SAINT PETERSBURG, Pinellas County, Florida. Florida's fourth largest city, with 61 square miles, is located on the west coast of Florida in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Palm Harbor, Largo, Gulfport and Tarpon Springs). It has 234 miles of coastline, mostly on the Gulf of Mexico, and is known as the "Sunshine City." The first-known Jews were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Schutz, who arrived from Germany in 1901 and opened a dry goods store, the only Jewish merchants for seven years. Their store on Central Avenue, which had a basket on a pulley to carry money to a balcony to make change, later served as a temporary home for St. Petersburg High School. Olga and Leon Manket opened a dry good store in 1908; their daughter Anne was the first-known Jewish child born there. The first-known boy was Julius Lovitz in 1909; the Lovitz family were the first-known Jews in Tarpon Springs, a Greek sponge fishing village. Sam Lovitz was known as "Mr. Jew Sam." That family moved to Clearwater, and another relative, Abe Tarapani, had a store in St. Petersburg in 1911, before also moving to Tarpon Springs. The Ben Haliczers had a gas station and tire store from 1910 and had four children in Florida – two in St. Petersburg. Ben's brother Leon arrived in 1921 and had a watch repair store.
In 1920 St. Petersburg had 14,000 people, streetcars, daily band concerts in the park, unpaved streets, and people who went to the Beach to open businesses were thought "crazy." The pioneer Jewish families' names, in addition to those already mentioned, included Jacobs, Davis, Goldman, Sierkese, Cohen, Katz, Heller, Benjamin, Wittner, Rothblatt, Argintar, Lew, Solomon, and Gilbert. Some of these early families had come from Europe first to Key West, Florida, then migrated to other areas of Florida, including St. Petersburg. The Jews faced the "gentlemen's agreement" and antisemitic signs, lived near Central Avenue and had bicycle, jewelry, and grocery stores. On Sundays and holidays, Jewish families would drive through Pinellas County to pick oranges at the groves for 50 cents a bushel or drive to the waterfront and swim, filling jugs with the water that supposedly had health-giving properties – an early spa. In the evenings, the families would congregate in each other's homes to play poker and pinochle while their children played. They ordered kosher meat from Finman's in Tampa, which was delivered by boat across Tampa Bay; often it arrived spoiled, which discouraged many from keeping kosher. By 1925 a bridge was built and the meat came by bus – a big improvement!
The Jews also went to Tampa for religious services until 1923, when Congregation B'nai Israel was chartered and Conservative services were held in a rented store. The first president was Hymen Jacobs, and daughter Goldie Schuster recalls, "The discrimination and the schools were worse than her native Chicago." The first Jewish women's organization, the Ladies Auxiliary, was organized by Dora Goldberg to help the needy. In 1928 Reform Jews founded Temple Beth-El. The membership outgrew its original small home in downtown St. Petersburg, moving to its present location in 1955, and completing the Religious School addition in 2002 to meet the needs of its 600 member families.
During World War II, many Jewish servicemen enjoyed the hospitality of the small Jewish community for Sabbath dinners and the Passover seder. Bunny Rothblatt Katz collected scrap metal for the war effort in 1941 with her slogan "Your scrap will whip the Japs." Her father, David, was a legless veteran who owned Southern Grocery and was active in both civic and Jewish affairs. After the war, the Jewish population grew rapidly to about 1,500 families, and the first Jewish nursery school was opened in 1959. Since 1960 Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services has been helping infants, children, families and elders in serious physical, medical, mental, social and financial crisis, enabling them to remain free and independent with families and loved ones. In 1970 Menorah Manor was built to serve the Jewish aged; it includes a nursing home and assisted living facility. Philip Benjamin Tower
Opened in 1992 on the grounds of the former Jewish Community Center of Pinellas County in Madeira Beach, The Florida Holocaust Museum (www.flholocaustmuseum.org) – the fourth largest Holocaust museum in the U.S. – moved in 1998 to the heart of St. Petersburg's museum district. The permanent exhibit includes an original boxcar from Poland once used to transport prisoners during the Holocaust. Traveling art and historical exhibitions change regularly, and the museum is currently the only one of its kind in the country to house a permanent art collection related to the Holocaust. The museum was begun as the vision of St. Petersburg philanthropist and businessman Walter Loebenberg, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, together with a group of other business and community leaders.
The Jewish Federation of Pinellas County has the following beneficiary agencies: Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, Pinellas County Jewish Day School, Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center in Clearwater, and TOP Jewish Foundation. A Jewish demographic study in Pinellas County in 1993 showed 24,200 Jews who live there year round. Most have come from Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The congregational roster for Pinellas County includes five Reform, three Conservative, two Orthodox, and one independent.
Archives of the Jewish Museum of Florida – much of the early history written by Goldie Jacobs Schuster, who settled in St. Petersburg with her family in 1920.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.