HISTORY OF CRJ - adapted by jill Cousins
CRJ has no plans for slowing down. Our Orlando congregation has grown from humble beginnings in 1950 to where we are today: A thriving reform synagogue with over 625 families, let’s look at some of the highlights from our congregation’s 60-year history.
THE EARLY YEARS (1950-1970) - Although our congregation wasn’t officially formed until 1950, the early reform movement in Orlando can be traced back to the late 1920s. During that time, congregants gathered for prayer despite having no rabbi and no building. But by 1940, in the interest of Jewish unity, this informal congregation disbanded and merged with the only other congregation in town, Congregation Ohev Shalom. In 1948, a Liberal Jewish Fellowship was organized, using visiting rabbis for High Holy Day services and other life-cycle events.
In 1950, this group chose the name “Temple of Liberal Judaism,” and plans began for the first building, located in downtown Orlando at Ferncreek Avenue and Robinson Street. Somewhere around 1952 the named changed from “Temple” to “Congregation” of Liberal Judaism. Congregation of Liberal Judaism (CLJ) joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1950 officially affiliating with the Reform Judaism Movement. Membership consisted of 44 families and dues started at $65 per year.
In 1953, Rabbi David Susskind of Cleveland, Ohio, was hired as the congregation’s first rabbi. That year, CLJ held its first confirmation (with two students), first wedding and first bar mitzvah. Rabbi Susskind remained at CLJ until 1956, when he left for St. Petersburg and was replaced by Rabbi Henry Leon Shwartz. By 1958, membership had more than doubled to 107 families. Upon Rabbi Shwartz’s resignation in 1962, Rabbi Benno Wallach took over the pulpit, and membership continued to grow, reaching 165 families by 1963. In 1964, land was acquired for the synagogue’s present site, at 928 Malone Drive. At that time the land was being used as a cow pasture. The building was completed in 1970, and at that time, Rabbi Larry Halpern became the new rabbi. Rabbi Halpern would lead the congregation for the next 25 years.
THE MIDDLE YEARS (1971-1996) - Joining Rabbi Halpern in 1974 was Rabbi Andrew Hillman, who became CLJ’s religious school administrator. By the time CLJ approached its 25th anniversary in the mid-1970s, membership had grown to 320 families. As the congregation grew, so did CLJ’s building. A formal sanctuary and mini sanctuary was completed in 1982. In 1986, four more classrooms where added to the original eight. CLJ also added a media center. During that time, Cantor Harold Dworkin served as the congregation’s cantor. The media center that he envisioned and helped create is now named the Cantor Harold Dworkin Learning Resource Center.
In 1982, Rabbi Hillman left to head his own congregation, and Rabbi Marla Feldman arrived to serve as CLJ’s assistant rabbi from 1987 to 1990. In early 1990s, Riselle Bain was hired as the congregation’s cantorial soloist and remained in that capacity until June 1997. During 1995-96, Rabbi Michael Schadick served as assistant rabbi and was the acting rabbi while Rabbi Halpern took a sabbatical in 1996. Rabbi Halpern resigned on June 30, 1996, and at that time, Rabbi Schadick’s tenure as assistant rabbi also ended. Rabbi Selig Salkowitz became the interim rabbi at CLJ, and a search began for a permanent senior rabbi.
THE RECENT YEARS (1997-2010) - For CLJ, 1997 was a year of significant changes. In June of that year, Rabbi Steven Engel became the congregation’s fifth senior rabbi. Also hired that year was Beth Schafer as Cantorial Soloist. By the year 2000, the congregation had grown to approximately 600 families. The staff also continued to grow, with the addition of a full-time director of education and an interim administrator. In 2002, Jacqueline Rawiszer became the congregation’s Cantorial Soloist. While working as the congregation’s Cantorial Soloist Jacqueline was accepted into the School of Sacred Music/Hebrew Union College in 2003 and was invested as a Cantor in 2007.
Another big change came about in 2005, when the Congregation of Liberal Judaism changed its name to the Congregation of Reform Judaism. The move was made to further clarify the temple’s mission and reflect its focus on Reform Judaism. At the time, CRJ’s membership peaked with more than 700 families. To this day, CRJ continues to be one of the largest, most dynamic and vibrant centers for Jewish life in Central Florida.
As the congregation has continued to grow, so has CRJ’s building. In June 2000, funds were raised to add eight more classrooms and a multi-purpose room. In October 2005, the Steinmetz Family School of Chai was dedicated by Chuck and Lynn Steinmetz, in the memory of her parents, Michael and Amy Ginson.
The synagogue currently consists of five separate buildings. The largest one contains the main sanctuary, which seats approximately 400. During the High Holy Days, the dividing wall between the sanctuary and the social hall can be opened to increase the seating to 1,100 people. The social hall, remodeled in 2005, is the setting for simchas such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and other parties and social events, providing seating for more than 200 guests.
In 2007, CRJ celebrated two significant events: Rabbi Engel’s 10th anniversary as CRJ’s Rabbi and Cantor Jacki’s investiture as a full-fledged Cantor. Currently, CRJ’s other professional staff also includes Executive Director Michael Kancher, Religious School Director Sheryl Sacharoff and Program Director Debbie Gold.
Congregation of Reform Judaism continues to offer a wide range of programs, activities and volunteer opportunities. There are affiliate groups for youth GORFTY and OAFTY, a group for women, Sisterhood and a Seniors Group for our older adults. There is a myriad of educational, social, cultural and religious programs going on all of the time. There are always new and innovative programs being offered and Religious Services continue to be inspiring and meaningful. There is always something exciting and new to do at CRJ.
To quote CRJ’s mission statement, the congregation aims “to offer a synagogue culture that is inviting and respectful, with inspiring worship services and programs that promote lifelong Jewish learning, within a caring, innovative and vibrant congregation.”
No doubt, CRJ has achieved many goals and reached many milestones in its 60 years. We look forward to the next sixty with great anticipation and joy!