WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. Jews and Greeks are banding together to save an old South Florida synagogue from a condo developer s wrecking ball, perhaps even packing up the entire building and floating it up a waterway to another county.
Built here in 1924 on Broward Street, the building first served as the initial home of Temple Beth Israel, a congregation launched by six families when Jews in these parts were about as common and as welcome as a Florida snowfall.
As the city’s ethnic mix began to change, the Jews outgrew their little synagogue and it became a Greek Orthodox mission, and eventually a black Baptist church.
“It’s not going to be a place of worship but a multicultural center honoring the organizations that owned it at one time,” said Rabbi Alan Sherman, executive director of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis and a board member of the local nonprofit group Toward a More Perfect Union, or TMPU, that is working to save the building.
“This building certainly represents the formal beginnings of the Jewish community in Palm Beach County,” Sherman told JTA. “This was the first spiritual home of the Jewish community, and later on it was taken over by several other faiths. So this is really an opportunity to translate Jewish spiritual values into fostering religious harmony among the peoples of Palm Beach County. It’s a tangible advance towards tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.
One plan to save the building involves packing up the entire structure and floating it up the Intracoastal Waterway, where it would sit in storage until a suitable site could be developed in downtown West Palm Beach.
Palm Beach County is home to some 255,000 Jews representing slightly more than 20 percent of its total population, making it one of the most heavily Jewish counties in the United States. Within its 2,386 square miles, the county has more than 50 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues from Jupiter in the north to ! Boca Rat on in the south. But none are as old as Beth Israel, whose congregation eventually became Temple Israel four blocks away on Flagler Drive.
A chain-link fence surrounds the boarded-up white building. Several adjacent houses on Broward Street, a few blocks from the Intracoastal Waterway, already have been torn down to make way for a mid-rise condo project.
Few people care more about the synagogue restoration than George Matsoukas, a board member of the group working to save the building and a leader of Palm Beach County’s small Greek Orthodox community.
Talking about the early days of the synagogue, Matsoukas said, “There may have been discrimination in those days, but because this was a little teeny one-horse town, people cooperated with each other to make things happen for the good of the community.”
He noted that Catholics and Episcopalians helped finance the synagogue when local Jews couldn’t come up with the money.
In 1950 the building was sold to the local American Hellenic Education Progressive Association, and it became the first Greek Orthodox church in Palm Beach County. But the Greeks, like the Jews before, eventually outgrew the site, and in 1994 they began renting the property to Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, finally selling it to the African-American group in 2001.
Mount Sinai housed an urban ministry that catered to the needs of AIDS sufferers and the homeless. It sold the building to WCI, a real estate developer, in 2004. That same year, the city of West Palm Beach approved TMPU’s request to take the lead in saving Temple Beth Israel. Matsoukas estimated the cost of the restoration project at $2 million.
TMPU has agreed to prepare for the building a permanent display “that shows in visuals and words the growth of the Greek-American community,” said Matsoukas, one of about 3,000 local Orthodox Christians.
Another exhibit will show the role of African Americans in the development of Palm Beach Cou! nty.
TMPU s financial resources director, Lauren Kanter, said five or six groups bid for the project, including a local Chabad Lubavitch congregation. But the county chose the TMPU proposal “because it was multicultural and not for any one particular group of people” or specific religion, she said.
“Our role will be to oversee moving and restoring the building, then creating a multicultural center for Palm Beach County,” she said. “In that multicultural center we’ll provide some of the programs that our organization currently offers.”
The idea of a synagogue floating on a barge may sound odd, but Kanter says it’s the only practical solution. The structure would travel north up the Intracoastal to the next county, Martin.
“This is probably the most efficient and cost-effective way to get it to a place where it can be stored,” Kanter told JTA. “To move a building on land requires taking down traffic lights, wires, utility poles and anything else that’s in the way. It’s terribly expensive. But along the Intracoastal, we don’t have those kinds of obstacles.”
According to the original plan, Beth Israel was to end up on Quadrille Street, in the courtyard of an 11-story downtown office building. But that won’t happen now because of a downturn in the local real estate market.
Bill Rothchild, TMPU’s executive director, said the developer who had offered land to relocate the building is not going ahead with his downtown project.
“It appears that the plot of land where we were going to put the building may no longer be available,” he said, “so now we’ll be asking the city of West Palm Beach to look at their inventory of available sites.”
A resolution to the Beth Israel dilemma would please 81-year-old Arthur Leibovit.
“My older brother, my sister and I, the three of us were all confirmed in that little baby temple,” said Leibovit, one of the county’s oldest native Jewish pioneers. “Historically this building is of great signi! ficance. Obviously it’s something which should be saved.”