LEE AND CHARLOTTE COUNTIES, counties in S.W. Florida, U.S., including Fort Myers. Fort Myers, a city of about 50,000 people, is named for a Jew, Colonel Abraham C. Myers. A West Point graduate and quartermaster during the Seminole Indian Wars, Myers was a descendent of Moses Cohen, the first rabbi of Charleston, South Carolina. General John Twiggs (not Jewish) was commander of the fort built on the Caloosahatchee River by Federal troops in 1839 for defense against the Indians and his daughter married Myers. The fort was named to honor Colonel Myers.
There is no record of the earliest Jew in Lee County. Jews were first able to attend a Jewish service during World War II when a Jewish chaplain was assigned to the Buckingham Air Base. In 1947 Sam Posner placed an ad in the local newspaper that his store would be closed for the Jewish High Holidays. Following that, he had his best sales day ever when people came to see what a Jew was like. The next year, as more Jews identified themselves, they rented a hall for $5.00 and had High Holiday services.
The Lipman family began packing tomatoes and farming in the area in 1952 as the Six L's Packing Co. They became a large agricultural presence and expanded into other areas of the state. Today they are probably the largest tomato growers in the country, farming more than 15,000 acres and operating eight packinghouses in seven states.
Celia Tanner, born in Key West in 1906, came to Fort Myers with her husband Herman in 1936 to open a scrap metal business that evolved into Tanner Auto Parts. The first congregation was formed in 1954 when 22 people met at their home. Led by Sam and Rose Posner, they purchased land for $1,200 to build the Fort Myers Community Center–Temple Beth-El and affiliated with the Conservative movement. By this time, there were 30 Jewish families and Posner was the lay rabbi. In
Brothers Jack and Leonard Rosen formed Gulf American Land Corporation and assembled 114 square miles of desolate woods on the western tip of Lee County that they named Cape Coral. They brought in the largest single shipment of earthmoving equipment in Florida development history to create 350,000 residential sites. A large majority of the people who worked for Gulf American were Jews. The Rosen Brothers donated 4.5 acres of land and $25,000 for Temple Beth-El to move to Cape Coral in 1966 and insisted that all of their employees join the Temple. The new building was dedicated in 1965 by Rabbi Simon Friedeman, and it was already crowded with 90 families. One was Sylvia and David Gottlieb who came to Cape Coral with Gulf American. Thirty years later Sylvia Gottlieb donated land to the Federation and the proceeds from the sale helped build the Jewish Community Campus.
By the 1970s other organizations were formed. Kosher meat and Passover supplies were delivered by bus from Tampa or by those who made the drive to the east coast. In 1972 when two women assumed leadership in Temple Beth-El (Rose Kosches and Gert Thomson), a group broke off to form the Fort Myers Community Center, also in Cape Coral. A Conservative congregation, Temple Judea, was formed across the river in Fort Myers.
Sam Posner pioneered the Trail, known now as U.S. Route 41. He purchased land and built the first department store there; later Sears, Burdines, and Maas Brothers (Jews from Tampa) came along. He was the first chairman of the board for Lee Memorial Hospital in 1976 and received awards for his civic leadership as well as for his service to Israel.
In 1973 Dr. Harvey Tritel became the 100th physician to join the Medical Society in Fort Myers and the 100th Jewish family to settle there. In 1975 Leo Cooper provided a connecting link for the Lee County Jews with the newspaper, L'Chayim, subsequently continued by Federation. In 1983 Sheila Laboda was the Federation's first president and Temple Judea had a woman rabbi in the 1990s (Tobah August). The community has grown and participated in all Jewish issues and efforts of their larger counterparts, including bringing Russian Jews.
Nearby Port Charlotte had its first congregation in 1961 and the following year, General Development Corporation donated land for a Temple that was designed in the shape of the Star of David. Today there are about 8,000 Jews in Lee and Charlotte Counties (not including snowbirds), nine Jewish organizations, three Jewish schools, and nine congregations.