My First Synagogue Home

I’d been to other synagogues, but Ohev Shalom in Orlando, Florida, was the first one I called home.

I was a regular there during my eight months in town (from Aug. 1993 to March 1994). For most of that time, I lived across the street from the shul.

It was a scary time of my life.

I’d alienated myself from my parents (who’d been looking after me during my previous six years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and moved to Orlando to be with my new girlfriend (almost 12 years older than me, funny, now I like ’em at least 12 years younger than me).

I knew nobody in town.

My relationship went to hell. I went off my medication and tried something new — Nardil, which gradually helped me rise from my sickbed and resume a semblance of normal life.

I was so scared and lonely, I’d cry during services. Slowly I made friends. The rabbis, particularly Aaron Daniel Rubinger (he taught me how to tie a tie) and his predecessor (the rabbi emeritus Dr. Rudolph Adler), were kind to me.

I was often loud and rude. The medication destroyed my social inhibitions (of which I naturally had too few). But despite this, I started connecting with people as I constructed my new life as a Jew.

I’d go to shul at every opportunity. I went to the after-school program for kids (until getting kicked out) and learned Hebrew with the second graders. I hung out in the shul library. I took every adult education class. I walked around with my tzitzit out (and sometimes with my tefillin on all day, oy, I am so embarrassed now).

On Shabbos morning, I’d sit up front with a fellow convert (he wanted to become a rabbi, he’d be Orthodox if his wife let him) and we’d put our tallitot over our head and daven up a storm.

When the three hour services became too long, I’d go outside and sit in the sin and rev up my engines for kiddish when I’d hit on every woman in sight.

I was not always the most well balanced person. I was not always a poster child for mental health. Sometimes I took my enthusiasm for the rabbi too far. Once, at a bar mitzvah, I was asked to help out as an usher. I was told not to let people in when the rabbi was giving his sermon. So I blocked the door on this one dyke and we almost got into a fight.

She complained to the shul board and I was taken off usher duty.

"There was no need to be a Nazi about it," said Rabbi Rubinger.

Whoops.

I also attended various churches in the area — for sociological rather than theological reasons. I brought one pastor to minyan to show him how we did things.

There were women at my shul who thought I was the biggest freak in the world and they hated my guts.

I’ve never been back to Orlando since March 1994 (and I haven’t had any communication with anyone there since 1994), but I often think of the shul fondly and long to return — can I one day return in triumph?

The place keeps popping up in my dreams. And they always have a similar theme.

Around 6 a.m. today, I dreamt I was back in Orlando, but it was Shabbat and I was a long way from Ohev Shalom. There was another Conservative shul near the house where I was staying, but it wasn’t warm and friendly, it wasn’t Ohev Shalom and it didn’t boast Rabbi Rubinger and Rabbi Adler.

I argued with the people I was staying with and looked through maps and eventually I fought my way to Ohev Shalom in time for Mincha/Maariv Saturday.

The sun was setting and I felt like I was walking into a movie set. The lighting was perfect. I sat down and gradually people started to look familiar.

I tried to seek out Rabbi Rubinger to apologize for blogging about him but before I could, I woke up.

Sorry, Rabbi Rubinger.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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