Snaps from the Past: Kehillah

When I was a student at Lake Silver Elementary in the 1960s, many of our classmates and neighbors were of Jewish and Catholic faiths. My childhood memories include Friday night at temple with friends and Sunday evening when they might come with us to youth group at St. Michael’s.

We sang “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and “I Have a Little Dreidel” along with “Silent Night” and “O Christmas Tree” at school. We learned bits of Hebrew and Latin, and we prayed together in the classroom too. We understood when Jewish children got Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as holidays and when we were served fish on Fridays in the cafeteria for the Catholics who abstained from meat. I loved being invited to bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and their fancy parties in nearby hotel ballrooms.

I first learned about the Holocaust in Miss Wise’s class in junior high school and cried when Stuart Arost gave a speech about the horrid tortures and death camps our parents’ generation endured and the lives sacrificed so ours could be lived free.

I childishly thought everyone’s neighborhood included such diversity. What I didn’t know much about were the contributions that the Jewish community brought to Orlando’s history through commitment to agriculture, businesses, arts and education, civil rights, media, philanthropy, hospitality and defense industries. Nor how these roots grew right here in College Park.

In 1917, the entire Jewish community of Orlando gathered to celebrate the marriage of Aaron Levy to Rose Gleibman under a chuppah in the groom’s family grove. It was the first Jewish wedding in Orlando and is part of the rich mosaic of our history in College Park. Moses Levy’s orange grove included the intersection of what is now Edgewater Drive and Princeton Street and was for a time the social center of Jewish life in Orlando.

Levy’s homestead also served as the location for Jewish religious services until the establishment of Congregation Ohev Shalom in 1918, Central Florida’s oldest Jewish institution.

Jews were forbidden to live in Florida until 1763 when Spain ceded Florida to England in exchange for Cuba as part of the Treaty of Paris. Since the time of the Spanish Inquisition, only Catholics were allowed to live under Spanish rule, and that included the territory of Florida. As Florida ceded back and forth between Spain and England, Jewish families moved in and out of the state, almost entirely in the panhandle region.

By the end of the Civil War, Jews began settling in Central Florida. Orlando’s first elected alderman was merchant Jacob R. Cohen, who in 1875 helped draft Orlando’s charter.

Another early settler was Dr. Philip P. Phillips, perhaps one of the largest and most prominent, best-known citrus growers in Florida. Philips arrived in 1897 and planted one of his first groves in College Park. His Florida citrus empire grew to over 5,000 acres and became the origins of a philanthropic legacy.

At the turn of the 20th century, only five Jewish families lived in Orlando. In 1912, a migration of Jewish families from Pittsburg began settling in College Park on the land between Lake Silver and Lake Fairview.

The Wittenstein, Levine and Levy families first arrived, followed in 1913 by Rose and Israel Shader and the Meitin family, essentially doubling Orlando’s Jewish population. They named the area Fairvilla and planted orange groves and operated dairy farms.

Three generations of Wittensteins farmed here until 1937, when the Nirenberg family bought the dairy in 1937. Marshall Nirenberg grew up on the Rio Grande Avenue farm; he graduated from Orlando High School in 1944 and from the University of Florida in 1948. Dr. Nirenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 (jointly with two others) for breaking the genetic code. Imagine the impact of this discovery for modern science and medicine!

Today, more than 30,000 Jews live in greater Orlando.

On November 12, The Orange County Regional History Center opens Kehillah: A History of Jewish Life in Greater Orlando. Kehillah, a Hebrew word meaning community, stories the initiatives, achievements and enterprises of greater Orlando’s Jewish community. Three years in the making and propelled by the centennial of Congregation Ohev Shalom, Kehillah includes Jewish history from Orange, Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties. The informative exhibit displays over 450 photographs, 75 artifacts, pioneer narratives and maps. Highlighting rich traditions and the Jewish community’s contributions, Kehillah runs through February 20, 2018.

Kehillah — a beautiful word for what knits us together.

One Response to “Snaps from the Past: Kehillah”

  1. Mary Ellen Handley Adams
    October 31, 2017 at 8:15 am #

    Becky, Thank you for the wonderful articles you provide. They always bring back memories and good times. I always look forward to reading them whenever I get my hands on the College Park News.

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