T he new rabbinical school sits tucked in a Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard strip center, flanked by a lingerie-modeling store and a hookah lounge.
For Rabbi Shmuel Reich, the rabbinical school, or yeshiva, is a perfect way to teach future rabbis how to reach out to those who need them most.
"The students will be an example, a beacon of light for the whole Tampa Bay area," said Reich, who runs the Clearwater Jewish Enrichment Center and started the school.
The new school, called the Metnick Yeshiva College of Tampa Bay, has three rabbinical students from Brooklyn, N.Y., but Reich hopes to have 20 to 30 students eventually. The Hebrew word "yeshiva" means to sit — or to sit and study the Torah, the Five Books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible. Reich said it's the only rabbinical school in western Florida between Tallahassee and Naples.
The students are living in a rented apartment and studying at the Gulf-to-Bay location each day for about five hours. Their daily regimen begins at 7 a.m., when they get up and go jogging, have breakfast, pray, and then get to the yeshiva by 10. After studying, they head into the community to visit assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and people in need. They have dinner and study for a couple of more hours before going to bed. The rabbinical program takes about 18 months.
Vadi Albukerk, 22, calls himself a "pioneering rabbinical student." His energy and enthusiasm are contagious as he reaches out to strangers, asks them if they're Jewish, and offers some inspiring words.
When he first arrived this winter, it was "a weather shock, a culture shock — Brooklyn to Clearwater is quite a bit different," he said. "It's a whole other world to adjust to. The lack of Judaism, the lack of Jewish pride. My first impression: We've got a lot of work to do, a lot of potential."
The intermarriage rate, for one thing, is staggering. He meets people every day who have little or no connection to their Judaism.
Rabbi Reich has been living in the area for three years and chose the location because of its high visibility. "Having a location there is a very powerful statement," he said.
Reich's brother, Rabbi Yehuda Baruch Reich, 22, is serving as the yeshiva's teacher. He was ordained in Australia and then attended a Jerusalem institute, equivalent to a master's degree program, Shmuel Reich said.
The Clearwater students recently visited a tattoo parlor owner in St. Petersburg they heard was Jewish. They visit Jewish patients at Morton Plant Hospital and Coral Oaks Nursing Home in Palm Harbor.
"I was the only Jew here for miles," said Adele Zigelbaum, 86, who lives in a local assisted living facility and recently received a visit from the rabbinical students. She was born in Poland and moved to New York in 1926, then retired to Florida. She said life can be tough if you're Jewish, or any minority.
The visit from the Orthodox yeshiva students was a first-time experience for her. "In New York, you see 'Yeshivniks,' " she said, referring to yeshiva students, but certainly not here. But if you see Scientologists and Muslims here, why not Orthodox Jews? She encourages tolerance. "There's no reason that people should hate one another."
In addition to visiting with local Jews, the rabbinical students put up menorahs at stores and nursing homes during Hanukkah; give proper Jewish divorces, which differ from legal U.S. divorces; and offer one-on-one learning.
"The whole point is having young blood. This place needs young Jews — observant, committed Jews — to infuse energy and life into this place," Shmuel Reich said.
Menachem Krasnianski, 19, dressed in the traditional garb of religious Jews — black pants, white shirt and black hat — was in a local store recently when a woman stopped him and commented on his clothes. She said her parents were religious and her father supported a yeshiva in New York. Now she goes to a Baptist church in Dunedin because that's where her friends go.
"Being part of Chabad means going around the world and having these kinds of experiences," said Krasnianski. "People come up and say they're Jewish. We walk around and fly our colors and wear our uniforms, so to speak. … It instills a sense of Jewish pride. "
The students are part of Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch, a Jewish outreach organization led by the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which sends thousands of rabbis around the world to live and reach out to unaffiliated Jews.
"They're doing one-on-one work in the field on a regular basis," Reich said of his students. "They're getting training on the job, and then they have all the tools they need to be rabbis. "They're the guarantors of the future generation. There's no more powerful thing than Torah study."