SARASOTA , city on Florida's west coast. It is a sophisticated arts community and beach resort, ringing Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and offering 35 miles of beaches. During the Civil War, Judah P. Benjamin served as Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State of the Confederacy and was known as the most prominent 19th century American Jew. Benjamin was President Jefferson Davis' closest confidant and David Levy Yulee's cousin. When General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, Benjamin headed south to Ellenton, fl, and sheltered at the Gamble Mansion, near Sarasota. With this exception, there is no record of Jews in this area until the 20th century. With changes in transportation and the lure of cheap land for sale, a trickle of Jews began migrating to the Sarasota area. Marcus Weinkle left Russia in 1887, was a sheepherder in Palestine, then immigrated to the U. S in 1890 to Moffit, Florida (east of Sarasota), where he ran a 2,000-acre lumber business. He brought a Torah with him and conducted services for Jews in the surrounding area. He kept kosher, married and had two children there; his daughter Charlotte became a winter resident of Sarasota decades later.
Simon Rosin came from Baltimore first to Ocala, fl, then settled in Arcadia in 1905, where he opened a store and later built an arcade, which housed the U.S. Post Office. He and his wife had one son, Aurel, in 1910. Aurel was a lawyer and cattle rancher, and he and his wife Elsie raised four sons in Arcadia, where they had over 4,000 acres for their cattle ranch. Elsie took the boys to Sarasota for religious school and bar mitzvah training; three sons remained in Sarasota.
The first Jew to permanently settle in Sarasota was Philip Levy, who fled the pogroms of Lithuania in 1905. Working for a pants manufacturing firm, he traveled to St. Petersburg, fl, in 1909, where he met and married Cecelia Tarapani. In 1913 Philip and Cecelia Levy settled in Sarasota and opened a womenswear store. They were the only Jews there until 1925. As others settled, the Levys conducted Sabbath and High Holiday services in their home. Joseph Idelson peddled dry goods; he and his wife Rose were attracted by the land boom and moved to Sarasota with their children in 1925. Idelson opened a general merchandise store, invested in banks and real estate, and was one of the founders of the Jewish Community Center (today's Temple Beth Sholom) in 1928. The first synagogue in Sarasota was built on property donated by the city, and they had their first services for Yom Kippur just prior to the hurricane. The congregation acquired a site from the city in 1932 for a Jewish burial ground. After World War ii a number of Jewish soldiers who had passed through Sarasota returned to settle. Growth was gradual. By 1950, the community had expanded to 75 families. In 1956 a "break-away" group of members of Temple Beth Sholom established a Reform congregation, Temple Emanu-El. The Jewish Community Council, the forerunner of the Sarasota-Manatee Federation, was founded in 1959; Sidney Adler was the first president.
Many of these pioneers were lovers of the arts and contributed to building Sarasota's cultural infrastructure. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall that opened on Sarasota Bay in 1967 is named for Jews who left money for this purpose. The area began to attract Jewish writers, artists, and musicians. Author McKinley Kantor came to Sarasota around 1940; two of his books have a Florida setting: The Noises of their Wings (Everglades) and Beauty Beast (north Florida). Among other notable talents are Paul Wolfe, musical director and maestro, who served the West Coast Symphony for decades; Syd Solomon, a nationally acclaimed artist who came in 1946; Leo Rogers, a driving force to create the Sarasota Opera Association and the Sarasota Ballet of Florida; Hal Davis who was public relations manager for Benny Goodman and Columbia Records before moving to Sarasota, where, in 1980, he founded the Jazz Club of Sarasota; and Frank Eliscu, the designer of the Heisman Trophy (the highest honor in college football) and the glass panels above the doors of the Library of Congress, as well as works of sculpture for the Van Wezel, Ringling Museum of Art, Temple Emanu-El, and Temple Beth Sholom in Sarasota. Paul Rubenfeld, known to millions as Pee Wee Herman, came to Sarasota in 1960 as a child and graduated from Sarasota High School. Many Jews have contributed largely to the community in education and social services. Harry Sudakoff dedicated the Sudakoff Center at New College. Alex Schoenbaum, former All-American football player, started Shoney's Big Boy restaurant chain. In 1974 Betty and Alex Schoenbaum began spending part of the year in Sarasota and became major supporters of civic and Jewish activities. In 1990 the Schoenbaums contributed funds to help open the City of Sarasota's human services complex, which houses 19 social service agencies. Some Jews who have been involved politically are David Cohen, who served as mayor 1964–66 and played a major role in the establishment of the Florida West Coast Symphony and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and Lou Ann Rosengarten Palmer, who came to Sarasota in 1948 and was a performer with the Sailor Circus Show. She serves on the Sarasota City Commission where she sat as mayor in 1984 and 1988.
Jewish developers planted citrus groves and opened new residential districts. Jules and Jack Freeman came to Sarasota in 1953 and began planting citrus. From 1968 to 1971 they planted the "world's largest orange grove," which is three times the size of Manhattan, nyc, and has over three million citrus trees. National Geographic magazine published an aerial photo of the 27,000 acres and commented, "The grove was one of the distinguishing landmarks in Florida visible from space." Charles Lavin, sensing the plight of many elderly on fixed incomes, bought the Mira Mar Hotel in Sarasota, the Manatee River Hotel in Bradenton, and the MacArthur Beach Hotel in Venice and turned them into retirement homes. Martin Paver sailed to Sarasota with his family from New York in 1949. He and his sons developed housing subdivisions for the "snowbirds" (residents 3–7 months of the year) migrating south.
In 1979 a group established Beth Israel, a Reform Congregation, on Longboat Key. Bradenton Conservative Jewish families organized as Temple Beth El in 1975. The Jewish Community Center of Venice began in 1983. In 1984 Jewish Family Services (jfs) was granted their charter. The jcc opened the first summer camp in 1989.
The Jewish community has matured in the past three decades and agencies and organizations grew as the sensitivity for local and worldwide Jewish needs was expanded. About 17,500 Jews live in Sarasota-Manatee (2005), consisting primarily of the cities of Sarasota, Longboat Key, Bradenton, and Venice. Most are from the mid-west and the Washington-Boston corridor and are closely bonded by the cultural and Jewish life of the community. The greatest growth has been in Bra-denton, and there is a significant cluster of Jews in high-rise condominiums in Longboat Key. The area attracts primarily wealthy Jews of retirement age who are in good health. Only 1% of the adults were born in the area, 32% of households affiliate with a congregation, and 21% are "snowbirds." Eighty-two percent of Jewish children (ages 6–12) are currently enrolled in formal Jewish education. The Federation's agencies include a Jewish Retirement Complex (Kobernick House) and Flanzer Jewish Community Center, and they sponsor a monthly Jewish newspaper, The Chronicle. There are 10 congregations of every stripe, and branches representing almost every national and international Jewish organization.
(Some of the demographic analysis comes from Ira Sheskin's 2001 Study for the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation.)
[Marcia Jo Zerivitz (2nd ed.)]