Congregation Ohev Shalom of Maitland celebrates its 100th anniversary
Time is not always kind to the things we hold dear.
Businesses close and houses of worship crumble, but there are exceptions to the rule.
And it’s not only celebrating the congregation itself but also the Jewish community at-large in Orlando, said Rabbi David Kay, who has been a part of the congregation for 14 years.
“If you ask folks from any large city in the U.S. to name a place where there would be a 100-year-old Jewish congregation, I doubt they would pick Orlando — it’s not what jumps to people’s minds,” Kay said. “So the fact that we are here and healthy and growing and dynamic for 100 years, it tells me that there is much more to this community, and to this Jewish community, than meets the eye.”
The congregation’s long history dates back all the way to 1917, when a small group of local Jews bought a wooden building from the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Located on the corner of Terry Street and Central Avenue, the tiny, one-bedroom building housed everything the members did — including services, school and social events, said longtime member and de facto historian Roz Fuchs.
The spark to start this congregation came after the eventual founders — most notably Pauline Berman — ran across an editorial in the local paper that noted although there were many civics groups that participated, there was a clear absence of Jewish and African-American people at a war bond parade.
“Well the Jews and African-Americans had not been invited to participate in the parade — there was a Jewish community but there was no Jewish institution that someone could have called up and said, ‘Do you want to be a part of the parade?’” Fuchs said. “So it spurred the loosely organized community to become a traditionally organized community. That was in 1918 — they had already purchased the building, but they had not incorporated or gotten a charter yet.”
Berman called for a meeting to be held at the home of a local businessman named Harry Kanner, where they would unfurl the plans for the new congregation. Three months later, they had their official charter from the state, and from there the Congregation Ohev Shalom was born.
Since then, the congregation has moved three times during its lifespan. In 1926, because of the growth in membership, the congregation built the first synagogue that was initially planned out and built to be a synagogue in Central Florida at the corner of Church Street and Eola Drive.
Forty-eight years later, in 1974, the congregation again moved because of a combination of growth and members moving into the suburbs of Greater Orlando. The congregation settled on a spot on Goddard Avenue.
After 37 years in the third location, the congregation moved into the brand new building they now call home at 613 Concourse Parkway S.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to gather the resources and build a new building about six years ago,” Kay said. “We are solid and solvent and dynamic, and always looking for new ways to serve an increasingly diverse congregation. I have been delighted to see the Congregation continue to diversify.”
Currently, the congregation has a membership of more than 600 households, which Kay estimates includes about 1,500 members.
Those members, and others in the Jewish (and non-Jewish) communities, are welcomed to take in myriad special events to help celebrate the congregation’s centennial, said 18-year member Lisa Levin, who serves as a publicity chair for the congregation.
The celebrations kicked off the year’s events with a special exhibit of at the Orange County Regional History Center, which features old artifacts and oral histories from members of the Jewish community in the area. The event will run until Feb. 20.
Along with the exhibit, the congregation’s 100th anniversary also will hold its Centennial Gala weekend fundraiser on Feb. 9 and 10, as well as a centennial scholar-in-residence weekend, during which a noted author will come and speak at services.
“We’ll be incorporating centennial celebrations in our Friday afternoon and Saturday morning sabbath services,” Levin said. “We’ll have just a wide variety of observances during the services, and then we have our annual gala fundraiser — we’re pulling out all the stops for that.”
The events will be open for both the Jewish community, and the community at large, as Levin shared the same sentiment as Fuchs and Kay that this celebration was bigger than just the Congregation itself.
“It’s just been a wonderful resource for the community,” Levin said. “It’s an excellent institution that has been thriving for decades and many of our members are very active in the larger Jewish community and in the Greater Orlando community.”