ORLANDO


ORLANDO (and the Central Florida area). Drawn by cotton and cattle in the 1850s–1860s, some Jews came to Orlando with other pioneers to this "old west" style town. Records show that after the Civil War there were about 16 Jewish families. A Jew, Jacob Raphael Cohen, bought a store in 1873, and in 1875 he helped write the city charter and was elected an alderman. Merchant A.H. Birnbaum was a member of Orlando's first fire department and was elected alderman in 1886. In the beginning the Sanford Jewish community was larger than Orlando's. Jews arrived in Sanford by 1892. Kanner Highway (Route 76) in Martin County was named for Abram Otto "A.O." Kanner, son of Charles and Pauline of Sanford, who arrived from Romania. A.O. was born in 1893 in Sanford, attended Stetson University Law School, and then had a 40-year political career in Florida.

The citrus industry played a significant role in the development of central Florida. Dr. Philip Phillips arrived in Orlando in 1897 to buy land for citrus groves; his empire grew to over 5,000 acres, and in 1954 the business was sold to Minute Maid. Pauline and Nat Berman settled in 1908. Active civically and Jewishly, Pauline had her own radio show and was the nation's first woman radio news commentator. The Benedict, Phillips, Kanner, Salomon, and Berman families comprised the Jewish community of Orlando from 1900 until the Pittsburgh migration in 1912 (Wittenstein, Shader, Meitin, Levy, and Levine families). By 1915 other families settled and religious services were held in a citrus grove. Prior to the entry of the U.S. into World War I, a parade and rally drew every organization in the city as participants. After it was publicly noted that no Jewish group was present, Pauline Berman gathered the community at the home of Harry Kanner and spoke out that Orlando Jewry needed to organize a congregation. On August 30, 1918, Congregation Ohev Shalom was chartered and a church was purchased at the corner of Terry and Central Avenues; the dues were $1.00 per month. In 1926 B'nai B'rith was chartered and a cemetery opened in 1928. Prior to this, Jews were taken to Jacksonville (1857) or Tampa (1894) for burial. Jewish families from Paterson, New Jersey, and other northeastern cities, as well as other Florida cities, came to Orlando. Jews formed their own social and recreational clubs since they were denied memberships in others.

Harry and Minerva Nirenberg moved in 1937 with children Joan and Marshall because Marshall had rheumatic fever. Harry bought a dairy, was active at Ohev Shalom, and then was a founder of Congregation of Liberal Judaism. When he was a youngster, Marshall collected bugs from the swamp and sent specimens to a museum. He graduated from Orlando High School in 1944 and the University of Florida four years later. In 1968 Dr. Marshall Warren *Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for being the first to discover a code equivalence between a nucleic acid component and an amino acid.

Some families who settled in the 1930s and 1940s were fruit and vegetable growers and buyers. Well-known citrus labels were: Select-O-Sweet, Lady in Red, Richfruit, Emerald Fruit, Moto-Cop, MEG and Babijuice. Albertson, Heller, Jacob, Meitin, Shader, Morrell, Bornstein, Echelman, Willner, Arost, Miller, and Zimmerman were among the Jewish people who grew, packed, and shipped fruit nationwide over the second half of the 20th century. In 1940 Orlando became the air capital of the armed forces, which brought more Jewish families to the area. Many who were stationed or received training there returned to make their homes in the central Florida area. After twice escaping from Siberian concentration camps during World War I, George Terry arrived at Ellis Island in 1920 with $40. The advent of World War II brought him to Florida, where he bought 70,000 acres in southeast Orange County to raise cattle.

After World War II, Orlando experienced a population boom. The Martin Company moved there in 1956 to manufacture missiles for Cape Canaveral. Martin employed hundreds of Jews in many occupations and at every level and has been a major supplier of defense systems to Israel. Housing was needed, which brought more Jews as builders and developers. By 1960 the population had doubled. New organizations were formed to address the needs of the larger Jewish community (Hadassah in 1948; Jewish Community Council in 1949; Congregation of Liberal Judaism in 1950; Temple Israel in 1954; and Women's American ORT in 1964). Jews entertained in their homes because "everyone knew everyone else" and assumed roles in the business, civic and cultural life of the city.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: When Disney World opened in October 1971, the Central Florida area was changed forever. Orlando has become a "crossroads" of the state, with industry diversification and a distribution and service hub. Tourism and the hotel industry took giant leaps, and Jewish professionals, business people and service people – young and old – have made the Jewish community diverse and dynamic. Orlando is the #1 vacation capital and many visitors stay on to become residents. This was the greatest period of growth – from 4,000 Jews in 1971 to approximately 35,000 Jews in Central Florida in 2005. Agencies created include Kinneret (senior housing) in 1968 and 1979, Jewish Community Center in 1973, Hebrew Day School in 1976, Jewish Family Services in 1978, and Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in 1981. The Jewish campus grew from one room in an old house on the original JCC property in 1973 to a 53,000 square foot facility in Maitland that also houses the Jewish Federation, Hebrew Day School, and Holocaust Center. HERITAGE Central Florida Jewish News was started in 1976, by Gene Starn "to provide a Jewish 'ta'am' so that the community will know what is going on in Jewish life, both here at home and worldwide." In 1982 Starn sold the paper to Jeff Gaeser who continued as the editor. In 2005 there were eight constituent agencies of the Federation: Central Florida Hillel, Jewish Pavilion (providing services to Jews in nursing homes), and TOP Jewish Foundation (in addition to those already mentioned). In the Central Florida area there were three Orthodox congregations, five Conservative, seven Reform, and two Reconstructionist. There were Judaic Studies Programs at University of Central Florida and Rollins College, Chevra Kadisha, Florida Kosher Services, Hadassah, ORT, Israel Bonds, Jewish National Fund and Jewish War Veterans. The Central Florida area was thriving Jewishly, with strong expansion in the southern part of town.

[Marcia Jo Zerivitz (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.