Past full of hardship informs new rabbi’s calling

Orrin Krublit is the new assistant rabbi at B’nai Amoona.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Rabbi Orrin Krublit sometimes shares his story with members of Congregation B’nai Amoona. 

He tells them how he moved about 20 times before he reached high school. He tells them about his struggles with addiction — cigarettes and caffeine, not hard drugs, like his mom.

He said he removes the curtain to impress upon Jews at the Conservative synagogue that rabbis “are not a stand-in for God, that we are flawed people.”

As the new assistant rabbi at B’nai Amoona, Krublit, 30, hopes that despite his shortcomings, he can help guide the congregation during a time of uncertainty. 

“I think people are appreciative to know where I come from,” he said. “My story is not a typical one for someone who ended up in the rabbinate although I do have classmates who came from similar backgrounds, in terms of tumultuous home lives and challenges with poverty.”

His mother, Alicia Krublit, had recently declared bankruptcy because of medical bills when Krublit was born in 1986 in Orlando, Fla. She drank a lot, used intravenous drugs and contracted hepatitis C. His father had already left. 

Krublit recalls being on food stamps and learning that you could purchase only 1 percent milk. 

He often spent time with his grandmother and grandfather,who owned a kosher butcher shop. But when they didn’t do what Alicia wanted, she would use her son as a pawn and say, “You’ll see him next when you’re six feet under,” recalls his aunt, Michelle Tamir.

Alicia was street savvy, Tamir says of her older sister, and she used her skills to help her son. She managed to get him into a Jewish day school with the help of scholarships and financial aid “even though she was hiding things,” Tamir said. 

Krublit said the school “became a safe place for me, a place that was really home. I was able to build friendships with the kids there versus the kids in the neighborhood, where I would become friends with them and then leave a few months later.”

Zena Sulkes, principal at the time of the small school,  Hebrew Day School of Central Florida, recalls Krublit’s mother discussing her health problems. Among the candidates for scholarships, “his needs stood out,” Sulkes said

“He was totally accepted by his classmates,” she said. “He was a leader in the class. He was beloved.”

Despite the healthy school environment and Krublit’s apparent toughness — he became a good magician and poker player — Tamir said she worried that her nephew was “suppressing emotions, but he just had to do that, I guess, to survive.”

At that point, he was also “totally a rationalist,” said Tamir, 55.  “He said, ‘All the knowledge you need, you can find on a computer.’ ”

The day school continued only until eighth grade.

Meanwhile, Alicia Krublit’s health continued to decline. She suffered memory loss issues, her son said, and would think that “she had told me to do something when she hadn’t, and so then she would yell and scream about why I wasn’t doing” what she had asked. 

Sulkes had heard about American Hebrew Academy, a new  Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, N.C. She and others thought it would be a good fit for Orrin. Alicia Krublit allowed Orrin to attend the school. 

She died when he was 16. 

“It’s tough, but a lot of people go through a lot of tough things, and they survive and thrive,” Krublit said.

The North Carolina school “felt like home almost immediately,” he said. 

One of his English teachers told him there are three ways out of poverty: “sports, education and religion.”

“That notion really stuck with me, and I was pretty committed to both education and eventually religion,” said Krublit, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies at the University of Florida and then attended rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “My Jewish education is something that became very precious to me.”

Before starting as assistant rabbi at B’nai Amoona last month, Krublit served the synagogue as a rabbinic intern, so he had some familiarity with the congregation. But Rabbi Josef Davidson and executive director Michael Samis had recently retired, and Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is on medical leave because of potential regrowth of a brain tumor. 

Rose, who sounded upbeat about his recovery, described this as “a wonderful time of transition and a wonderful opportunity for Orrin to show all the various colors of his parachute. He’s got lots of talents and lots of abilities.”

Rose has heard Krublit’s story and said it’s unique among clergy he knows.

“I think it’s made Orrin much more compassionate and understanding, much more able to relate to people as they go through their own struggles,” said Rose.

Krublit, who quit smoking seven years ago in part so he could keep Shabbat,said he is looking forward to his new role at B’nai Amoona. He plans to try and reinvigorate groups for 20 and 30-year-olds at the synagogue. And to marry his fiancé, Meira Cohen.

“I think he is going to have a normal life,” said Tamir, who hosted Krublit over summer breaks after his mother died. “And I know his grandparents [who have died] and his mother are happy about that.”

But Krublit has not forgotten his past. And he’s glad that more people are addressing drug addiction in the Jewish community. 

“A huge amount of the Jewish community is still very much living in poverty, living with addiction, living with illness,” Krublit said. “And it’s something we need to talk more about.”