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'Mitzvah tank' in Clearwater takes the synagogue to the streets

CLEARWATER

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Rabbi Shmuel Reich has taken his message to the streets.

He uses a converted RV as a mobile synagogue.

The "mitzvah tank," as it's called — referring to the Jewish mitzvahs, or biblical commandments, that it encourages — can be seen throughout Tampa Bay. He drives the 32-foot vehicle to baseball and football games, parks, beaches, flea markets and other spots where Jews may be found, which is pretty much anywhere.

"It inspires people. It puts smiles on people's faces," said Reich, 32, who runs the Clearwater Jewish Enrichment Center from his Clearwater home.

His operation includes the mitzvah tank, also known as the "Mobile Center for Goodness and Kindness."

"The mitzvah tank is showing people that being Jewish is a happy thing, it's kindness, it's joy," he said.

Artwork, Hebrew words and Judaic images adorn the sides: shabbat candles, tefillin, mezuzah, tzedakah box.

Reich purchased the refurbished vehicle several months ago with financial help from Robert Metnick, a podiatrist in Tarpon Springs who was inspired by the rabbi's outreach work. Metnick remembered seeing a mitzvah tank up North and suggested it to Reich.

"He's very much into helping fellow Jews and doing outreach," Metnick said. "He's a very creative rabbi who not just says the words, he practices what he preaches.

"I think (the mitzvah tank) will be a great way to reach unaffiliated Jews in the community. It's something that's needed, and it will do a lot of good in the community."

Mitzvah tanks also have some history. During the Lebanon War in 1982, mitzvah tanks were sent by the rebbe into Lebanon, leading the Israeli tanks, the rabbi said. They were sent to the fighting front to boost the morale of the soldiers, giving out doughnuts and drinks.

• • •

Heads turn as Reich drives by, his smiling, bearded face waving from the window, Jewish Hasidic music blaring from its roof-top speakers.

He stops at a light and people honk their horns, yell friendly greetings, take pictures with their phones. He said he hasn't really experienced any negative reactions, other than getting pulled over by police for a noise ordinance violation.

Friday before Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, he can be seen driving around, reminding people that it's almost Shabbat, the day of rest that begins Friday at sundown.

"We want Moshiach now, we don't want to wait," Reich shouts jovially, referring to the Jewish concept of the pending messiah.

He considers himself a personal messenger of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

"The rebbe in the 1970s said that it has come the time that we cannot wait until people come to synagogue, we have to go out and find them," Reich said. "In modern society, we aren't living in a religious world."

He talks about "coming to people in their daily mundane life and bringing them the spirituality of the synagogue."

Many of the people Reich meets haven't connected with their Judaism in years.

"It reminds them of their past," he said.

Jews and non-Jews alike seem to marvel at the novelty of the mitzvah tank.

"We get a lot of thumbs up, and my kids love it," said Rebbetzin Raizy Reich, 28, the rabbi's wife. They have three children, ages 3, 1 and a newborn. She works behind the scenes, preparing meals and welcoming frequent guests into their three-bedroom home.

• • •

Reich gives on-the-spot spiritual bar mitzvahs, a brief ceremony, to men at random places he stops, like one 21-year-old with tattoos and piercings he met at a local gas station.

"They start to remember their parents and grandparents, and most don't even know they are Jewish," he said, adding that if their grandmother or great-grandmother on their mother's side was Jewish, they're 100 percent Jewish.

He estimates there are 250,000 Jews living in an extended Tampa Bay metro area that includes Polk, Sarasota and Manatee counties, with only 15,000 affiliated with a synagogue.

"We're living in a very mobile, suburban culture," he said.

In the past, people typically went to synagogue down the street, but now it's not as easy, he said. The mitzvah tank brings the synagogue to them.

During the St. Petersburg Times Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving that passed right by his house on Keene Road, with the mitzvah tank parked out front, he and his family stood outside greeting passers-by, finding and connecting with Jews.

"It's an immense thing," Reich said. "They never saw such Jewish pride in their life. We're taking Judaism out of the box and putting it into the streets."

. If you go

Public menorah lightings

ON WHEELS

• Hanukkah Menorah Lighting and Mitzvah Tank Inauguration.

When: 5-7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Front steps of Clearwater City Hall, 112 S. Osceola Ave.

For more information: Call the Clearwater Jewish Enrichment Center at (727) 474-3663.

ON ICE

• Fifth annual Hanukkah on Ice and Grand Menorah Lighting, sponsored by Young Israel Chabad of Pinellas.

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Tampa Bay Skating Academy — Westfield Countryside Mall, 27001 U.S. 19, Clearwater.

For more information: Call Young Israel Chabad of Pinellas at (727) 789-0408.

'Mitzvah tank' in Clearwater takes the synagogue to the streets 12/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 3, 2010 8:00pm]

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