Rabbi Shmuel Reich speaks fast and passionately about the work he does here.
Just 18 months after moving to Clearwater from Brooklyn, N.Y., he's quickly learned that most Jews in this area know little or nothing about Judaism, and many have converted to other religions. But that has only made him work harder, and no one is off-limits.
He gives wallet-sized cards to strangers on the street explaining the seven Noahide laws, the seven commandments that God gave to non-Jews, according to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad Lubvatich movement.
Reich, 31, drops off fresh challah bread baked by his wife, Raizy, 27, with handwritten notes and a doodle of a rabbi. He has started the Clearwater Jewish Enrichment Center, which he runs from his house. He jokes about the neighbors who live around his modest house on Druid Road. They've never met anyone like him.
"We had no plan," he said of his move here. "Sometimes that's the best way to do things."
But he gives credit for everything he is and does to God, saying that most situations are "divine providence."
He arranges meetings with Jewish men in coffee shops and teaches them how to put on tefillin — something Jews traditionally wear during prayer, that's based on Biblical passages. He calls it their "spiritual Bar Mitzvah."
He frequently laughs hard from his gut, and gives high fives after his jokes. An Orthodox rabbi with a black hat, long beard and a strict observance of the Torah, he calls himself a liberal.
He's teaching a little at a time to whomever he can about our purpose here. As Jews, we don't (or shouldn't, according to the Torah) work on Shabbat, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Reich and his wife follow a strict observance of the laws of the Torah, so they also don't do other things like drive, use phones or cook on Shabbat.
Many Saturdays, he makes the 3 1/2-mile walk from his house to Clearwater Beach, where he meets Israelis working in stores there. Other Saturdays, he invites people to his home in an effort to have a minyan — a gathering of at least 10 men to pray together. He has high hopes for future Shabbats and plans to reach out to other area rabbis. He's also figuring out what to do for the Jewish High Holidays, which begin with Rosh Hashana on Sept. 19.
He likes to tell stories about famous people like rock stars, actors and politicians who converted from Judaism to other religions, or who were Jewish but no one knew. One of his favorites is Elvis Presley, who can be seen in a YouTube video wearing a "chai" necklace — a combination of two Hebrew letters spelling "life" — that's commonly worn by Jews.
He volunteers Tuesday nights to teach a class in Tanya — the mystical secrets of the Torah that say things like God is in everything, and through certain material objects and actions we elevate our world and ourselves.
Educated in New York in a Jewish yeshiva his entire life, he taught himself secular subjects like science, math and history.
He speaks lovingly about his two young children, and how much children learn from seeing what their parents do and how they live.
My husband and I have been learning to become more religiously observant over the past three years — we now keep kosher and observe Shabbat. It's an ongoing process for us.
Different rabbis have affected our lives and we continue to seek spiritual and religious enlightenment wherever we can. We learn with Rabbi Yossi and Dina Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco, as well as Rabbi Sholom and Chanie Adler with Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas County.
We live near Congregation Beth Shalom, a large synagogue in Clearwater, and have found a nice community there with Rabbi David Weizman and Rabbi Danielle Upbin.
Our Tuesday Tanya classes now give us another spiritual injection and another perspective on our 3,500-year history.
What I admire most about Reich is his exuberance, and his open-mindedness toward helping anyone he can. We found him just at the right time in our lives, which I guess would be considered "divine providence," the hand of God.
As Reich said Tuesday, "God leads the world through the laws of nature." Even if we don't fully understand what that means yet.
Times correspondent Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at Mindy.Rubenstein@me.com.