St. Augustine celebrates rich history during Jewish …

Posted By on January 20, 2022

City: Jewish American values have shaped community

While St. Augustine was colonized by Spanish officials, the city also has Jewish heritage and influences that local leaders are celebrating.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law in 2003 designating January as Florida Jewish History Month. To celebrate this year's event, St. Augustine commissioners recently designated January as St. Augustine Jewish Heritage Month.

"Jewish American values are woven into the fabric of American life and have shaped the progress weve made as a country and in our community," the proclamation says.

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Among other things, the city is home to one of the oldest active synagogues in Florida and was the site of the largest mass arrest of rabbis in the U.S. during the civil rights movement.

The influence traces back to the city's founding, accordingto the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society.

According to the city's proclamation, "the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society has been exploring the plausibility and possibility that the first Jews came ashore in St. Augustine, Florida, and took part in the founding of our countrys first European city and established the very beginnings of American Jewish Heritage."

According to the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, "First there was Harbor Pilot Antonio Martinez Carvajal dating back to 1565. He was followed by Cristobal Carvajal of 'The Company of Colonel Hernando de Uruna' in 1566. Next followed Pedro de Carvajal whose name appears on the St. Augustine Garrison List in 1578. These three men have been identified as of Jewish descent by Professor Roger L. Martinez-Dvila, associate professor of history and director of graduate studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs."

The historical society was founded after the St. Augustine Archeological Association discussed "the possibility that hidden Jews (Conversos forced by the Spanish Inquisition to convert to Catholicism) may have been on the ships that arrived in St. Augustine with Pedro Menendez in 1565," according to the organization's website.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a Jewish congregation formed in St. Augustineand created a legacy that is still active today.

Located at 161 Cordova St. in downtown St. Augustine,the First Congregation Sons of Israeldescribes itself as the oldest synagogue in the city.

Families from Russia and Eastern Europe were the congregation's first members,and the congregation was chartered with the State of Florida in 1908, according to the organization's website.

People held services in their homes until the synagogue was built. The first service was held in the Cordova Street synagogue on March 30, 1924, "under the leadership of Rabbi Jacob Tarlinsky and his wife, Dora."

Descendants from the early members still attend, congregation President Les Stern said.

The sanctuary itself, designed by one of Henry Flaglers Florida East Coast Railroad architects, F.A. Hollingsworth, was built in the Mediterranean Baroque style and dates back to 1923. It featured decades-old seats salvaged from an unknown St. Augustine theater, and, in 1958, it received a set of stained glass windows dating back to 1873. These were salvaged from an Atlanta synagogue.

Stern said while it's not certain what life was like in St. Augustine for the earliest members, they lived closely together around the synagogue so they could support each other.

"They were basically from a different part of Europe than so many of the people who had settled in St. Augustine were from. Also, their language was different … and obviously their religion was different," he said.

The synagogue is still active today with religious services that are open to anyone.

"We want it to be a place for good people to come to worship … and to follow the legacy of the original founding families that wanted to establish a permanent Jewish presence in St. Augustine," Stern said.

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David Levy Yulee, the first person of Jewish descent to serve in the U.S. Senate, once lived in St. Augustine, according to a column in The Record from historian Susan Parker, who has a doctorate in colonial history.

"He had already served in Congress as Florida's territorial delegate in the House of Representatives from 1841 to 1845. …He was born David Levy and legally added Yulee to his name as an adult."

Quoting historian Daniel Schafer inThe History of Florida," Parker added, "It was the leadership of congressional delegate David Levy Yulee that most directly led to admission of Florida to the Union."

On June 18, 1964, more than a dozen rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine for their participation in the civil rights movement.

The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society added a plaque where the arrest occurred, and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, at what is now theHilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront hotel at32 Avenida Menendez.

The rabbis, who came after King asked for help with the movement,were arrestedduring a protest of segregation at the Monson Motor Lodge and in St. Augustine. The protest included a wade-in of the segregated swimming pool, which led to the well-known image of the lodge owner pouring muriatic acid into the pool.

After their arrests they were placed into a crowded jail cell, where they penned the letter, "Why We Went."

Among the passages in the letter, the rabbis wrote: "We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man's capacity to act."

During a ceremony in 2019 recognizing the arrests, Rabbi Hanan Sills, one of the participants, shared a prepared statementabout the events he was not there because of memory issues and other health concerns, but a friend read a statement on his behalf that was prepared with the help of his family.

Sills, who died in 2020, said the groupfaced opposition from Southern rabbis, and he faced violence and death threats against himself and his family.

He said he was proud of what he did and appreciatedthe gratitude he received. But he described himself asa regular person.

Yes, I can get caught in the ego trap, but the truth is, I was scared to death the whole time," he said. "Sometimes people dont realize that. After the fact, people want to project a false confidence or savior image on the rabbis who participated in the civil rights movement. But that is false and can be harmful. It separates acts of justice into a category of heroism.

"That way of understanding history does not acknowledge that each one of us has the potential in our lifetime to be courageous when asked to do the right thing."

Georgio Valentino, correspondent for The St. Augustine Record,contributed to this report.

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