WESLEY CHAPEL — For the past few years, the Northwood home of Rabbi Mendy Yarmush and his wife, Chanie, has doubled as a gathering place. The couple hosts monthly Shabbat services, special holiday events, a Jewish Mommy and Me program, and a monthly Women's Circle that includes challah baking.
This fall, they plan to move all those activities to a new synagogue that will be east Pasco's first Jewish temple. They expect to open in time for the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begin in late September.
"We were surprised by the turnout in such a new community," said Chanie Yarmush. "The feedback has been phenomenal, and the numbers are shocking. That we have been able to open a center so soon, I wasn't anticipating that."
Rabbi Yarmush estimates about 35 families are actively involved with the Chabad at County Line serving east Pasco County and New Tampa. The group's public Hanukkah menorah lighting at the Shops at Wiregrass usually draws a few hundred people.
The synagogue will be in the Seven Oaks Professional Park just off of State Road 56, serving Jews in Wesley Chapel, Land O'Lakes, Zephyrhills and the surrounding areas. Crews are in the process of renovating the building into a temple.
The building is about 3,000 square feet, though the Chabad will use 1,800 square feet to start. In addition to a sanctuary that can seat about 100, there will be a kids' activity room.
"The new facility will allow us to expand our activities and programs that we provide to the community, while preserving the warm and intimate atmosphere that has attracted so many families and individuals," he said.
Rabbi Yarmush is from Toronto and studied in New York and then Los Angeles, where he finished his rabbinical training. Chanie Yarmush grew up in Tampa. Her parents, Rabbi Yossi and Sulha Dubrowski, lead Chabad of Tampa Bay in the Carrollwood area, as well as a Jewish school called the Hebrew Academy for preschool up to eighth grade.
The Yarmushes are leading a bustling summer camp at that location called Camp Gan Israel. They have two children of their own and are expecting a third this month.
"Growing up with my parents doing outreach has always given me a desire and excitement to follow in their footsteps. I am very lucky to have been given the opportunity to do that," Chanie Yarmush said. "Coming back to the area has really been a dream and I'm thankful to have that opportunity, but it's also daunting. When you have a center, you have a new responsibility. But it's a good responsibility, allowing us to grow in our programming and services."
Chabad's goal is to provide a warm and nonjudgmental environment where every Jew is welcome, regardless of background, affiliation or financial means, said Rabbi Yarmush.
The Chabad movement began in Russia in the late 18th century and is believed to be the largest Jewish organization in the world today. Led by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Brooklyn-based outreach movement has expanded to more than 3,300 institutions in 70 countries around the world, offering education and outreach activities through Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools and camps. Up to 1 million Jews attend Chabad programs and services sometime throughout the year, while an estimated 200,000 are actively involved.
While many synagogues charge an annual fee, Chabad programs are open to the public at no cost.
"It's not your typical membership," Rabbi Yarmush said. "It's the joy of enabling other people to celebrate each and every mitzvah, each and every good deed."
Susan Thompson of Wesley Chapel, who serves on the synagogue board and is one of the founding members, is excited about starting a synagogue from the ground up.
"After we found Rabbi Mendy and Chanie, we were so impressed with them and we really loved them," Thompson said. "It's been really good for our kids and good for our family. We used to not have anything in common, but now we have that in common."
Mandi Mendelson lives in Wesley Chapel with her husband and 1-year-old daughter. They started attending Chabad functions in 2008.
They went to their first Hanukkah event at Wiregrass. "It was a very fun event and it really just opened the door to a lot of the holidays that we hadn't been celebrating," she said.
While Chabad has been a small, intimate group, the new location will give members a chance to reach more people.
"People feel like we're all a part of it," Mendelson said. "When the new synagogue opens it's like we all have a place."
"They really make you part of the family as opposed to just a synagogue," added Linda Abramov of Land O'Lakes, who began attending Chabad programs with her husband, Hillel, a couple of years ago. "They know what's going on in your lives. You become part of their family and they become part of yours."