Rabbi Moshe Saks, his finger raised, tells a story to members of the coffee klatch, with Sanford Stein at his left, Leon Williams at his right, and Howard Rosenbaum at the table's end.
The topic of the conversation is Social Security. But it's also about how the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers may match up if they make the World Series. Then there's a discussion about power grids in California and Colorado. One man passes around a book on South African photography.
The conversations are all going on simultaneously and sequentially as a dozen or so men and one woman gather 'round a table at Panera Bread on Central Avenue in Sylvania.
The group meets every weekday following the 7 a.m. prayer service at Congregation B'nai Israel, a Conservative Jewish synagogue on West Sylvania Avenue.
"We talk about everything, and some of the best conversations are when people ask questions about Judaism," Rabbi Moshe Saks says.
There are few religious questions that can't be answered by the rabbi or the congregation's new cantor, Cantor Ivor Lichterman, who joined B'nai Israel in August.
The informal coffee klatch has had a spin-off effect of boosting attendance at the morning prayer services.
Several years ago, B'nai Israel's weekday morning services were attended by six or seven people, according to longtime member Bill Sherman.
But as the social time at Panera has grown in popularity, so have the synagogue's services. There are now enough people for a minyan each weekday morning -- which by Jewish law requires a minimum of 10 Jewish adults in attendance.
The conversations at Panera are animated, and the group likes to rib one another.
Howard Rosenbaum, who has been leading morning prayers at B'nai Israel for about 10 years, is going for a world record, they say.
"He moves along at a pretty good clip," Rabbi Saks says.
"He has a wonderful Toledo accent," chimes in Leon Williams.
"I love it," Mr. Rosenbaum says about leading prayers. "I challenge myself. It makes me feel good. And we're providing a service for the other temples."
Rabbi Saks explains that members of other local synagogues often attend the morning services at B'nai Israel, either because their temple doesn't have a service or they don't have a minyan.
The rabbi, who hails from Philadelphia, is enjoying the baseball season as his Phillies sit atop their division.
But the Detroit Tigers are also in first place, and they have lots of fans at the table. The Cleveland Indians fans, meanwhile, don't have much to brag about these days.
The B'nai Israel group has made new friends at Panera, including Ed and Pat Poposki of Sylvania Township.
"We have great political discussions," Mr. Poposki says. "I'm there to represent the conservative side."
Along with his political thoughts, he brought the group some homemade chili in plastic containers.
A Christian, he joked that "they try to convert me and I try to convert them."
The Poposkis have sent vacation postcards to the B'nai Israel group, mailing scenic cards to the Panera street address from Gatlinburg, Tenn., Naples, Fla., and South Padre Island, Texas, among other places.
"We've been friends for quite a while," Mrs. Poposki says. "They're a lot of fun."
Christine Koskoski, Panera's manager, echoes her thought that the B'nai Israel group are fun customers.
And they also aren't shy about expressing their views, she adds.
"They like to give their opinions on new menu items. And it's honest feedback, which is good," she says.
Mr. Rosenbaum looks forward to the morning routine, from the temple to the coffee shop.
"It's a nice way to start the day, with a service and coffee. Then you go home and listen to your wife," he says.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.
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