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A grand place for worship

Congregation B'nai Israel unveils a multimillion-dollar home at 300 58th St. N.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Sunday afternoon, a mezuzah was affixed to the right door post of the new spiritual home of Congregation B'nai Israel's almost 500 families.

During the ritual, also traditionally performed at the dedication of individual Jewish homes, the small case holding passages from the Torah was fastened diagonally to the entrance of the new synagogue.

The brief ceremony was a prelude to an afternoon of speeches, prayers, music and good humor, as St. Petersburg's oldest Jewish religious community consecrated its house of worship.

"May this Your House, be our fortress of strength. To give us courage for the challenges of life," read Judi Gordon, Congregation B'nai Israel's president, as she led the gathering in a prayer of gratitude.

At one point in the ceremony, Rabbi Jacob Luski, who has headed the congregation for 24 years, conducted a candle-lighting ceremony to commemorate the completion of the multimillion-dollar synagogue and the people who made it possible.

The occasion was significant enough to draw the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the academic and spiritual center of the worldwide Conservative Movement.

In an interview the following day, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, who has led the New York-based seminary for 15 years, explained: "I think this is a synagogue outside of the highways of American Judaism and it is a synagogue that has flourished without great Jewish resources. I wanted to pay tribute to the tenacity, vision and enthusiasm of the leadership of this synagogue, lay and religious."

Congregation B'nai Israel's new home, at 300 58th St. N, which with its domes is modeled after synagogues of times past, is the congregation's fifth place of worship in its 78-year history. In the community's early days, a handful of members worshiped in a storefront at 13th Street and Second Avenue N. It was with future generations in mind that the decision was made build the newest synagogue.

During the weekend ceremony, Schorsch reminded his audience that the synagogue is indispensable to Judaism's future.

The synagogue is, he said, "the bedrock institution of the American Jewish community."

Congregation B'nai Israel, which Sunday was given the Synagogue of Excellence Award by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has its responsibilities, Schorsch said.

"A synagogue needs to bring in people. How many Jews are there in our community who do not realize that God resides here?" he asked.

Referring to a verse in the Book of Genesis, he recalled Jacob's words after his dream of the ladder of angels. Jacob declared that the place where he lay was a holy place, Schorsch told the audience that included Bishop Robert N. Lynch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. It was a place where God could be found, Jacob said, something of which he had been unaware.

"The first half of the verse indicates the definition of a synagogue as a place where one can find God and the second alludes to the contemporary mission of the synagogue," Schorsch explained in an interview this week.

"There are many who are unaware that God is to found in the synagogue, in this sacred place. So the challenge of the synagogue is to bring more people in, to enrich their lives through exposure to something beyond the material world."

Congregation B'nai Israel's new 32,000-square-foot synagogue includes a 363-seat sanctuary that can be expanded to accommodate more than 1,000 people. The sanctuary's new stained glass windows, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel, complement older ones from the former synagogue that show the holiday cycle of the Jewish people. The facility also includes a chapel, preschool, religious school, social hall, kosher kitchen, kosher catering facilities, library and offices.

Sunday, the ancient call of shofars called the congregants to dedicate their new home. In words of welcome, Reva Pearlstein, Congregation B'nai Israel's immediate past president, recalled the synagogue's 1998 groundbreaking ceremony.

The field on which they stood then, she said, "has come alive with prayer." She also reminded them of the triumphant Torah procession in April, when they marched around the block from their old home to the new synagogue.

The timing of the dedication ceremony, "a few short days before Hanukkah, the festival of dedication, the festival of miracles," is appropriate, Mrs. Pearlstein said.

"A great miracle happened here."

As the celebration concluded, she added, "This synagogue represents our strength, our vision and our commitment to the future."

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