Tampa’s Jewish population today numbers more than 25,000 members involved in more than a dozen synagogues, day schools, and multiple community centers and related organizations.
The of history Tampa’s Jewish community likewise runs deep — dating back more than 170 years.
The Tampa Bay History Center, in partnership with the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, recently had a presentation documenting the history of Tampa’s Jewish settlers.
The Oct. 26 event was led by Dr. Carl Zeilonka, archives chair at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, who is also a docent at the history center.
He outlined the history of Tampa’s Jewish population, the economic role of Jewish-owned businesses and the role of Jewish residents in politics, during an hour-long interactive discussion that drew dozens of attendees.
Tampa’s first documented Jewish settler is Emaline Quentz Miley, who arrived in 1844 via South Carolina.
Miley and her husband, Bill, settled in the Odessa area, Zeilonka said.
Interestingly, they are believed to have planted Hillsborough County’s first citrus trees.
More Jews, mainly of Eastern European descent, began immigrating to Tampa during the American Civil War, as the Florida frontier became attractive to merchants and businessman. Many operated produce businesses, dry goods stores, oyster bars and lumber mills.
It led to Jews entering public service in Hillsborough County, beginning in 1871 with Charles Slager and Isidore Blumenthal.
Slager was first appointed as postmaster of Tampa. He later served as Hillsborough County’s sheriff and tax collector, and as a school board member.
Blumenthal, meanwhile, was appointed to the Hillsborough County Commission.
Many Jewish businesses had closed by the mid-1870s due to the presence of a yellow fever epidemic, Zielonka said.
Other factors were to blame, too, he said, including the Franco-Prussian War preventing the export of Cedar, and the cattle industry swelling in Fort Meade instead of Tampa.
“The 1870s were a real era of problems,” Zielonka said.
It wasn’t long until Jewish immigration picked up again, however.
Discoveries of phosphate reserves, a railroad system and cigar factories brought Jewish merchants back to Tampa in the 1880s, Zielonka explained.
“It opened up the community to tourism, to trade, to every type of commerce you can imagine. It really began the explosion of Tampa as a city,” Zielonka said.
“It provided a lot of good opportunities for Jewish businessman to come in, and they came from all over, either directly of European immigrants or children of European immigrants.”
Two of the most successful merchants were Abe and Isaac Maas.
In 1886, they founded Maas Brothers department store. It grew from a small 23-by-90-foot store to a chain of 39 stores across Florida. The Maas Brothers brand went defunct in 1991 when it was merged into the Burdines department store chain, which later rebranded as Macy’s.
By 1890, there were more than 20 Jewish families living in Tampa.
That spurred the formation of the city’s first synagogue in 1894, Congregation Shaarai Zedek, which means “Gates of Righteousness.” The first standalone building, built in 1899, was located at 1209 N. Florida Ave.
The congregation steered the formation of Tampa’s first Jewish social organization, first Jewish women’s organization and first Jewish cemetery.
“What do we do best? We organize. And, it was time to organize,” Zielonka said of Tampa’s Jewish community in the 1890s.
The early 1900s were also noteworthy for Tampa’s Jewish community.
A second synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, was founded in 1902.
The city’s first Jewish day school — The Hebrew School — was formed in 1915. The school shut down in 1917 after falling behind on mortgage payments, however.
And, the city’s first Jewish newspaper, Florida Jewish Weekly, was founded in 1924. It was the first of many Jewish newspapers formed over the years in Tampa.
Zielonka pointed out that Jews were very prominent in Ybor City around this timeframe.
He said than 80 Jewish stores and buildings sprouted up in Ybor City during the first half of the 20th century. “They were very common, all over the place.”
Max Argintar Menswear was the last Jewish business to survive in Ybor. It opened in 1908 and closed in 2004.
Fast-forward to the World War II period.
Hundreds of Jewish soldiers came to Tampa throughout the war, being stationed at one of the city’s three air force bases—MacDill, Henderson Field and Drew Field.
Moreover, 39 of the 65 families at Shaarai Zedek had someone who served in the war.
The congregation frequently sponsored Passover Seders at the old Hillsborough Hotel, an effort to support Jewish troops.
“The Jewish community embraced their soldiers that were here, and those that also served in the war,” Zielonka said.
Following the war, many Jewish servicemen settled in Tampa and established families, further strengthening the community.
The timeframe also marked the early days of Tampa Jews becoming influential political figures.
Zielonka mentioned Judge Harry N. Sandler, who was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives from 1932 to 1935. Sandler is responsible for many laws related to worker’s compensation.
The speaker noted several Jewish women, too, later became pioneers for their gender in the political realm.
Cecile Waterman Essrig was the first Jewish woman elected to political office in Hillsborough County, becoming a school board member in 1967.
Helen Gordon Davis was another, becoming the first Jewish Hillsborough County woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1974. She also served in the Florida Senate.
Sandy Warshaw Freedman was the first Jewish woman elected as Mayor of Tampa, in 1986.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community has seen other developments within the last 40 years.
The TOP (Tampa, Orlando, Pinellas) Jewish Foundation was formed in 1980.
The Jewish Press of Tampa was formed in 1988. The popular paper, started by Jim and Karen Dawkins, still publishes today.
The Hillel Academy, which formed in 1970 at Rodeph Sholom, relocated to a 10-acre campus on Fletcher Avenue in 1992.
The Weinberg Village Assisted Living Facility, too, was established in 1995, in Citrus Park.
The Jewish community most recently celebrated the opening of the Bryan Glazer Family JCC in December 2016.
Located at the site of the historic Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory building on North Howard Avenue, it now totals more than 4,400 members. “It’s a busy place,” Zielonka said.
The turn of the 21st century saw more Jewish families moving to south Tampa, creating a need for another Jewish Community Center, he explained.
“The demographics of Tampa are very different than they were 20 years ago,” Zielonka said.
“The Jewish community is 50 percent in the south — and growing. New people moving to town want to live in south Tampa because it’s close to where the action is.”
Published November 1, 2017