CLEARWATER — A man at a gas station eagerly came up to Eli Tsvik one recent afternoon and, pointing to his tattoos, said, "I'm a bad Jew."
"You're still a Jew just like any other Jew," said Tsvik, a student rabbi.
After he spoke with the man for a few minutes, the man put on tefillin — a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah — and began saying prayers.
"It's Divine providence that he happened to be at the gas station at that moment," Tsvik said.
Tsvik and Yisrael Bennish, both 22, are spending about two weeks in North Pinellas doing Jewish outreach as part of an international program called Roving Rabbis.
They visit homes, medical offices, jewelry stores and other locations, battling the heat and the unknown as they speak to Jews who, in some cases, have little or no connection to their religion.
"Most people don't know what we're there for. They may think we're coming for money or something else," said Bennish.
They visited Rafi Cohen and his wife Esther Wednesday evening at their home on Indian Rocks Beach.
"They just popped in, but that's okay with me. I greeted them with dates and almonds and oranges," Rafi Cohen said. "They're trying to remind people that they are Jewish. They're very gentle, very polite, and they have a professional approach. They're doing the work they were sent here to do."
The Roving Rabbis program was started in the 1940s by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch movement. There are more than 600 roving rabbis stationed around the world this summer.
Each summer and during Passover, rabbinical students go to places where there is not a large Jewish community, reaching out physically and spiritually and answering questions.
In North Pinellas, they have attracted attention. Both Tsvik and Bennish are more than 6 feet tall and wear traditional clothing, including black hats, coats and beards. People turn their heads as the men pass by. Others stop them and ask what they're doing.
"They never saw people like us," said Bennish.
They've been stopped twice by police. Someone reported that the two men entered a convenience store and a watch store asking for Jews, then got into a car and, the caller claimed, removed their "costumes" including beards.
Bennish, who is from New Jersey, and Tsvik, who was born in the Ukraine but grew up in Detroit, are studying in Brooklyn to be rabbis. As they rove Pinellas and find Jews, they break the ice by telling them they are student rabbis and would like to meet Jewish people and find out about the Jewish community.
"We want to find out what it's like in a place like this, in not such a big community. We're here to learn from your experiences and also to share our experiences," Bennish said.
The two visited Harvey Spinowitz at his law office in Clearwater this week.
"I think it's a good thing, bringing religion to people who have kind of lost some their religion, like me," Spinowitz said. "They were both nice young men. They're just trying to spread the word, they're not trying to convert anybody or get donations. They just say if you're Jewish, let's talk. I'm very pleased."
That's the kind of reaction the rabbis hope for.
"The most fulfilling thing I can do is help fill their spiritual needs," Bennish said. He's worked in places like Tula, Russia, where he ran a Passover Seder. He also visits prisons and runs services.
"All these things along the way get me inspired, seeing people who feel part of it," he said. "It's inspirational seeing people that only think of their Judaism once a week or less, and then they realize it should be part of their lives."
Rabbi Yankel Adler, the Chabad emissary who lives on Clearwater Beach with his wife Chanie and their young daughter, brought the students here because "there are people in this area that I have yet to reach, and everything takes time," he said.
"In general they've been well accepted and people have been inspired by their dedication and pure hearts and open minds, Adler said. "Some people are harder to reach. It takes someone to go door to door and house to house to find them. Time is of the essence, it's not something that can wait."