NEW PORT RICHEY — Rabbi Shabsi Alpern was far from home Monday night, speaking to a room full of people about God and what he wants from us.
"This is the last place I expected to be tonight," said Alpern, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Sao Paulo, Brazil. His 48th anniversary doing Jewish outreach in Brazil fell on that night.
Rabbi Yossi and Dina Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco invited the esteemed rabbi, who was spending some time in Miami, to speak to their community in Trinity and share his insights.
"He wanted to make the drive because he knows what it's like to move out to a place like this," said Rabbi Eber, who came to Pasco County three years ago from Brooklyn.
"Because of him and people like him, we have others doing it today. He set the example."
With a long white beard, small frame and warm eyes, Alpern spoke through stories and anecdotes, but his main message was about serving others.
"Each one of us has a buried treasure within that he has to reveal," he said. "By doing good for others, that's how you find it."
It's the mission of the Jewish people to use their physical world to elevate and bring out that holiness, he said, with such acts as lighting Shabbat candles, praying and giving food to the homeless.
"Any little thing that you do … you don't know what may be missing here in New Port Richey," Alpern said. "One of you may hit the jackpot. Take advantage of every situation and do something good."
A good deed is eternal, he said, even if someone does a hundred not-so-good deeds.
The Chabad leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, sent emissaries like Alpern and the Ebers to places like Brazil and Pasco County, and thousands of other locations.
Chabad-Lubavitch is a mystical branch of Judaism that started in Russia 250 years ago. Now based in Brooklyn, the group has 4,000 emissary families around the world reaching out to and teaching nonobservant Jews about Judaism. Two rabbis involved in the organization were killed last November in the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India.
The mission is to "reach out to every single Jew in every community all over the world," Eber said, "to bring Judaism to them, bring comfort to them, and be there in any way.
"That's really what it's about," he added, "to make this a dwelling place for God, a caring world. It's a ripple effect."
Vicky Benedon of Trinity told the group that what stands out most in her mind is walking through the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"I have never heard so many people saying, 'Oh my God,' " she said. "There's always a God. The people that survived, survived because of God."
A couple of people in the audience spoke about suffering and about doubting God's existence. Alpern responded matter-of-factly that he and his parents survived the Holocaust and came to the United States, while the rest of his family died during the war.
But it still didn't shake his belief in God. When people have questions or doubts, he said, it comes down to two things: Try to get answers, which takes time; and continue being a child of God.
"Misery, violence, the Holocaust, Iraq … he owes us a lot of answers," Alpern said. "We have to have patience."
While some people may call themselves atheists, Rabbi Alpern said that "everyone has a moment when he believes in God."
"God knows everyone has doubts," Keep on doing good things, he said. "Positive doubt, that will bring you to a positive attitude."
Alpern also spoke about the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'av, which was Thursday. The day marks the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.
"Centuries later, people can still cry like it happened yesterday," he said.
The rabbi said it's an especially good time to think in positive terms.
"What good things can we add to our world and our people … to quicken the coming of the Messiah and the building of the third Temple? May it happen speedily in our times."
The Jewish people have a mission that's not accomplished in just one generation, he said. Each generation builds on each other, he said, and every good deed makes a difference.
"The cup is almost full," he said. "We just need to add a few drops."
Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at Mindy.Rubenstein@me.com.