CLEARWATER — A 600-square-foot space nestled in a cluster of offices off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard is slowly materializing into a young rabbi's dream — a new Chabad center, the third in Pinellas County.
St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor already have active Chabad centers. The Clearwater center will celebrate its grand opening at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Levi Hodakov, the 37-year-old gregarious red-haired rabbi, and his wife Miriam, 34, are rolling up their sleeves as they take on the role of directors of the new Chabad, hoping to attract Jews from Clearwater, Largo and Belleair.
Hodakov said his goal is not to make other Jews members of the Chabad, an orthodox movement in Judaism that dates back to 18th Century Russia. Rather, he hopes to reintroduce those Jews who have strayed from their roots to an appreciation of their long and rich tradition.
"A Jew is a Jew regardless of affiliation or background," he said. "We want to encourage all Jews to commit to a life of Torah (the five books of Moses) and doing deeds of goodness and kindness."
The father of six children ranging in age from 2 to 9, the rabbi is lining up programs now — a task for which he is well-prepared.
Since 2006, Hodakov, who is descended from generations of rabbis, has served as program director of Pinellas Chabad in Palm Harbor. Soon after his arrival he introduced the public to an eye-catching approach to one of Judaism's favorite holidays — Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights.
Now in its fourth year, the Hanukkah on Ice program at Westfield Countryside Mall features lighting a menorah, singing holiday melodies in Hebrew and skating to Hanukkah music. Tampa Bay Lightning fans might witness Heritage Night, a yearly ceremony marking the beginning of Hanukkah by lighting a giant menorah in the plaza of the St. Pete Times Forum.
Hodakov and his wife will follow the lead of other Chabad leaders in the 3,300 centers worldwide and throughout the United States — bringing programs and discussions to as many Jews as possible in a warm and welcoming manner.
Some of his classes will deal with Jewish holidays and include baking matzah for Passover and frying latkes, or potato pancakes, for Hanukkah. For other holidays, children and adults alike will prepare special dishes and even make costumes.
The rabbi's dream includes a library as well. Days before the scheduled opening, he was stocking rows of children's Jewish books and videos on clean, unused shelves.
"I'm looking to carve a niche by creating the biggest Jewish library for children in the area," he said.
Adult participants will have a say in what classes are offered.
"Whatever people are interested in, we will deal with," said Hodakov, adding that topics might range from Jewish law to the wisdom of millennia of Jewish sages, referred to as the "Ethics of our Fathers."
Miriam Hodakov is planning a series of classes just for women. On tap are monthly "coffee and conversation" gatherings dealing with Jewish philosophy and "bagels and babies" breakfasts for women with children 2 and under. She said all sessions will involve sharing and learning from each other.
"We want to teach people to be proud of their Jewish heritage," said the rabbi. "The whole purpose of Jewish learning is to put it into practice."
Chabad is headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., but branches throughout the United States operate with donations from their local Jewish communities as well as from the national organization. A Clearwater attorney has donated the space for Hodakov's new center at 1433 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Suite B, while others have donated chairs, books and supplies.
Hodakov expressed concerns about the lack of participation in synagogue life by area Jews.
"According to demographic studies," he said, "30,000 Jews live in Pinellas County and most of them are unaffiliated."
He will try to change those statistics.
"We want to reach as many Jews as possible," he said, "and to present traditional Judaism as a relevant, vibrant part of people's lives."