich, who nonetheless calls Mr. Schneider's story inspirational.

Reich, 34, moved to Clearwater from Brooklyn several years ago. He is a follower of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, dedicated to bringing Jewish people closer to their faith. He says many Jews who live in the Tampa Bay area are detached from active religious life. Those are the people he is trying to reach with the Mitzvah Tank, one of 10 in the country.

Michael Schneider was born in Port Jefferson, N.Y., but grew up in Seminole, graduating from Seminole High. Both his parents are Jewish by heritage.

"I did not bring my kids up with religion," said Stanley Schneider, 57, his father. He and Suzanne Schneider, Michael's mother, divorced in 2008.

In July 2010, Suzanne and Michael Schneider pulled into a Rally station on Bryan Dairy Road. As Mr. Schneider filled the tank of his mother's SUV, Suzanne Schneider noticed a man with a long beard filling a decorated RV, out of which pumped the music of her childhood.

She smiled.

Before long, the rabbi had persuaded Mr. Schneider, then 17, to come inside the "tank" for a quick bar mitzvah.

"He was a totally chilled-out kid," Reich said. "He was like, 'Sure, why not? Let's just do this.' "

By the time the rabbi was finished, Mr. Schneider had wrapped a leather strap seven times around his arm, and was wearing a small leather box on his forehead containing parchment scrolls from Deuteronomy and Exodus.

He repeated a Hebrew prayer that assigns glory to a single God, master of the universe.

To Reich's way of thinking, "This is the real bar mitzvah, not the popular culture bar mitzvah with elaborate parties and all that garbage."

Mr. Schneider stepped out into the sun and resumed his life. He enrolled in the National Aviation Academy.

"He wanted a career to make me proud," said Suzanne Schneider, 54.

In his spare time, he and Robilotto took their dirt bikes to Brooksville, or tinkered with cars or motorcycles.

"We fixed everything together," Robilotto said. "We rebuilt engines, bikes and cars. If we didn't know something, we'd sit there and figure it out."

Mr. Schneider was a careful rider, Robilotto said.

"He always wore full gear — helmet, jacket, gloves," he said. "Even though I live at the end of the road, he wouldn't ride from his house to my house without a helmet and everything."

About 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23, Mr. Schneider was riding his 750cc Suzuki north on Seminole Boulevard when a car turned left in front of him. Mr. Schneider died at Largo Medical Center. The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating.

"It's devastating. I'm crushed and heartbroken," Robilotto said.

More than 100 people turned out for a funeral service last weekend. Out of respect for his son, Stanley Schneider subsequently was bar mitzvahed by Reich, as was Christopher Favata, Mr. Schneider's brother.

Suzanne and Chelsea Schneider, Mr. Schneider's mother and sister, have begun to study Hebrew in preparation for their own bat mitzvahs.

That is just the way the Chabad Lubavitch movement is supposed to work, Reich said. Thousands of other people have received bar- or bat mitzvahs since Mr. Schneider stepped into the Mitzvah Tank two years ago.

"Even though it's such a horrific tragedy, this guy went to heaven with a complete soul," Reich said. "From a spiritual sense, this is a very powerful thing."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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