By Larry Luxner
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In 1924, when six families inaugurated Temple Beth Israel on Broward Street in West Palm Beach, a Jew in these parts was about as common — and just as welcome — as a Florida snowfall.
But as the city's ethnic mix began changing, the Jews outgrew their little shul, and it became a Greek Orthodox mission, and eventually a black Baptist church.
Now, the Jews and Greeks have banded together to save the sacred structure from a condo developer's wrecking ball.
Even to the point of packing up the entire building if necessary, and floating it up the Intracoastal Waterway to Martin County, where it'll sit in storage until a suitable site can be developed for the building in downtown West Palm Beach.
"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 (TMPU).
"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."
Today, the county is home to some 255,000 Jews representing just over 20% of the county's total population. That makes Palm Beach County the most Jewish political jurisdiction in the world outside Israel.
With its 2,386 square miles, the county has over 50 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues — from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south. But none are as old as Beth Israel, whose congregation eventually became Temple Israel just four blocks away on Flagler Drive.
At the moment, a chain-link fence surrounds the boarded-up little white building. Several adjacent houses on Broward Street, a few blocks from the Intracoastal, have already been torn down to make way for a mid-rise condo project.
Few people care more about the synagogue restoration than George Matsoukas, a member of the TMPU board of directors and a leader in Palm Beach County's small Greek Orthodox community.
"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," said Matsoukas. He noted that Catholics and Episcopalians helped finance the little shul 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 used it to house an urban ministry that catered to the needs of AIDS sufferers and the homeless. It used the one-time shul as its house of worship until the site was sold 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 restoration project will cost around $2 million.
"They have 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 around 3,000 local Orthodox Christians. Another exhibit will show the role of African-Americans in the development of Palm Beach County, though Sherman is the only clergyman currently involved in the Beth Israel effort.
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 TMPU's 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 noted. "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 wacky, but Kanter says it's the only practical solution.
"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, due to 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. So now we'll be asking the city of West Palm Beach to look at their inventory of available sites," he said.
A resolution to the Beth Israel dilemma would make 81-year-old Arthur Leibovit very happy. v"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 significance. Obviously, it's something which should be saved."