ST. PETERSBURG — Rabbi Philip Weintraub waited in the coffee house where tantalizing palm-size muffins beckoned.
Before long, several members of Congregation B’nai Israel joined him for a free-ranging conversation that touched on a recent recreational vehicle trip, children and schools.
Weintraub, who has been on a whirlwind mission to get acquainted with the St. Petersburg congregation he took over in July, deftly turned the discussion to the upcoming religious holidays.
"What do you do to prepare for Rosh Hashana?" he asked, referring to the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown Sunday and marks the beginning of the High Holidays. The 10-day period of introspection, repentance and hope culminates with Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.
From those gathered at the coffee house on Wednesday, there was talk of making honey cakes — in keeping with the tradition of eating foods that symbolize the hope for a sweet new year — reflecting on making amends to others and remembering one’s ancestors.
This will be Weintraub’s first major holiday at Congregation B’nai Israel. He’ll lead the services that draw crowds and require extra seating. He has been preparing.
"There is a lot of writing going on," he said of the 15 to 16 sermons he’ll give for the High Holidays and for Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths, that immediately follows.
"There’s reading and thinking. The blessing and challenge is that my real job is the people. If somebody comes into my office, it’s a blessed interruption. All of their conversations are an inspiration too."
Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, will entail "12 hours of standing and praying," he said. "It takes a lot of mental and spiritual energy."
He fortifies himself with prayer. "It’s like a life vest. You have to take care of yourself if you want to take care of everyone else. It’s not being selfish. It’s vital."
At 34, this is his second congregation since being ordained 2011. He and his family moved to St. Petersburg from a smaller synagogue of mostly older members in Newburgh, N.Y., where he had served for seven years. B’nai Israel members say he’s energetic. He blogs, tweets and regularly posts on Facebook and Instagram.
"Rabbi Weintraub is young and very socially attuned to the times," said Carol Marger, a retired Pinellas County teacher who has been at B’nai Israel since 1989 and whose husband, Bill, is on its executive board.
The new rabbi’s coffee gatherings provide "an opportunity during the day, in a smaller group, to get to know him personally," she said.
"I know that it is going to be an interesting journey. I feel lucky to be here from the beginning."
Weintraub began his "coffee talk" sessions at Black Crow Coffee, in St. Petersburg, then will move them to Redington Shores in October and then back to St. Petersburg until the end of the year.
"Not everyone lives around the corner from the synagogue," he explained. "My goal is to find places that are independently owned, locally owned places. My goal is to live my Jewish values everywhere and to give my congregation different opportunities to study, to connect, to talk, to ask big questions and little ones and sometimes those questions are harder to ask in the formality of an office visit, but you can ask them over a cup of coffee."
Linda Goldfarb, a Realtor, describes Weintraub as "reachable." He has Friday office hours "so you can drop in and chat with him," she said.
Goldfarb and her family have been at Congregation B’nai Israel for close to 30 years, during which it was led by Rabbi Jacob Luski, who recently retired after 41 years at the synagogue.
"It is always hard to follow a rabbi who has been at a synagogue as long as Rabbi Luski," she said. "With Rabbi Weintraub joining our synagogue, there’s new synergy for people who may have thought of joining or rejoining our synagogue. It’s a new beginning for us. We just feel that he wants to engage in our community."
She’s heard that the synagogue is expecting a larger crowd than usual for the High Holidays this year. "They have set up more chairs than they set up last year," Goldfarb said. "To me, that’s a neat thing."
Karen Kauffman, a retired teacher from Perkins Elementary, said Weintraub will be the fourth rabbi at B’nai Israel since her parents moved to St. Petersburg in 1954.
"When he came for the interview weekend, I liked his enthusiasm, his openness to children and to everyone," she said. "I like the young vitality that he is bringing."
Marger likes that Weintraub is the father of two young daughters. "A young family like his makes it more hospitable for others with young children," she said. "Children are the future. I like decorum, but I also think it’s joyous to have little kids around."
The synagogue is "looking to be more open and radically welcoming," with more emphasis on interfaith families, Weintraub said. For three years the congregation has held a Pride Shabbat service during St. Pete Pride week.
"For me, the blessing of Conservative Judaism is the middle way," Weintraub said. "From Aristotle to Maimonides, history teaches us the power of the golden mean. In a polarized society like ours today, our faith is one that teaches the importance of balance. We do not see science in conflict with faith, but as a complement to it."
He is planning more educational programs, even in private homes, and will start a class on the introduction to the Jewish faith.
"I strive to create an environment of intellectual and spiritual curiosity and creativity," the new rabbi said.
"For our children and the next generation, we are building our family programming. We’ve already created a new children’s area in the social hall, so that parents can eat in relative peace while their children can play. In the sanctuary, we’ve added more children’s books and invited the little ones on to the bimah (stage) at the end of services for the final blessings."
He and his wife, Rebecca, would like to settle in St. Petersburg.
"Knowing that their previous rabbi was around for 41 years was a testament," Weintraub said. "They didn’t give me a lifetime contract yet, but we’re working on it. We feel really blessed."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.