|800 North Palafox Street
|37 East Chase Street
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30.421627, -87.217084 Temple Beth-El </googlemap>
The Temple Beth-El (ק.ק. בית אל), located at the intersection of Palafox and Cervantes Streets in North Hill, is the oldest Jewish house of worship in Florida. Beth-El is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, and has led the congregation in Reform Judaism services since the temple's foundation.
The current rabbi is Joel Fleekop.
The first Jews who migrated to northwest Florida originally stopped at Milton, twenty miles to the east, because Milton was a national hub for lumber production and distribution in the South (the first Jews to the area were skilled in lumber production; they came from heavily wooded areas in what is now southern Germany). Other Jewish families lived in Pensacola, but fled during Union occupation in the Civil War. The population began to return in 1865, and in late 1876 ten Jewish families joined together to establish a Reform congregation and build a temple, located at 37 East Chase Street (near Jefferson). Gerson Forscheimer was the Temple's first president, and board members included S. M. Goldbach, Lewis Kahn, Michael Levy, Adolph Goldstucker, Morris Dannheiser and Jacob Kahn. The congregation had no rabbi, so Goldstucker conducted services.
The Temple was granted a charter by the State of Florida in 1878 under the Beth-El name, making it Florida's first formally recognized Jewish congregation. Many of the lumber workers in Milton did not follow the congregation, and eventually started a smaller Jewish community in Okaloosa County when lumber opportunities dried up. Temple Beth-El joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1889 and engaged its first rabbi, Adolph Rosenberg, in 1892.
In 1895 the original wooden temple was burned by a fire of undetermined origin, sparing only a single scroll. A new two-story brick building was constructed on the same site and dedicated in April 1896. That building remained home of the growing congregation, which by 1929 had 125 members, with 47 children enrolled in the Sabbath School. The Sisterhood of Temple Beth-El, which was organized in 1919 by Elsie Wagenheim, had 106 members. On December 17, 1929, another fire broke out. According to a newspaper account of the time, "The next morning saw the structure almost completely destroyed. The scrolls were ruined and had to be buried. From the Temple proper, the Ten Commandment Tablet above the Ark had been saved and the memorial table. The organ had been damaged but was salvageable."
The temple was rebuilt at its current site atop Gage Hill at 800 North Palafox Street in 1931. The building committee included chairman Max L. Bear, Joseph M. Levy, Dan S. Oppenheimer and Dr. Mozart A. Lischkoff. The three-story building's design had a seating capacity of 350 in the sanctuary and reflected the Art Deco style popular at the time. The cornerstone was laid on June 1 (the sixteenth day of Sivan, 5691), and the following statement was recorded:
All of the members of this congregation with the exception of two who were financially unable, have contributed to the building fund of the Temple. It is hoped that a mortgage will not become necessary in spite of the financial crisis from which the whole country (and the world at large) is suffering, as one of the disastrous after-effects of the World War. May future generations achieve the wisdom and the courage necessary to avoid this horrible crime: WAR. May they live in harmony and peace!
A Religious School with nine classrooms was added in 1960.
Today, many members of the current congregation consist of descendants of the men who founded the Temple. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, Israel, and the Caucasus eventually settled in Pensacola and became part of the congregation as well. Beth-El is unique today in that a large number of the congregation consists of Jews who converted from other faiths.
Starting in 1962, Paula Ackerman, the first woman to perform rabbinical functions in the United States, served the congregation at Beth-El. A Pensacola native, Beth-El was Mrs. Ackerman's home temple and she was asked to fill in until a suitable replacement was found in 1967.
- Paula Ackerman, both as a child and later serving the congregation as a rabbi.