Tampa Bay will always have a special place in my heart because it was the first place where I met Dennis Prager in person.
I had listened to him on the radio for years, corresponded with him, and even talked to him on the phone.
That Shabbat, Dennis could not have been happier or more welcoming. Oy, how things have changed! Those were the days when Dennis told people, "Anyone who’s a friend of Luke Ford’s is a friend of mine." Now he says: "“He was neither a pupil nor a friend. I think I appealed to something good in him at some point, and I hope I did. But I don’t know."
I feel like I am a window into Dennis Prager’s soul, an opening into his formidable public image that reveals a more complex humanity, an alternating vulnerability and hardness that all of us can understand. This is not the Dennis Prager on the radio or at the lectern who likes to give lists of the vices he is not prey to — power, fame, gambling, cruelty, ego, etc.
I had a couple of opportunities to talk with Dennis that Super Bowl weekend 1994. He said that meeting me made him feel at peace, that if he died, someone else would carry on his work. He said that if I was ever in Los Angeles, he might have work for me. He noted how various people who wanted to influence me — from my parents to an ex-girlfriend — had written him concerned letters about me.
I guess they were right to be concerned.
Rabbi Shmuel Reich speaks fast and passionately about the work he does here.
Just 18 months after moving to Clearwater from Brooklyn, N.Y., he’s quickly learned that most Jews in this area know little or nothing about Judaism, and many have converted to other religions. But that has only made him work harder, and no one is off-limits.
He gives wallet-sized cards to strangers on the street explaining the seven Noahide laws, the seven commandments that God gave to non-Jews, according to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad Lubvatich movement.
Reich, 31, drops off fresh challah bread baked by his wife, Raizy, 27, with handwritten notes and a doodle of a rabbi. He has started the Clearwater Jewish Enrichment Center, which he runs from his house. He jokes about the neighbors who live around his modest house on Druid Road. They’ve never met anyone like him.
"We had no plan," he said of his move here. "Sometimes that’s the best way to do things."
But he gives credit for everything he is and does to God, saying that most situations are "divine providence."