Temple Israel in Tallahassee
The Cornerstone of Tallahassee's Jewish Community
By Ashira Boxman, Fall 2015
Beginning in 1937, the first Jewish congregation in Tallahassee came to fruition. A group of 25 families gathered together and decided it was time to build a religious organization for the Jewish community in Tallahassee. Prior to this, the Jewish community of Tallahassee worshipped at the Masonic Temple on Adams Street. They had a student rabbi from the rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, come lead High Holiday services every year. However, these 25 Jewish families decided it was time to build a congregation of their own.
The families contributed funding to be able to build this house of worship. It was first named, The Tallahassee Jewish Community, and they elected a board of trustees to lead this congregation into the future. The first president was named Sam Mendelson, and the first vice president was named Albert B. Block. They decided to ask another student rabbi named Aaron Wise to lead High Holiday services in the years 1937 and 1938.
The Tallahassee Jewish Community decided it was time start looking for a Rabbi to lead this house of worship more than just on the High Holidays. In September 1938, the Florida Federation of B’nai B’rith Lodges requested to establish a religious leadership program for Jewish students who attend the Florida State College for Women and the University of Florida as well. They contacted the Tallahassee Jewish Community to get approval and organized a meeting with the new Rabbi. This Rabbi’s name was Rabbi David Max Eichhorn. He began working for the Tallahassee Jewish Community and became the Hillel director for the Florida State College for Women. The congregation really enjoyed having Rabbi David Max Eichhorn and truly appreciated his presence in the congregation.
Following the hiring of the new Rabbi, in 1939, the vice president, Albert B. Block and Mrs. Sarah Levy of Washington granted the congregation a piece of land on South Copeland Street to build a new synagogue and community center. Albert B. Block and Mrs. Sarah Levy of Washington were two of the older residents of Tallahassee and decided to dedicate this building in honor of Sarah Levy’s late husband, William Levy.
Tallahassee was honored on February 24, 1939 to have their first Rabbi installed into their congregation. Rabbi Eichhorn was installed and was showered with a beautiful reception following the service, which was sponsored by the Sisterhood. The sisterhood was a group of women, similar to a club, who belonged to the congregation and would plan events and participate in things in the temple and community together.
The congregation began building on the land that was given to them by Albert B. Block and Mrs. Sarah Levy of Washington. The date July 12, 1939 holds much significance to the Jewish people of Tallahassee. On July 12, 1939, ground was broken for the synagogue building. The Tallahassee Jewish Community came together and decided to give this new building a name. They named the congregation, Temple Israel. After a couple months, the congregation decided to dedicate Temple Israel. On February 12, 1940, Temple Israel was dedicated and would continue being called this name till today.
Following Rabbi Eichhorn’s time as the Rabbi of Temple Israel, another rabbi was installed. This Rabbis’ name was Rabbi Stanley J. Garfein. Rabbi Garfein became very special to the Temple Israel community since he was their Rabbi for many years. Rabbi Garfein served Temple Israel from the years 1966–2001. Prior to Rabbi Garfein’s time in the congregation, Temple Israel was donated extra land to build a religious school building for all of the Jewish children in Tallahassee. This was built in 1955 and continues to flourish with many children, even until today.
Rabbi Garfein served Temple Israel for about 30 years, and during his time as Rabbi, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. He reached out to the Jews who were elected for state government in Florida and when they moved to Tallahassee, Rabbi Garfein welcomed these important people into the Tallahassee Jewish community. Rabbi Garfein also became involved in the anti-discrimination legislation during his time serving as Rabbi at Temple Israel.
Many years later, the congregation faced a major renovation of their building. Prior to this renovation the congregation was blessed with another Rabbi who entered their Temple Israel community. Rabbi Jack Romberg began his term at Temple Israel in 2001 and is the current Rabbi at Temple Israel today.
In the year 2008, Temple Israel was renovated. They renovated and rebuilt the sanctuary, social hall and foyer as well. The sanctuary was rebuilt and was filled with Jerusalem stone from the Western Wall in Israel. When I visited Temple Israel recently I learned that this stone came directly from Israel but the process of bringing it to Temple Israel was very tedious. First, the stone came by boat and was dropped off at the Port of Baltimore. Following the Port of Baltimore, the stone was put on a train to Jacksonville, Florida and brought to Temple Israel in Tallahassee afterwards. Temple Israel decided to leave small cracks in the stone to resemble to Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. In Israel, the Jewish people place notes of hope and prayer into the small cracks in the Western Wall.
The renovation of Temple Israel’s sanctuary was very exciting for this community. It was exciting because prior to this renovation the sanctuary resembled a church layout. This was because in the beginning of Reform Judaism, it was customary to build the synagogues resembling churches so that they would be somewhat assimilated into the American culture. The woman that I talked to when I visited Temple Israel, said “The sanctuary used to resemble a church, it had a very high alter, with wood on the top to make it look like Noah’s ark and the seating resembled church pews.” Today, the sanctuary resembles what other sanctuaries in modern Reform temples look like.
Something that stood out to me when I visited this sanctuary was the beautiful stained glass windows. I learned that the Florida State University’s Master Craftsman Studio designed and made these windows.
Finally, Temple Israel is very involved in the greater Tallahassee community. For several years Temple Israel has put on the Tallahassee Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. They invite the entire Tallahassee community to attend this festival. They provide food, different activities, shopping, dancing and music at this festival. They have different companies sponsor them in the Tallahassee area including the Tallahassee State Bank, the Cornerstone Learning Community, Kant Realty in Tallahassee, etc. Also, the current Rabbi at Temple Israel, Rabbi Jack Romberg is a part of several committees and groups in Tallahassee. He served on the Tallahassee Equality Action Ministry, launched Tallahassee Interfaith Clergy, was on the editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat, was a guest lecturer in classes at Florida State University, actively fought against the Florida Marriage Amendment, and is currently on the board of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and The Village Square. Temple Israel continues to leave a positive mark on the Tallahassee community.