We, at Beth Israel Congregation of Sun City Center, are a melting pot of retirees from all over the United States. Beth Israel spans the spectrum of Judaism from Orthodox to Reform. March of 2012 marked the 25th Anniversary of Beth Israel’s groundbreaking ceremony for a permanent home.
Historians say that if you know where you’ve come from, you can appreciate where you are now and understand where you might go in the future. Beth Israel’s archives include a collection of archival scrapbooks. These scrapbooks, shelved amidst the library’s collections, preserve the history of Beth Israel, The Jewish Community of Sun City Center.
The stories of our Temple community begin with, what else, Book 1, “In the Beginning” – Bereshit – 1975-1982, lovingly compiled by Selma Pellegrino. Through her efforts both as Historian and Shalom News Editor, there are 24 books in all, with newspaper clippings, letters, newsletters, photos, and so on. On the 25th Anniversary of Beth Israel’s groundbreaking for its’ permanent home, Cyrille Cobe prepared a brief synthesis of how the temple community began and what led to the groundbreaking on March, 1987.
In the mid to late 1970’s a small group in Sun City Center, led by Rabbi Adolph Feinberg, Ph.D., a retired Army Chaplain, led Friday night services using prayer books obtained from Tampa and St. Petersburg rabbis. After Rabbi Feinberg’s death, Reverend Gingery of the United Community Church, encouraged the small group of worshipers (10-12) to continue to hold services without a Rabbi and offered the facilities of the United Community Church. The offer was accepted, and lay services continued until 1985. Rabbi Opher and Rabbi Richter each came once a month as visiting Rabbis. Membership had grown to 140 and the size of the congregation was rapidly outgrowing the facility at UCC.
In March of 1986 consideration was given to what to do if our present home at UCC was no longer available. In December of 1986 two acres were purchased with funds contributed by the entire congregation (1.5 acres) and a generous donation by the Biancos’ for the remaining .5-acre. Dues were increased to $100.00 a year.
In 1983 the first newsletter, handwritten, mentioned a membership booklet, tribute cards, and an Oneg Shabbat committee. Then, Gates of Prayer was adopted for services, a Torah committee was appointed, and Mr. Benjamin Greenbaum, a Tampa philanthropist, expressed interest in donating a Torah. The building of an ark was undertaken by our local, Kings Point woodshop club. Membership rose to 83.
On February 10, 1984 a Torah Dedication service was held with guest speakers USF Rabbi Steven J. Kaplan and Aaron Iskewitch. A month later the portable ark was dedicated. The ark was built by Dan Klotchkoff in the Kings Point woodworking shop according to the specifications in Chapter 25, the Book of Exodus, out of wood and without any nails. Shalom News was launched and issued every other month. Typically about 30 people attended Friday night services then. Publicity appeared in The Sun, The East Hillsborough Tribune, and the Jewish Floridian of Tampa.
Groundbreaking for a new building designed to accommodate 250 congregants took place on March 27, 1987 and our building was completed and dedicated in on February 26, 1988.
Continued growth was marked by lectures on topics ofinterest, presentations of Jewish music, courses to learn Hebrew, the formation of a choir, the formation of Sisterhood in 1999, Men’s Club in 2005, an expanded Judaica Shop and a Library. A Scholar-in-Residence Program was instituted in 2005 and has become an annual event.
Initially, services continued to be led by members of the congregation. In 1996, two guest Rabbis alternated leading services once a month followed by the addition of Cantor Sam Isaacs leading services once a month and the guest Rabbis continuing to alternate. Eventually, Dr. Sam led services twice a month. Beth Israel welcomed Rabbi David Susskind in September of 2001 and he led the congregation until his retirement in June of 2003.
2001 was a year marked by numerous additions. Built in loving memory of Henry Gibson, the Henry Gibson Social Hall was dedicated on December 2, 2001, through the generosity of wife Annette, and Tobee and Leonard Caplan, his daughter and son-in-law. This welcome extension provided the congregation with the facility to handle expanded programming, parties, dinners and meetings. In October of 2001 a new façade was added to the front of the building and still endures. Inside, a center staircase was added to the bimah. At that time Rabbi Philip Aaronson assumed the position of spiritual leader and served until his retirement in October of 2012.
We welcomed our new spiritual leader, Rabbi Carla Freedman, in July of 2013 and we are moving ahead with the technology of the 21st century. Under the guidance of URJ, Beth Israel has a newly enhanced website filled with pertinent information, and the Temple has become a “hot- spot” to connect to the Internet. The possibilities to take advantage of the technology are infinite and we continue to explore the available options.