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That old-time religion

An Orthodox Jewish movement keeps centuries-old traditions alive in Palm Harbor and gives even casual observers a reason to head to Universal Studios on Sunday.

Published December 24, 2005

[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
David Lubotsky, front, Eugene Davis, left, and Michael Milo attend a prayer service Friday at the Young Israel/Chabad of Pinellas County in Palm Harbor. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has 130 groups in Florida, including those in St. Petersburg and Tampa. It hopes to open another in West Pasco soon.

David Lubotsky uses tefillin, or leather straps containing biblical verses, during prayer. They are an essential part of morning prayer services.
Mendy Schechter, 21, of Brooklyn, N.Y., reads prayers at the Young Israel/Chabad of Pinellas County. Chabad promotes Judaism for every Jew, Orthodox or not.
Mendy Schechter carries an inflated menorah for Hanukkah celebrations at the Palm Harbor Chabad center. Hanukkah starts at sundown Sunday.
Charles Katz of Dunedin leads Friday's prayer service in Palm Harbor. Founded 250 years ago, the Chabad movement holds fast to Jewish customs like performing Shabbat in Hebrew and partaking in only kosher foods.

PALM HARBOR - Arlene Reuven, a 69-year-old snowbird from Cleveland, settles into a seat wearing a sweat suit.

Next to her is Miriam Gozenpud, a 23-year-old mother of one from Ukraine, orthodoxly dressed in long skirt and tights.

On this night, the Jewish women receive teaching from Rabbi Shalom Adler, who wears a traditional black robe and sports a lengthy beard.

The contrast is exactly how it should be.

For decades the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an Orthodox Jewish movement, has welcomed Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike worldwide.

Among the most visible of Hasidic Jewish groups, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement promotes Judaism in a way that touches the lives of every Jew while remaining true to the religion's purest practices.

"For the average American, it is hard to act Jewishly," said Rabbi Adler, who leads about 100 families belonging to the Chabad-Lubavitch of Pinellas County in Palm Harbor. "It is my job not to talk in riddles, not to employ terms that may be over their heads, but to provide teaching in a way that is fun and accessible."

It is this spirit of accessibility that led Universal Studios organizers to approach the group about helping to organize the park's first ever Hanukkah celebration.

On Sunday, the park will host "A Universal Chanukah" at Universal's City Walk in Orlando. There will be an 18-foot menorah lighting, kosher food and music.

"The congregation was looking for a place for the Jewish community to come enjoy themselves for the holidays," Universal Orlando spokesman John Martz said. "Universal seemed like the perfect place to do it."

Adler and many other leaders of Chabad congregations from across the state will take part in the celebration.

"The point is to embrace the world and to use an opportunity to get more people involved with Hanukkah," Adler said. "The more exposure in the general population, the more people you get to celebrate Hanukkah in a happy and unique way."

There are more than 2,400 Chabad-Lubavitch centers worldwide. The 130 organizations in Florida are concentrated in and around Miami, but the Gulf Coast Chabad community has expanded in the past decade, Adler said.

In addition to the Chabad congregation in Palm Harbor, there are congregations in St. Petersburg and Tampa. In the next year, the group hopes to open Chabad of West Pasco County.

Expansion in the area has been a long time coming.

When Adler, 44, came to North Pinellas a decade ago, Jo-El's Specialty Foods of St. Petersburg was the only kosher vendor in the county, he recalled. The group rented a space in Clearwater and then moved to Dunedin. When the rabbi and congregation's board of directors sought a place to purchase, they used the restaurant's delivery area to plan their move.

"We would ask the driver, "Where are you making the most deliveries?' " Adler recalled.

The answer was Palm Harbor. Young families were flocking to the area for its affordable housing. Many, Adler figured, would be looking for a Chabad. A new community was born.

The group picked 3696 Fisher Road because it was central to a mix of housing, making it possible for a wide variety of people to walk there for Shabbat, or Sabbath. The weekly observation is a time for reflection when no electricity or technology can be used, including automobiles. It begins at dusk Friday and ends at nightfall on Saturday.

For all intents and purposes, the center is not in a pedestrian-friendly area. Many members of the congregation must cross U.S. 19 to get there, one of the deadliest highways in the country.

But for members like Steve Cohen and his family, the trek hasn't been a problem.

The family routinely rents an apartment or hotel near the center so they can keep tradition. They sometimes even walk from their Palm Harbor home 6 miles way.

"What else are you going to do for two hours on Saturday morning?" said Cohen, 43, a retina specialist and president of the center's board of directors.

The Chabad of Pinellas County center is one of 160 certified Jewish Learning Institutes worldwide, a special designation given to Chabads that offer a uniform curriculum. The center offers preschool, women's groups and adult education classes as well as morning prayer and Shabbat.

The movement's name comes from the Hebrew word chabad, which means wisdom, understanding and knowledge. "Lubavitch," the name of the Russian town where the movement began, means "brotherly love."

Founded 250 years ago, the movement holds fast to Jewish customs such as performing Shabbat in Hebrew, partaking in only kosher foods, and as the Torah says, in Leviticus, giving the right side of the body preferential treatment when dressing by first putting on the right sleeve or pant leg.

But there is also a mystical element to its teachings grounded in the notion that every action and word has an effect on the universe.

The Chabad philosophy "is intellect, mystical and rational all in one," Adler said. "We believe that what comes out of our mouths affects the rest of the world."

A message that proves universal.

"Rabbi will always tell people we're not here to judge anybody," said Cohen, who was raised a Reform Jew. "Everybody's here for a reason, and we are all on a quest to achieve the best we can be. Nobody can argue with that."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at or 727 445-4162.

[Last modified December 24, 2005, 01:40:02]

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