The congregation on Sunday will break ground for a new temple in southwest Ocala. The move, in part, was from a shrinking demographic in the Shores and a growing demographic along the SR 200 corridor.
A bittersweet blend of nostalgia and anticipation has swept over Temple B’nai Darom as members get ready to relocate from their building in southeast Ocala to their new property in southwest Marion County.
Construction will kick off with a groundbreaking ceremony at 10 a.m. Sunday at 7465 SW 38th St., near West Port High School.
Rabbi Harold S. Jaye confessed to having mixed emotions about leaving the building that has been home to the congregation since 1976.
“I have to admit, it’s very, very sad that we sold that beautiful building,” Jaye said. “When Laura and I first came here, I didn’t think we’d be here for any extended time, but here we are, 30 years later. It turned out to be very nice. I’m personally very attached to this beautiful building. It’s been a real home in many ways, and, to be honest, I wasn’t happy when they talked about selling the building.”
In addition to regular services, the congregation held fashion shows, plays, adult education programs and film showings, and there was a school, Jaye said.
“My memories are very full of an active and supportive congregation,” he said. “I hope in the future to duplicate all of that in the new building.”
In its early stage, the relocation plan included the possibility of a merger with Congregation Beth Israel, which has been meeting in a Christian church off of State Road 200. An agreement could not be reached between the two groups, however, and the merger did not go through, Jaye said.
“Mergers many times don’t always work out,” he said. “There were serious differences of opinion in regards to spiritual leadership.”
Temple president Robert Levenson said the need for relocation became evident as membership dropped from approximately 250 people when he joined in 1998 to only about 70 now. Many members died or moved away and the southeast area had a dwindling Jewish demographic. Meanwhile, a thriving Jewish population had grown up along the State Road 200 corridor, he said.
“We realized our memorial boards were growing a lot quicker than our membership,” he said. “We had to do something, otherwise we’d be gone. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a congregation, you don’t have anything.”
Temple B’nai Darom’s new 5,148-square-foot building will sit on a little over an acre in southwest Ocala. Though Levenson said he will miss the old building, he is getting excited about the move.
“Right now we’re running around picking out flooring, cabinets, what kind of doors to put in place. It’s like decorating a house,” he said. “We have one member, fortunately, who has some experience in construction and real estate. Ira Miller has been a tremendous help to us. When we go to the architect and the builder, it feels like they’re speaking a foreign language.”
The 3.5-acre Banyan Course property was sold 18 months ago to Tampa businessman Johnny Del Valle, who purchased it for his son to use as a Christian radio station.
Miller, a real estate broker, handled both the sale of the old building and the new purchase. A longtime member, he also has a personal attachment to the former location.
“I had a 2 1/2-year-old when I first started coming there,” Miller said. “I would bring her every Friday night with me and everybody watched her grow up. She’s 18 years old now and on her way to college.”
Miller said Del Valle has divided the Banyan Course building with partitions, but left the sanctuary intact for the Jewish congregation to use until they move.
“The sanctuary is exactly the way it was when we sold it,” Miller said. “We couldn’t have sold it to a better group of people. We just couldn’t ask for a better landlord.”
Miller said the budget for the new property is $900,000, including $80,000 for the lot. The sale of the old building brought in $360,000, he said. He is hoping construction will finish in time for the Jewish High Holy Days in September.
Shelly Lebowitz, the temple secretary, said donations are coming in from members, including a huge contribution from the estate of Arthur and Mary Jane Lenchner, who died within four months of each other.
“One man is donating 150 chairs,” Lebowitz said. “We’re not taking the pews. They’re fastened to the floor. But we are taking the ark, the eternal lights, our memorial boards and the Jewish Star of David that’s over the front entry door.”
Lebowitz is optimistic that once they build, people will come.
“There’s a tremendous Jewish population in Stone Creek and On Top of the World,” Lebowitz said. “People have asked me, ‘When are you going to start building?’ We did a special membership thing last summer and got approximately a dozen new members. I’m hoping, as we go forward, perhaps in some way we can do things again with Beth Israel. Even if we can’t merge with them, perhaps we can have joint events with their sisterhood.”
Del Valle said the sale at Banyan Course was completed in late 2016 and that it took a year for him to move in. He is temporarily renting the sanctuary to a Christian Hispanic church and has continued a lease relationship with Temple B’nai Darom’s congregation.
“It was a blessing for us to meet them,” Del Valle said. “I always had a respect for their religious practices. When I walk into the sanctuary it feels sacred. It serves the purpose that it was built for. You feel it was loved and it was a gathering place of faith.”
“I thought about creating something in the garden phase, maybe benches dedicated to their faith, places where people can meditate and sit and let it be known that it was originally a Jewish synagogue,” he added. “I’d like to keep that kind of evidence around so it can be revisited in time and people will still feel that aura.”