Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

A brief history of Congregation Ohev Shalom


February 2, 2018

With Congregation Ohev Shalom's Centennial Gala Weekend (Feb. 9–10) fast approaching, we take a look back of some of the highlights of the congregation's 100 years.

In the early 20th century, when very few Jews lived in Central Florida, religious services were held at the citrus grove of Moses and Sarah Levy and in private homes. Attendees were not an official congregation yet, but by 1916, $260 had been raised toward purchasing a building. Then, as the United States entered World War I in 1917, Orlando held a war bonds rally and parade, and the local paper noted that Jews were "conspicuously absent." Pauline Berman, a community leader, organized a meeting at the home of Harry Kanner to address the lack of a recognized Jewish organization that could be invited to participate in community events.

The group organized as Congregation Ohev Sholem [Shalom] and purchased a former church in 1917; in 1918 it received its charter from the state of Florida and became the center of Jewish life in the area.

COS purchased a cemetery on Old Winter Garden Road in 1924. At the time, the congregation did not yet have a rabbi, and Rev. Benjamin Safer traveled from Jacksonville to serve as rabbi when needed. By 1926, a new synagogue building was dedicated on Church Street in downtown Orlando. The next year, the congregation hired Rev. Abraham Leshinsky as teacher and shochet with some cantorial duties; he remained in those roles through 1945. As the Jewish community continued to grow and prosper, COS was able to hire its first full time rabbi, Benjamin Safer, in 1933. By that time, 50 children were enrolled in the religious school.

After America entered World War II, COS established a USO for Jewish service men and women stationed in Orlando and loaned a Torah to the Air Base Chapel for the duration of the war. As the war ended in 1945, the congregation purchased the lot across the street from the synagogue for a Sunday School building. Returning veterans were honored at a special service and offered a discounted membership.

By 1948 the Sunday School building was completed and dedicated, with an enrollment of 90 students, and 30 students in Cheder (Hebrew School). In 1949, the congregation became a member of United Synagogue. Just 3 years later, in 1953, the congregation had 250 member families, with 150 Sunday School students and 58 in Cheder. That same year, the board passed a motion to air condition the synagogue, enlarge the sanctuary and vestry hall and modernize and enlarge the kitchen.

In 1960, Rabbi Rudolph Adler was hired, and he served for 30 years. In the early 1970s, COS was outgrowing its downtown location and began planning a new building in suburban Orlando, on Goddard Avenue, to include a large sanctuary, social hall, kosher kitchen, banquet seating for 200, a double room to accommodate the junior congregation, a library and eight classrooms. The building was completed in 1974, with a Sisterhood gift shop run by Myrtle Rutberg. The 1970s were a time of greater acceptance of women's increased role in ritual.

Following Rabbi Adler's retirement and designation as rabbi emeritus in 1990, Rabbi Aaron Rubinger was hired. The congregation was active in support of the emigration of Soviet Jews and helped those who resettled in Orlando to become part of the community. With a membership of around 600 families, COS began an ongoing effort to help feed Orlando's homeless, with 100 congregants volunteering. As the congregation's growth continued, Rabbi David Kay was hired as assistant rabbi in 2004, and by 2006 the board voted to purchase land for a new building on Concourse Parkway South in Maitland.

In 2008, COS began designing and planning for building its new location. About 250 attended the groundbreaking in 2010, and by 2011, the Torahs were brought from the Goddard building for the dedication celebrations. Now in 2018, the congregation continues to thrive in its new home, serving its members and the Greater Orlando Jewish community as a center for spiritual, educational and social life-just as it began 100 years ago.


Our region has such a strong and remarkable Jewish community, and so many people and organizations played important roles in its establishment and growth. For an extraordinary look at Central Florida's Jewish past, researched by many longtime community members in a 3-year labor of love, be sure to visit the Kehillah: A History of Jewish Life in Greater Orlando exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center before it closes on Feb. 20, 2018!

Join the celebration

Congregation Ohev Shalom warmly invites Orlando's Jewish community to join us in celebrating our Centennial on Feb. 9th and 10th with a Traditional Erev Shabbat Dinner, very special Erev Shabbat and Shabbat Morning services, and our Centennial Gala on Saturday night. Details can be found at OhevShalom.org or by calling 407-298-4650.


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