Starstruck, students at the Hillel School peppered Rabbi Shmuley Boteach with questions.
Boteach, star of the Learning Channel's Shalom in the Home, deftly handled their queries Thursday and soon had one of his own.
"What are these papers (for), by the way?" Boteach asked, surveying nearly a dozen hands clutching pieces of notebook paper.
"Autographs," the students screamed incredulously.
Boteach demurred, insisting that he is not a celebrity. But the children were not convinced. Their Hebrew teacher had prepped them for Boteach's visit by telling them he was the Jewish Dr. Phil.
The rabbi was in town at the request of Tampa Jewish Family Services, a local nonprofit social services agency. The group's leaders asked the New Jersey rabbi to speak at a fundraising dinner Thursday night at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in South Tampa.
But first, Boteach, 40, faced his toughest audience of the day: 60 middle school students.
The rabbi, a father of eight, told them they honored their heritage and religion by being good people. He shared tales of his role as counselor to dysfunctional families on television.
Bursting with energy, the rabbi also talked about the dangers of forsaking parents and family time for iPods, MP3s and YouTube.
The students seemed to get the message.
"He taught us that friends are important, but your parents are more important," said Melissa Wertheim, 11.
Jenna Lindie, a sixth-grader, concurred. "He sounded like a therapist, but he made a lot of sense," she said.
Sherri Day can be reached at 226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.