Etz Chaim’s Margaritaville-Themed Gala Brings Community Together

It’s not often you walk into the lobby of an Orthodox synagogue and find someone playing a steel drum. Yet continuing on back into the social hall, it was like being transported to another time and place.

With the Aron Kodesh (Holy Torah Ark) protected lovingly in the sanctuary nearby, Etz Chaim Synagogue was converted into Margaritaville, the infamous epithet expressed by Jimmy Buffet in his 1977 ode to Key West.

The annual gala serves a dual purpose, Senior Rabbi Yaakov Fisch said. “It’s a fundraiser that allows people to come into Etz Chaim in a casual way, beyond services and classes. And it also helps provide income for programming and to run the shul.”

During the festive event, glowing surfboards adorned the inside walls, a tiki bar with large swings took over the back porch that would normally hold a sukkah during the High Holidays, sand was brought into one section of the porch-turned-beach, and even heaters helped ensure party goers weren’t affected by the frigid temperatures that had taken over Jacksonville and much of the country.

With three bars — one for beer and wine, one for liquor drinks, and one, of course, for two types of Margaritas — socializing became easier as attendees got to know people from throughout the community who had gathered for Etz Chaim’s annual gala, their biggest fundraiser of the year.

“It was great to see a cross-section of our community come out in support of Etz Chaim,” said Jewish Federation of Jacksonville Executive Director Alan Margolies, donning a tropical shirt. “It was a fun night!”

Food included traditional island fare — sliders, veggie burgers, salad and desserts, as glowing buckets of beer adorned the round tables.

Thanks to organizers Steven and Deborah Shapiro, no detail was left undone, including the live band, caricature artist and professional photo backdrop featuring parrots and straw hats. Previous years’ themes included New York, New York, and Casino Night.

“It is always rewarding to plan an event that benefits a great cause such as Etz Chaim,” Deborah Shapiro said. “We tried very hard to showcase the shul at the same time as creating an entertaining environment. It was very fun to plan and the best part was seeing everyone relax and enjoy themselves.”

In addition to its annual gala, Etz Chaim is known for its abundance of classes and outreach throughout the year. Indeed, they host hundreds of learning opportunities of all types. Rabbi Avi Feigenbaum has served as the synagogue’s education director for the past five years and is known throughout the broader community for his inspiring classes that attract Jews of all backgrounds.

And efforts are growing thanks to the new Jacksonville Community Kollel — rabbis who moved here from Israel with the purpose of bringing even more elevated Judaism to Jews of Jacksonville.

“We try to get a broad spectrum of the community to the event, and this year was no exception,” Rabbi Feigenbaum said.

And part of the beautiful irony of the Margaritaville-themed gala, named for a song about wastin’ away while baking in the sun, is that it has the partial purpose of raising funds so that people can do the opposite — to learn to live a more purposeful life, full of inspiration and growth.  

While Jimmy Buffet may have been searching for his lost shaker of salt, the leaders of Etz Chaim, with help from events like Margaritaville, are making sure no Jew is ever lost — they’ll always be welcome at any class, program or service and can come just as they are.

“The people are friendly and engaging, and they make me feel comfortable, like Rabbi Fisch and Rabbi Feigenbaum, and the other people I meet there,” said gala attendee Paul J. Reed with Watson Commercial Realty, Inc.

Originally from Michigan City, Indiana, Reed moved to the area five years ago and began attending Etz Chaim last year. “I’m learning more about Judaism, and this has been the ideal place to do that,” he said.


Photos courtesy of Rabbi Shaya Hauptman with Torah Academy of Jacksonville 




As Jacksonville’s Jewish Community Grows, New Torah High School Will Too

By Mindy Rubenstein

Growing up in suburban Seminole, my parents drove my brother and me 30 minutes each way to Clearwater for Sunday School, and then also to Hebrew school each Tuesday evening as we approached Bar/Bat Mitzvah age.

Anyone who knows my father understands that he hates driving and will typically avoid it at all costs. Yet something within him knew that driving us to synagogue was important, and where we lived, that was one of the only options.

Later I met my husband, or re-met him, as we had grown up around the block from each other and both originally attended nearby Beth Chai with our families. It was torn down to make way for Temple Estates housing development, which is what sent my parents half an hour north seeking religious education for their kids.

Twelve years ago while our children were still toddlers, my husband and I decided to delve more deeply into the religion of our birth. Now raising our own children, we felt it was important to not only give over what we had learned, but also more.

To be blunt: I literally fell in love with the Judaism I discovered. And I wanted it all. My husband was more logical in his approach. But together, somehow, we began to search and ask and search some more. What does it really mean to be Jewish, especially now in modern times?

My husband and I moved to other places — Atlanta, Maryland, Virginia — to explore and experience Jewish life in various communities. Our children went to school across the religious spectrum as we, as newly religious parents, tried to gauge what made the most sense for our growing family — blending who we were with who we are now.

And then a job opportunity showed us Jacksonville. With our oldest approaching high school, one in middle school and two in elementary, we knew that we needed to choose a community and settle down.

And so we chose to come back to Florida, closer to our families and within a Jewish community that has the amenities we need but also allows for diversity. There is no judgement here as Jews of all backgrounds integrate Torah beautifully into their lives.

And because Jacksonville has a new, growing Torah high school, we could come.

In the beginning, I was unsure of how a small, fledgling school would suit our daughter. High school is a rough time for anyone. And in the early weeks I was like the mother I had always been — hovering over my daughter and worrying about her well being.

But after the second round of school conferences and several months into the year, I was literally in awe.

My daughter is learning to think and to question and to discuss deep, philosophical ideas. To be independent, to study on her own, to make Judaism her own, and to speak Hebrew. She comes home from school with a lot of work to do, but she does it with confidence.

How is this small, growing school able to impart such a remarkable education — both Jewish and secular?

Because of the people who are making it happen. As I sat and listened to her teachers explain their methods during conferences, I realized, THIS is why. They care.

Everyone at the school, including the administrators, truly cares for her and all the girls, not just that they’re memorizing information and getting good grades. But that they’re also growing to be confident, capable young Jewish women who know who they are and what their purpose is in life.

This school, this small, growing school, is full of love and warmth and a remarkable education.

And now the board is working to expand the high school for boys as well. As Rabbi Fisch with Etz Chaim said recently at a planning meeting, “When you build a house of study to educate your citizens, everything else will follow.”

Jacksonville has everything we need — kosher food options, pre-K through 8 schools like Torah Academy where our younger three go to school. Almost everything.

“As a community, we realized we had to start an entity here to educate our high school boys and girls,” he said.

It’s no easy task, but community leaders are dedicated to making sure our children can get the education they need here in Jacksonville.

As board member Avi Smith pointed out, “If you build it, they will come.”

We did. And soon, with G-d’s help, others will too.


To learn more, visit


Teach Like Your Soul’s on Fire!

spiral-1037508_1280A non-Jewish friend shared a reggae song with me recently, and I was moved by its lyrics and graceful passion. The lovely woman singing seemed to be on spiritual fire!

As I listened carefully to the lyrics of this song, I found that, like many songs of this genre, they’re usually religious. I don’t know much reggae other than a bit of Bob Marley (and Matisyahu), but people seem drawn to it. Maybe it’s the tempo and style; maybe its the depth of the lyrics.

Even if we don’t realize it, we are all searching for a deeper connection, for truth and passion, for G-d — whether it’s through music or something else.

The term reggae comes from rege-rege, a Jamaican phrase meaning “rags or ragged clothing,” and is used to mean a raggedy style of music. The reggae genre came into being in the 1960s. So just 80 years ago — not that long really.

To put it in perspective, Torah and mystical thought came into this world around 3,000 years ago. And I came to it 12 years ago, searching for that beauty and richness in life most of us seek.

The deeper I dig, the more I find and realize that it’s pretty much the foundation for all elevated, mindful living. Probably even reggae. Though most of Torah’s beauty and deeper meaning, the sparks of the higher world, have been “lost” even to Jewish people.

So it’s like a mission now to collect all these hidden sparks… sometimes from really low and dark places, and to bring them into being. Those sparks can be anywhere. Those sparks are within you.

But, and this is a big, confusing BUT… Those sparks sometimes don’t seem to shine in Jewish schools or in modern-day frum life in the U.S. Those sparks, that fire for serving G-d, is sometimes not even found in synagogues except maybe within a few knowing beings.

And that makes it painful, deeply painful, discovering that the light I was seeking IS in Torah, BUT it’s still often trapped. Even in a Torah community, even in Torah schools, it can still be trapped.

And sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we are collectively as a community trying to reach for those sparks. Have we forgotten our mission?!

It’s seemingly lost somehow in the minutiae of daily life, kosher symbols and skirt lengths and warming trays. Keep doing those things, of course. Keep serving G-d through the mundane yet holy mitzvahs of daily life. But do it with joy. Do it with FIRE.

And please, PLEASE, teach it not just with tests and memorization… teach it with love and enthusiasm! Kids know truth when they hear it. Infuse your Torah lessons with the deep, hidden magic and inspiration they deserve.

As I read this to my teenage daugther who has experienced the educational system for over a decade, her eyes lit up. “You should share that with other people,” she said. “When you talk fast like that, the way your words are coming out, it makes it easy to listen to and understand what you’re saying.” Yes! Words from the heart enter the heart.

Tests and pages and pages of memorization seem to take the light and love out of it.

TEACH LIKE YOUR HEART AND SOUL ARE ON FIRE! Teach like you’re an inspired music star!

Let’s live inspired lives so we can be an example for our children and our students. Otherwise, they may turn away, seeking inspiration and authenticity elsewhere. Sparks are waiting for them, and us, in the most unexpected places — even in the classroom. We just have to remember to look for them — and to create them.

What are your thoughts?

Share your positive experiences with enlightened, inspired Torah education. How can we improve and grow? What are some concrete ways teachers are succeeding at giving over their magic in the classroom?

Going Back Home and Learning to Seeing the Good

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 — now married with children — 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 wandered through various places learning more about the 613 mitzahs 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 out the good in everything.

We have seen many communities and gotten to know people of all backgrounds along our journey, from Vizhnitz to Reform to Chabad to Belz to Modern Orthodox to the 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, including one for my husband’s grandfather. When we visited a couple years ago, my husband was shocked to spot the familiar name next to him while he was sitting in the synagogue. It also happened to be his grandfather’s yarzheit, and it was again during our visit this past Shabbos. My husband’s mother, along with his brother and his family joined us for Shabbat lunch and got to see the bulb next to his name illuminated once again.

As I explained during my “talk” to those gathered at Young Israel on Shabbos: While integrating the mitzvahs into our lives has taken 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.



My kids and I enjoying a little fresh air before Shabbat, at Lettuce Lake Park near the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa.



the thoughts hover surround consume

must be released to cause peace

in the mind

so confined

let them out



tell a friend

give over the pain

the worry the fear

to that Unseen Power

be quiet



It’s there within

It surrounds you

Infinite Light and Love

that’s always been yours

plug in


bring the thoughts to words

that flow from your lips

speak your fears

or simply say: i am here

please be with me

let me be with You

unite body, soul

heaven, earth

feel your breath

you are Whole


poem by M.E. Baum, Nishei contributing writer

artwork by Miriam Schapiro, Fanfare, 1958. Oil on canvas. 72 × 84 in. (182.9 × 213.4 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York.

Holy Women

As I scan posts and headlines, I see people I respect responding to negativity in a positive way, standing up for what’s right in a public forum. And I realize that hiding is not the answer.

For years I avoided social media, and people in general, preferring the quiet of my home and blissful ignorance of the darkness and evil of the world. But suddenly I realize I can no longer hide.

I admire the bravery and honesty of people like Ari Fuld (of blessed memory) and Ahava Emunah Lang, for example. They used social media and other methods to give truth and goodness a voice.

My mission, for now, is to fight the darkness with light — to inspire, educate, and unite women and the greater community through words, images and ideas that represent Godliness. To unite the holy women of my community, and other communities, and to give them a forum to  share their thoughts.

I have wandered a lot — mainly in an effort to find the right schools and community for our Baal Teshuvah family. Whenever someone hears about the various places my family and I have lived on our spiritual quest, they typically comment about how hard that must be. Some are sympathetic, others insensitive. It used to bother me.

But as I develop my emunah and bitachon — my inner resolve and faith in God– I realize it is all part of a greater plan. Like the Jews who wandered in the dessert not knowing their ultimate destination, we too have continued onward. Perhaps our path will lead us eventually to the Holy Land. 

The story of the Israelites in the desert inching toward their final destination is the story of any individual or society making its way towards its ideal state. And the details of the story contains endless possible applications to both our private journeys and our communal ones. 

As one rabbi commented recently during a Shabbat dinner — certain sparks needed to be left in each stopover. 

We got to live in and experience Jewish communities in Potomac, Maryland; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida. We also make regular trips to Lakewood, New Jersey, to visit friends/chavrusahs we met through Oorah’s TorahMates program.

We have met, and continue to meet, some amazing people along our journey who have inspired us in our growth. And I hope we have inspired others as well. 

As a Florida native it feels good to be back in the Sunshine State. My husband and I grew up around the block from each other in the Tampa Bay area. We met 20 years ago at the shivah of his father and our lives have been interconnected since childhood — I had his father as a teacher, our mothers have been friends for decades. It’s nice to be closer to family — grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — after a decade being out of state.

And although it has been challenging to move and adapt to various cities and states over the past 10 years, it has also made us stronger as individuals and as a family. A few months ago I wouldn’t have said that. But thank G-d, I am starting to see the sun through the haze.

So, it is my prayer that you will use the words and images within these pages — both the online and printed versions of Nishei — as a springboard for your own personal growth, or simply as a way to pick yourself up when things are difficult. Life is hard. Really, really hard. There are moments where it feels nearly impossible to connect to God or to even get through the day.

In my own life I have experienced my share of struggles — miscarriages, postpartum depression and moodiness, marriage and parenting challenges. I have sought the help of therapists, medication, diet and exercise —  while using spirituality to help guide and center me. 

Several years into our marriage, my husband and I made the decision to take on an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, which continues to be both a blessing and a challenge — as we balance Torah and mitzvah observance with personal growth, connection to God and relationships with other people.

Along the way I received a master’s degree, won a national journalism award, started a magazine, and have devoted my heart and soul to motherhood. I have failed and I have conquered.

And I am still here. G-d has given me another day. As I say the modeh ani prayer each morning, I think that there must still be something left for me to accomplish in this lifetime. If we are still in this world, there is still more work to do.

So let’s come together as women — as daughters and mothers, sisters and wives, aunts and friends — and inspire each other.

Let’s make our matriarchs, and our moms, proud. With God’s help, we will overpower the darkness, illuminating the world with our words.

–Mindy Rubenstein, editor, Nishei Women’s Magazine 

To read more about my ongoing spiritual journey, click here.


If you would like to submit an article, essay, poem or artwork, please email


How to become Religious without Losing Yourself

By Mindy Rubenstein

Published by ( 

See original article here.

About 10 years ago my husband and I, along with our two toddlers, attended a beautiful Chabad Shabbat dinner, where I fell head over heels in love with Judaism. I admit, initially it was not a mutual infatuation. I saw a holy, meaningful—and exciting—lifestyle, and wanted to jump in with both feet.

My husband, however, was respectful yet hesitant. Together, over the next decade, we navigated what would become an all-encompassing lifestyle. We started somewhat slowly, from lighting ShabbatIt was not a mutual infatuation candles and having challahand chicken soup, to eventually fully observing Shabbat, keeping kosher in and out of the home, and adhering to family purity laws. We also had more children, in essence doubling the family size to which we were both accustomed.

In time, we acted and dressed the part of observant Jews.

Looking back, however, it was not the most seamless and thought-through transition. I was at times judgmental of our extended families, for example, for not having given us “more Judaism,” and then for not embracing our newly found nirvana.

Those of us who “find” religion often go through changes, as we examine parts of our inner selves we didn’t know existed, says Rabbi Aron Moss, co-director of Nefesh Shul in Sydney, Australia, in his article Is Judaism a Cult? As a result, we may re-evaluate ourselves and our lives. All growth is accompanied by some upheaval and instability. But when we make sudden changes, we may leave part of ourselves behind.

This is not the Jewish way, Rabbi Moss says. Any life changes should be done gradually and with thought, as they integrate with your personality rather than overcome it. In other words, religion should enhance and deepen your identity to make you a better you. That’s what G‑d wants, I think. To serve Him, but not to lose yourself in the process. And since I was already married with children at the time, it meant also preserving and respecting my relationship with my husband. To work together in slowly and methodically embracing the mitzvahs in an effort to retain peace within the home.

When we started keeping kosher, I was very vocal at our families’ homes about it, essentially using food to separate myself from them. I have learned over the years, through my mistakes, that there are ways to keep kosher yet still participate respectfully and lovingly in family get-togethers. Observing mitzvahs shouldn’t be a source of stress or contention—if it is, it’s not being done the right way.

Partway into our evolution, when I announced proudly that I wanted to stop driving on Shabbat, my rebbetzin warned me, “Don’t take the decision to keep Shabbat lightly. Once you cross that line, you don’t want to give it up because it becomes too difficult.” So we waited until the right time.

I understood her wisdom when, early on in my observant lifestyle, I went and bought a wig, the traditional way many Jewish women choose to cover their hair. It was gorgeous. But I didn’t consult my husband first, or a rabbi or rebbetzin, or make a plan for observing the mitzvah. Over the years that followed, I struggled with this mitzvah. Because it wasn’t done gradually, with thought.

As I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I don’t recognize the free-spirited, creative, earthy young woman my family once knew. And now I understand better why they may have balked at our new lifestyle. It wasn’t so much that we adopted unfamiliar Jewish rituals, but rather that I had in essence closed a door on my former self, rather than integrate her into my new life.

As someone once told me, “It’s better to be on the outside looking in than on the inside looking out.” After working so hard to be in the fold of observant Judaism, I suddenly found myself staving off a feeling of resistance. As if these mitzvahs, this lifestyle, were being forced upon me, even though I had so passionately embraced them. Perhaps I had left behind, or ignored, parts of myself that needed tending.

This may be the reason that some baalai teshuvah (returnees to observant Judaism) veer off the path completely. It’s so important to find a rabbi or rebbetzin to guide you, and to consult with them throughout the ongoing process. And I don’t think we are all meant to jump so fully into a life-transforming version of Judaism. Learn about the mitzvahs, about Judaism and Torah, and surround yourself with growth-minded people. But go slowly, and do what makes sense for you. And, most importantly, whichever mitzvahs you choose should be done with love and respect for those around you.

For me, I think the key to embracing my identity as an observant Jewish woman was to create a balance, where my old self could come back again, but with an enhanced depth and direction. I realized that my creativity and talents should not be shunted away, but should be utilized within a framework of Torah to reveal the unique aspects of myself and the role G‑d has placed before me.

Sometimes, it seems, you do have to lose a bit of yourself to really find yourself again.


Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist and publisher of Holy Women Magazine.