On Feb. 13th, 2000, thirteen special people gathered to tell the story regarding a mutual love. This group was just a part of the visionaries that helped organize a Jewish community center. Today, fifty years later, their love goes by the name Temple B’nai Israel.
Clearwater was a different town fifty years ago; the beach was virtually undeveloped. In a letter found in the temple archives, Clearwater was described as beautiful white sand and little else. Most of the commercial portion of the town was along Cleveland Street. Anti-Semitism and the Klu Klux Klan were “very much a part of the scene.” Only about ten families identified themselves as “Jewish.”
Meeting Around a Picnic Table
“There were very few Jewish people then,” reflected Julius Lovtiz, on of the participants in the discussion. “They got together and formed the Jewish community center.” The early group of meetings were held around a single picnic table along the Courtney Campbell causeway before moving to Phillipi Park.
Timing was perfect. The years 1945 through 1969 showed tremendous growth in the arrival of Jewish families to the Clearwater area.
Lovitz reminisced about his arrival in 1945. “There were very few Jewish people here at that time,” he stated. “Leonard (Collman) came just a few months later.” Lovitz and Collman shared that they, along with about “eight others formed the nucleus of the temple.”
“It was the fall of ’46 when we formed the Jewish Community Center,” Collman said.
Buying Property on Betty Lane
At its inception, meetings were held in a storefront,” stated Arthur Rutenburg. The first permanent structure was located at 20 S. Betty Lane. While the building committee was still in discussion, Collman and Darwin Frank rushed to the realtor’s office and signed the contract before any surrounding neighbors found out about the sale. The group faced hostility before and quick action secured the parcel and future growth.
Collman said he and Frank had just one concern. “We bought the lot of $2,000 or $2,500. We thought it was quite a ways out of town at that time. We thought we would have plenty of off street parking. It worked out all right.”
“Back then, you could park just about anywhere you wanted,” added Rutenberg. The building was completed in January 1950.
“It was a real culture shock,” stated Lisl Schick who arrived in 1960 from Charlotte, NC. She was used to a very large and very old Jewish community. “There was one room we used for everything,” added Collman. The old building became Pioneer Savings Bank. Neither the bank nor the building remains today.
The early days provided a simple way of making sure everyone was included in any event. “If any of us had a party, you invited every Jewish person of our generation to the party. You didn’t have a problem with a guest list,” said Rutenburg.
Becoming a Reform Congregation
The history of the temple was just as colorful and energetic as those that were telling the stories. First there were attempts by some to conduct services toward Orthodox, while other desired Conservative. Some expressed their desire to have Reform services. There was the inevitable “parting of the way.” It was in June of 1955 that the congregation voted to affiliate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations leading to the formality of becoming “Temple B’nai Israel” in March of 1958.
The Temple hired it first rabbi, Harry Richmond in 1956 and Rabbi J. Marshall Taxay served as the congregation’s spiritual leader from 1960-1969.
The congregation continued to grow following a large migration of Jewish families to the Clearwater area in the 1960s.
Moving Toward a New Home
The Temple family counted 80 families when Rabbi Arthur Baseman took the position of the spiritual leader in 1969. In the short time of one year, the membership rolls swelled to 240 families and Temple B’nai Israel found that it had achieved the reputation as the “fastest growing Reform congregation in the Southeast Region.
The members of Temple B’nai Israel were excited and proud of their accomplishments. They were ready to enter the 1970s with a fire direction as to where they were heading.
At its inception, Temple B’nai Israel embraced every newcomer. The spirit swelled from earlier times which, in 1957, the Board changed its bylaws to allow any member who had belonged for only one year to seek election as a member of the Board. It was this essence of inclusion that allowed the leadership to attempt on of its boldest moves: a new synagogue.
On January 30, 1972, a new cornerstone was set in place with the simple inscription “Shalom” etched upon its surface. The cornerstone from the site at Betty Lane was laid next to the new stone linking the generations of old with those bold thinkers facing the future. It was Sept. 30, 1972, that the Temple was officially dedicated on Belcher Road.
In the ‘70s, newcomers found a dedicated, energetic congregation at the Temple. For this reason, this time period was one of exceptional growth. With the religious school in place, as well as the preschool, children and their families marveled at the warmth of the congregants and the fullness of the Sanctuary during Shabbat services.
If the ‘70s were for growth, the ‘80s allowed for maturity. Wedding services were on the rise! Extensive remodeling took place in 1984 and the Gorn Learning Center was added in 1985.
It was during this time, with the increase in the size of the congregation that double services were required for Rosh Hashanah Eve and Kol Nidre. “In the almost twenty years that the Belcher Road Temple has been the Congregation’s home it has more than fulfilled the dreams of its builders and sustainers to become the largest Jewish congregation on the West Coast of Florida.” This statement, made ten years ago in the 40th anniversary booklet seems so true, that by changing the time period from twenty to thirty years, it might just as well have been written today.
Toni Rinde, chairperson of the 50th Anniversary Committee and past Temple President said to the group, “Thank you for our past. It ensures our future!”
“Thank you (Rabbi Baseman) for being the bridge,” added Charlie Rutenburg.
Fifty years of spectacular growth! Fifty years of progress! Fifty years of pride!