Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Just shuling around Central Florida


By Richard A. Ries

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that I’ve been to more synagogues in the Orlando area in the last few months than many people get to in a year, let alone a lifetime. I have not been “shul shopping”—looking for a place to specifically join. Most of my pit stops had little more depth attached to them than where my car happened to be on I-4 on a given Friday or Saturday.

A few weeks ago, I had a Friday business conference at a Disney resort. I had never been to the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation, so I stuck around the resort’s pool until sundown. I had a special reason for dropping by SWJC: the rabbi, Hillel Skolnik, was my English student at The Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island. His jaw dropped when he saw his former teacher walk in. I wanted to say “I am thy brother Joseph, whom thou cast out of Israel.” But I settled for “happy birthday,” because it turned out, ironically, to be his birthday. I don’t know what birthday it was for him—probably 32 or 33—but as the human mind works, it was his 19th for him in my mind. The sixth graders led the service that night, and it was good to see there was such a strong turnout. It was a human and Jewish joy for me to see that one of my former students had become a pulpit rabbi. Not that this was a shocking surprise: his father, Gerry Skolnik, is president of the Rabbinic Assembly and head of Forest Hills largest Conservative synagogue.

A few Fridays ago, I had a profound reason to visit CRJ, where I had never been: I had nothing to eat in the fridge, and their website said they were going to have a Chinese buffet dinner that night for nine bucks. Do you remember the old Today Show segment, “Where in the world is Matt Lauer?” The anchor would show up in off-beat places like Zanzibar or the Galapagos Islands. Rabbi Engel—of the “Three Wise Guys” on NPR—is taking a sabbatical year and is also doing world travel. He could be in Thailand; he could be in Schenectady. We just don’t know. We do know that “Cantor Jacki,” Jacqueline Rawiszer, is taking over the clerical helm for the time being. I actually met Rawiszer at a conference several years back, and she was a gregarious woman who was passionate about Judaism. She was single then. Now that she has found her besharit, and is happily wed, she is contagiously filled with joy. Don’t take anti-depressants; go to CRJ. Jackie exudes a joy of life and a joy of Judaism that any synagogue would be lucky to have.

In Billy Joel’s signature song, “Piano Man,” there is the famous line “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar, And say ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’” Man, what is Cantor Jacki doing only in Central Florida? She has a voice tantamount to Sarah Brightman’s. She has a gift that belongs to the world stage. You have not been moved by cantorial chanting until you have had the Rawiszer experience. She should be singing the national anthem at Super Bowls.

It’s difficult to compete with Ohev Shalom, even if you are not a Conservative Jew. The oldest and largest shul in Orlando, its one-two punch of Kay and Rubinger is like having Ruth and Gehrig on the same team. They are different speakers, but each can deliver homeruns—grandslams of spiritually uplifting messages or incisive sermons about the security of the state of Israel—like few speakers I have ever encountered in the many cities I have inhabited.

I didn’t make it to Temple Israel this round, so Rabbi Neely came to me. In Klal Yisrael spirit, Temple Israel joined Ohev for Purim. Neely, fitted in military fatigues and night-vision goggles like soldiers wore in Desert Storm, said that he was dressed as a “post-apocalyptic zombie hunter.” Neely could chant from the Megillah quite well, but it was hard to compete with Kay’s schmaltzy voices (soprano for Queen Esther; stage villain for Haman) and constant switching of hats for each role. How do we know Kay is a man of faith? Because he was wearing a Cubs’ jersey. Waiting for the Cubs to win a World Series is a lot like waiting for Moshiach. They last won in 1908. I guess anybody can have a bad century.

I’m admittedly not Orthodox, but I dropped by Chabad of Lake Mary last Friday for the oneg Shabbat. Their meeting house is difficult to find; they meet in an obscure industrial park office behind another industrial park. Rabbi Majesky is a kind, passionate man. I don’t agree with his politics, or even his philosophies of Judaism, and he knows this, but we are able to shake hands and break bread.

If you’ve never gone to Beth Am, it’s worth the trip at least once to hear Rabbi Rick. Hammy and schticky, you can tell that if it weren’t for the rabbinate, he’d rather be doing the Borscht Belt or making appearance on late night comedy talk shows. Watching Sherwin is like watching Johnny Carson or David Letterman. Yet for all his zingers and puns, he possesses a combination of academic depth and human warmth that is rare in any individual. Whereas the Orthodox talk about a “philosophical” Eretz Yisrael, Sherwin talks about AIPAC, cuts to the chase, and reminds us not to get too lulled into Iran’s latest chummy rhetoric.

People associate Orlando talent and magic with Universal Studios and Disney World. That is manufactured magic designed to remove you from reality. The Jewish rabbinate and cantorate of Central Florida have talents to refresh your reality—and inspire you to be a better person in the process. Try to at least occasionally visit synagogues you normally don’t. It’s a small world after all.

Richard A. Ries is a graduate student at UCF and occasional contributor to the Heritage.


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