Congregation Shomrei Torah
By Anna R. Schifter, Spring 2016
The Congregation Shomrei Torah (CST), located on 4858 Kerry Forest Parkway, Tallahassee, Florida, opened in 1976. The temple was started by five founding families, who were all previous members of Temple Israel, also located in Tallahassee. Temple Israel, a reform congregation, opened in 1937 and was the first Jewish congregation in Tallahassee. These five founding families decided to branch away from Temple Israel because the synagogue did not hold Saturday morning services, as the rabbi that was currently serving at the temple would not authorize it, according to a “senior” member of the congregation, Irwin Kantrowitz. Congregation Shomrei Torah has come a great distance from these five families in its forty years.
Serving as an alternative to Temple Israel, in 1976, these founding families asked to borrow a family-owned Torah from one of their friends who lived out of town. They wrote to other numerous congregations in search of prayer books. In the beginning, the “congregation” met in the member’s homes, and then, once a little bigger, in a place provided by a church. The congregation continued to expand through word of mouth. Within the short time of two years, the congregation grew from being five families to twenty families. With this huge increase in members, the founding families decided to initiate the beginning of membership dues and required a new, bigger space. They rented a house located on the corner of Gadsden and Ingleside, in Tallahassee. Eventually, the members purchased an estate in Killearn Estates, a space where they still currently reside. Congregation Shomrei Torah now serves as a place of worship for sixty families. Shomrei Torah also often uses the term synagogue, or the Yiddish term “shul.”
Congregation Shomrei Torah is a conservative congregation. It was started on the basis of requiring traditional Saturday morning services, services that were not provided elsewhere at the time. The congregation was first opened without a rabbi. During this time, finding a rabbi in Tallahassee was very difficult because the economic times limited the congregation from hiring a permissible candidate. Congregation Shomrei Torah still survives without a rabbi but still host eighty families and single members. However, the congregation is often visited by traveling rabbis who lead their services.
Shomrei Torah holds Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday mornings, and other services held for the High Holy Days, or Jewish holidays. The services held on these High Holy Days are open door and everyone is welcome, with no tickets required. The small congregation is something that is very valued because it provides a comfortable and friendly environment for everyone to participate and where everyone will know everyone’s names. The congregation also provides Jewish education for all ages. The congregation greets anyone who wants to join, no matter single or married, sexual orientation, race, or occupation. The congregation also has Sisterhood and Men’s Club organizations within.
This is something that I really appreciate. It is not easy to always find a place to be so comfortable in, and that does not discriminate against people for the smallest of things. The congregation is very open and it is so easy to be involved. I felt very welcomed there and was able to ask a lot of questions, and it is so easy to attend services and other events, at no cost at all.
The synagogue is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. According to the congregation’s president, David Abrams, Shomrei Torah is the only congregation associated with the United Synagogue between Pensacola, Florida and Jacksonville, Florida. This association is an “umbrella organization” for conservative synagogues. The United Synagogue provides a training program for future rabbis and helps with their placement. The group also distributes guidelines on certain religious traditions.
Congregation Shomrei Torah is unique from other congregations in Tallahassee. They hold lay led services, which are services where a volunteer will suggest a topic to the community and then formulates reflections to discuss, supporting these topics with music, readings, spiritual stories, etc.. The congregation is also known to be entirely “egalitarian,” which is not unique for a congregation to be within the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, according to Kantrowitz. However, this congregation’s utilization of Hebrew, along with their dedication to the traditional practices with some modern aspects, distinguishes them from other congregations in Tallahassee that practice reform Judaism. They are also known to be different from Chabad, in Tallahassee, because of their observance of democracy.
Congregation Shomrei Torah is not a sponsored congregation. They survive exclusively on the dues from members and from holding fundraising events. Something very special about the congregation is that they do not expect students that attend Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee Community College (TCC), Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), etc., to pay full dues, as families and single adult members do, to attend services and other events, and they accommodate them as such.
Shomrei Torah offers a formal Jewish education program from ages five to fifteen. The congregation hires one or two Jewish college students to help teach the religious school. The congregation hosts classes on Sunday that lasts three hours and Wednesday nights for an hour and a half for the older kids. To continue, classes are not limited to children. Adults are offered classes in understanding the “liturgy,” or worship, Hebrew literacy, etc. and study gatherings on Sundays. They also offer services for all “life-cycle” events. Life cycle events include brit milahs, baby naming's, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, etc. Not only does the congregation offer programs such as these, but they offer many occasions for volunteer work, and host a myriad of social events. These events highlight the congregation for their generosity and dedication. The synagogue encourages their members to volunteer and participate in activities for the benefit of helping them become better members within the congregation and within the outside community of Tallahassee.
Some of the distinct events Shomrei Torah hosts include monthly game night, providing dinner to the local homeless shelter once a month, and Friday night dinners, held about six to eight times a year. Specifically, the Passover on the Patio event, celebrated on the second night of Passover, will occur on April 23. These specific events contribute to the commemoration of the founding members and the acceptance of anyone in their community and the healthy participation of the congregation community. Every event at the synagogue are sponsored for and by the members, such as guest speakers or visiting rabbis, are all open to the community. These events are often publicized in the local newspaper and social media platforms, such as Facebook.
Shomrei Torah should be considered one of the most extraordinary congregations in Tallahassee because there are many qualities that reach out to so many. The congregation offers all aspects important to Jewish individuals. It extends so many opportunities, not only projects involving Judaism, to become involved within the congregation and the Tallahassee community. The congregation truly prospers on the idea that everyone, regardless of hardships and hindrances, are welcomed and celebrated.