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Celebrating 75 years of faith, progress

Temple Beth-El has built a reputation over the years for community involvement and social activism.

Published March 7, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - They were signs of the times, the ones along Gandy Boulevard and Fourth Street N that declared: "Gentiles Only Wanted - No Jews Wanted Here."

The inhospitable climate that greeted some of the first Jewish settlers to Pinellas County forced them inward, not simply in search of shared faith but for social contact. The result was the birth of two Jewish religious communities in 1920s St. Petersburg, one that became affiliated with the Conservative branch and another the Reform movement.

This weekend, Temple Beth-El, the Reform congregation at 400 Pasadena Ave. S, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Despite the prejudice and exclusion that was part of Pinellas County society at the time of its founding, Temple Beth-El has built a reputation over the years for community involvement and social activism. In 1965, rabbi emeritus David Susskind participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. Its sisterhood started the Pinellas Braille Group that translates printed words into braille for the visually impaired. The temple's annual art show has become nationally known and draws thousands to its doors.

In the late 1950's, Susskind said, anti-Semitism began to abate and Jewish people became acknowledged and accepted in the community by the late 1950s.

In recent decades, the congregation also has established relationships with other faiths. At one time temple members babysat for their Christian neighbors at Pasadena Community Church during Christmas Eve services. When the church got its new carillon, it played Jewish melodies for temple members as they arrived for Sabbath services.

Under Rabbi Stephen Moch, the temple established a relationship with the predominantly black Bethel Community Baptist Church. And recently, under current Rabbi Michael Torop, it invited local NAACP president Darryl Rouson to attend a Sabbath service and give a talk afterward.

Susan Burnett's parents, Gladys and Vernon Wides, joined Temple Beth-El in the early '50s. The Jewish community was close knit.

"There was no particular Jewish area of St. Petersburg, so your socialization was that of the temple or synagogue," said Mrs. Burnett.

"It was very important in my family, growing up and then when I married and my late husband and I had children."

It's been the same for Sonya Miller, who joined Temple Beth-El in 1948, after her marriage to Irwin Miller, son of one of the founders. Her grandchildren are the fourth generation of the family to belong to the congregation.

Mrs. Miller, longtime co-chair of the popular art festival, spoke of being thrilled and a little nostalgic as the temple reaches its new milestone.

"I think that the future of our temple is in the hands of our young people. It's wonderful to see that the temple is thriving with the younger families," she said.

Temple Beth-El had its unofficial start in 1926, when a group of women decided to get together for religious and social activities. They started holding Friday night services at the home of the Sidney Wasserman family at 226 21st Ave. SE. The congregation, which was chartered in January 1929, dedicated its first synagogue on Arlington Avenue at Seventh Street N in 1934. Services previously had been held at a Knights of Columbus building at 339 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S.

"Every week different women would clean to make it fit for Friday evening and Saturday morning services. ..." Eva Radzinski, president of the Beth-El Auxiliary, reminisced in 1951. "All we had was a small stove that had to be replenished with a log of pine every 15 minutes and a kerosene heater dragged by the handle from one end of the hall to another."

The congregation did not move to its present location until 1961, in time to hold services for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Irwin Miller, who twice served as president of the temple, headed the building committee with the late Maurice Rothman, founder of Kane's Furniture. The striking building, with its rounded roof, was designed by Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel architect Morris Lapidus.

This weekend's celebrations will include Susskind, its rabbi emeritus, Moch and Torop. During a recent interview, Susskind spoke about the environment he entered in 1956. There were no Jewish people on the boards of banks at the time, he said.

"There was nobody on the civic clubs. I was excluded from the civic clubs, even though my name was submitted to the Rotary by a colleague of mine from Tampa," he said.

Jews steadily established themselves in the community, he said, setting up successful businesses such as Ross Chevrolet and Kane's furniture and developing Central Plaza. The temple became involved in the community, working for civil rights for blacks and establishing other community organizations, Susskind said.

Over the years, as the county's Jewish community has grown to more than 25,000, the Reform congregation also became the spiritual home of some of the county's most prominent citizens, among them ambassador to Rome and BayWalk developer Mel Sembler, Tech Data chief executive Steven Raymund, City Council member Richard D. Kriseman and Craig Sher, president and chief executive of Sembler Co.

"We became by stature one of the leading congregations in the community, not by numbers, but by participation in the community and the beauty of our building," Susskind said.

Late Thursday morning a small group worked to complete preparations for the anniversary celebrations that would follow Saturday evening's service. Elaine Wides, who had pulled together the congregation's history, continued to arrange display cases that featured Torah covers, a scrapbook dating back to 1933 and a 1753 Hebrew Bible. Jeffrey Person, knowledgeable in antiques and a longtime temple member, pointed out treasured donations that included an ivory-covered prayer book.

Beth Rosenbluth, co-chair of the 75th Jubilee celebrations with former president Cecile Berko, huddled at a table with executive director Jay Kaminsky.

Her husband's family has deep roots at Temple Beth-El, she said.

"This temple has been very special to us and seen us through the death of my father-in-law and sister-in-law, our marriage, the birth of our sons ... and it just goes on and on."

[Last modified March 7, 2004, 01:35:55]

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