By Mindy Rubenstein
This Shabbos I spoke about my Jewish journey to the lovely community at Young Israel of Tampa, run by Rabbi Uriel and Dvorki Rivkin. The Rivkins have opened their home and adjoining synagogue to the community for more than a decade, giving of themselves selflessly to anyone who reaches out for advice, a meal or a place to stay.
I first met the Rivkins in 2006 while looking for a place to go for Yom Kippur with my husband and our two toddlers. My husband and I grew up around the block from each other in nearby Seminole, with our families both attending a small synagogue called Beth Chai that was later torn down to make way for a housing development.
From the moment my husband and I walked through the door of Young Israel, the Rivkins warmly welcomed us with open arms. That evening 12 years ago was one of my first glimpses into the world of Torah Judaism and chassidus, and helped set the path for my family.
Along with people like Rabbi Yossi and Dina Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco, they showed a world illuminated and distinctly different than the darkness many of us have come to think of as normal and unchangeable.
As my young family and I lived in various places learning more about the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah, I have come to understand that the initial embrace — both physical and symbolic — of people like the Rivkins and Ebers is what it truly means to live a Jewish life. To be kind and compassionate even when it’s uncomfortable, to take a few extra seconds to offer a smile and warm hello to someone you meet. To seek out ways to help those around us. And to seek the good in everything.
We have seen many communities and gotten to know people of all backgrounds along our journey, from Vizhnitz to Chabad to Belz to Yeshivish to Modern Orthodox to completely unaffiliated.
And there is one thing in common with the people I have met who inspire me to live better: they are kind, positive, and made an effort to be upbeat even when facing challenges.
While carefully keeping the mitzvahs is essential, living with kindness and a positive attitude is something we should strive for in all we do. It took me going around the country and back home again to understand that. It’s something I am still learning.
On the wall of the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa now hangs the Yahrzeit (memorial) plaques they rescued from our childhood synagogue, Beth Chai. When we visited the Rivkins a couple years ago, my husband was shocked to spot the familiar name of his grandfather on the plaque next to him while he was sitting in their synagogue. It also happened to be his grandfather’s yarzheit, as it was again during our visit this past Shabbos.
My husband’s mother, along with his brother and his brother’s family joined us for Shabbat lunch and got to see the bulb next to his grandfather Eliezer bar Shimon’s name illuminated once again. My son, Alex Reuven — his great grandson — will become a Bar Mitzvah next week, connecting a chain that goes back thousands of years.
As I explained during my “talk” to those gathered at Young Israel this past Shabbos: While integrating mitzvahs into our lives has taken us years of classes, chavrusahs and visits to our mentors, there is one simple idea that encompasses what it means to live Jewishly — to strive to always seek and find the light, the good, in any person or situation.
It’s always there, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile and a few moments of kindness for the light to come flooding in.
Mindy Rubenstein lives in Florida with her husband and children. For the past 18 years, she has written for various newspapers, magazines and websites, including the Tampa Bay Times, Atlanta Jewish Times, Chabad.org, and Aish.com. She serves as editor of Nishei Magazine.