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Gulfport synagogue may be tiny, but it's welcoming for High Holidays, and others

Dr. Paul Cohen, left, blows a shofar as Barbara Watts laughs during a light moment at a primer for Rosh Hashana and the High Holy Days at Congregation Beth Sholom in Gulfport last week. The High Holy Days begin at sundown today.

GULFPORT — Evan Cohn said the blessing over his homemade challah and sliced the traditional Sabbath bread for the small group.

They sipped wine or grape juice and sang Sabbath melodies, ending with the Israeli and American national anthems.

At the tiny Congregation Beth Sholom, the 30 men and women represented the majority of its membership. For the High Holy Days, which begin at sundown today with Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — attendance will more than double. But unlike larger congregations that expect a crush for the all-important holiday services, no ticket will be required to ensure a seat at Beth Sholom.

"We have an open-door policy," says Dr. Paul Cohen, a retired osteopathic physician. "We have everything that you would need to pray. Just come, that's all we ask."

It's common knowledge that synagogues typically require tickets for the crowded High Holiday services because of security or financial reasons, or both. Some congregations distribute tickets to members with paid-up annual dues, which function in the same way as offerings churches collect weekly. Anyone without a synagogue, though, may have to buy special holiday tickets.

Congregations like Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg offer tickets "free of charge," but ask would-be worshipers for reservations. At Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa, members in good standing get nontransferable tickets, but all who attend must show one to be admitted.

Beth Sholom will hire security for its open-door holiday services, which start on Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur on Sept. 23 — the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.

The 10-day period — collectively the High Holy Days, High Holidays or the Days of Awe — is a time for introspection, repentance and renewal. It's also believed to be when God judges his people and writes their fate for the new year in the Book of Life. The book is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Beth Sholom's services will be led by its cantor, David Wicentowski, 73, who will drive in from Sarasota, and Evan Cohn, 51, the synagogue's president. Cohn is studying to become a rabbi through a mostly long-distance program, but is already considered the congregation's religious leader. In the small congregation, though, he has plenty of help.

As Rosh Hashana approached, Cohen, 84, who teaches Hebrew and the occasional bar and bat mitzvah student, announced plans to offer a High Holidays' primer. Barbara Watts, 69, who has worshiped at Beth Sholom for seven years, took Cohen up on his offer.

Watts' beliefs, though, run counter to Judaism, so her presence at Beth Sholom is unusual. The retired Social Security claims representative believes in Jesus and also attends a Messianic synagogue.

"We have our differences in our belief, but the things we have in common are greater than our differences," said Watts, who is African-American.

"The main thing is, they are a lovely group of people."

Her welcome appears characteristic of the unwaveringly optimistic congregation.

Dr. Mark Levinsky, 63, a retired surgeon who plays the guitar during the time of fellowship following Sabbath services, said he and his wife had tried other synagogues.

"I like them all," he said, but was won over by Beth Sholom's warmth.

"In addition, they have a faithfulness to the Torah service and long-standing Jewish traditions," he said.

For Molly Kauffman, 83, and her husband, Jerry, 88, who have been part of the congregation for more than 20 years, it's the "homey" atmosphere.

"When you walk in, everybody is just like your family," she said.

That philosophy extends to the High Holidays, said Cohn, Beth Sholom's rabbi-in-training.

"There are a lot of Jewish people who are unaffiliated and it is only at the High Holidays that they want a place to go," he said.

"You want to be there for everybody."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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