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A place to "walk with Jesus in a Jewish way'

It was Rosh Hashana and as expected, the rabbi was wearing a talit around his shoulders.

His dark hair covered with a yarmulke, he chanted in Hebrew, a Star of David dangling barely noticeably from a chain around his neck, nestled within the bulk of his clothing.

When it was time, someone blew long, low blasts from the ram's horn as he paraded through the congregants holding high a 56-year-old Torah once stolen, then recovered, then bought years ago in a Jerusalem antique shop.

Overwhelmed, some congregants dabbed their eyes with tissues. Afterward, they ate apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year and danced in a circle waving their hands in the air.

Aside from the dancing and clapping, it appeared to be a typical Jewish High Holiday service.

Only a gold-colored cross sitting on top of a flag in the back of the room gave the religion away.

And the rabbi and congregation tended to say "amen," "hallelujah" and "praise the Lord" during the service.

And he reminded them the only way into the Book of Life was through the lamb.

Mount Sinai Messianic is one of a handful of messianic synagogues in Pinellas County. Six years and several feasts into its existence, the congregation is undergoing a corporate name change. It will now be known as New Jerusalem Messianic Synagogue, the same name as the congregation's Pinellas outreach in 2000-2001, when members met at a location near Westfield Shoppingtown, then called Countryside Mall.

"It (the name change) better expresses our vision as a congregation," said Rabbi Michael Stepakoff after the Rosh Hashana service. "New Jerusalem is associated with the messianic kingdom in the Bible. Mount Sinai is associated with the law."

Stepakoff founded the synagogue in 1998 in a Tampa office complex. In 2002, it moved to a property in Dunedin. Now it is renting space in the Kirk of Dunedin's fellowship hall at Alt. U.S. 19 and Curlew Road, where there is space for Hebrew classes, bar mitzvah lessons and scripture study.

"Before the '60s there was no congregation like this," Stepakoff told the members of Mount Sinai Messianic Synagogue during the High Holiday. "You could not walk with Jesus in a Jewish way. Praise God we can gather together on this day and keep the feast God commanded us to keep."

He said in a messianic synagogue, "Jews and Gentiles are as one."

There are about 50 members in the congregation; roughly half grew up in Christian households, and half in traditional Jewish homes.

They all believe Yeshua, Hebrew for Jesus, taught that people are all born in sin, and unless born again, cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

"When Yeshua went to heaven, he presented us with the perfect sacrifice," said Stepakoff.

The congregation is part of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Like other messianic synagogues throughout the United States, it strives to reach the Jewish people with the message that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah who has already come to Earth.

Although the congregation has started a building fund, there are no plans in the immediate future to construct a synagogue.

"We love it here," Stepakoff said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schultesptimes.com.

Synagogue founder Rabbi Michael Stepakoff, left, prays with Stuart Minsky during a service. Stepakoff founded the synagogue in 1998 in Tampa.

Dorothy Gulino, left, and her friend Sandy Guarino mark Rosh Hashana by worshiping with the congregation of Mount Sinai Messianic Synagogue. The morning service in Dunedin included prayer and a time to honor the torah.

Members of Mount Sinai Messianic Synagogue dance around Marty Adler while singing Days of Elijah during their Rosh Hashana service. The group meets at the Kirk of Dunedin.

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