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Entwined by activism

Two lawyers with similar goals marry under a quilted, tie-dyed chuppah to the tunes of a Klezmer band.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

YBOR CITY - Political and religious beliefs bind Robin Rosenberg and Barry Shalinsky as vibrantly as the tie-dyed yarmulkes guests wore at their Sunday wedding.

Rosenberg, pro bono counsel for Holland & Knight, lives her lifelong dream of helping poor people with high-quality legal representation.

Shalinsky represents people on Social Security disability who want to enter the workforce.

Call it bashert, the Yiddish word for "meant to be," said Rabbi Richard Birnholz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek. Their zeal to "bring justice to the world," he said, united them to care for "the widow, the stranger and the orphan."

Birnholz and Rabbi Marc Sack of Rodeph Sholom married the community activists beneath an unusual chuppah, or marriage canopy, made from pieces of cloth stitched together from family and friends.

Shalinsky's mother, Anne, sent a hand-embroidered tea towel and an Air Force tie from his late father, Milton. From Rosenberg's family: a piece of a T-shirt from her late sister, Wendy; her dad, Seth's, favorite tie; a snippet from her mother, Connie's, 50th birthday outfit. An aunt's pot holder, his grandma's apron and a Grateful Dead dancing bear added to the colorful quilt.

The two lawyers connected in 2001 when Shalinsky was hired to open a Tampa office of the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities. His colleagues at the center's Tallahassee office knew Rosenberg and gave him her phone number for help in finding a house.

Rosenberg, who moved to Tampa at age 5, was delighted to assist.

When Shalinsky explained he needed a place that would welcome his dog and cat, preferably "with a basement," she thought it would be fun to introduce him to Tampa.

Shalinsky, 49, earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Kansas then stayed in Lawrence as a VISTA volunteer. He worked as a lawyer for the state of Kansas with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Social Security administration and the Department of Health and Environment. In private practice for eight years, he represented primarily pro bono and low fee cases.

That resume resounded with Rosenberg, 37, a Plant High School and Northwestern University graduate with a law degree from the University of Florida. She clerked for two federal judges and now is chairwoman for the pro bono committees of the Federal Bar and the Florida Bar associations. Last year, she helped form Florida's Children First!, a statewide organization to improve legal services for abused, abandoned or neglected children.

While she checked out neighborhoods, the two telephoned or e-mailed daily. Favorite topics: politics and religion.

As a conservative Jew, Shalinsky keeps a kosher home and attends weekly, sometimes daily, synagogue services. He does not work or travel on Saturdays.

He got involved in politics at age 14, when he worked on Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign. He voted for Morris Udall as a 1976 delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

"I've been a political activist for a long time," he said.

Rosenberg got her first taste of politics at age 8, passing out fliers for her grandfather Buddy Baach's run for county commissioner. She ran reform synagogue Schaarai Zedek's social action committee for three years.

By the time the couple finally met in July 2001, they felt like old friends. On her recommendation, sight unseen, Shalinsky rented a Seminole Heights duplex with a fenced yard.

"We'd already gotten the important questions out of the way," Rosenberg said. "Like, do you share Chinese food? Do you like garlic and onions?"

And the really big one: marriage and children.

She wanted both.

Shalinsky didn't flinch.

"Marriage wasn't really a goal of mine, but I was open to it," he said. "I'd been married before ... been a stepparent. I really enjoyed the parental role."

His list was brief. He wanted to know if she was close to her family.

"That's my red flag," said Shalinsky, who comes from a large extended family.

Two good indicators: Rosenberg calls her father daily and her mother temporarily lived with her.

But would she accept his blend of liberal politics and conservative religion?

Rosenberg answered by offering to fly to St. Louis to help him move to Tampa with Millicent the cat and Jasmine the dog. They laughed when they saw they'd gathered many of the same tapes to play on the drive, specifically the Roches and lots of Klezmer, Jewish folk music.

Their relationship expanded from there like a legal file.

Six months ago, Shalinsky wanted to see her in action and planned a business trip to Tallahassee where she was handling a case.

"She was so cool and focused," he said.

Afterward, as they sat in the airport sharing a bag of trail mix, she asked his opinion on investing a recent bonus and a tax refund.

"You could use it to help pay for a wedding," he said, with a little grin.

"Well, I'd need someone to marry," she replied, archly.

"I'm ready," he said, by way of proposal.

Sunday afternoon, the newlyweds danced down the aisle to the joyous beats of a Klezmer band. After a honeymoon in Argentina, they will reside in Ybor City.

- To pass along tips to Amy Scherzer, reach her at 226-3332 or scherzer@sptimes.com

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