There were only five Orthodox Jewish families in Jacksonville when the sentiment for the creation of a traditional Jewish congregation began to crystallize. By 1901 their number had grown to forty, and they realized their dream by incorporating as the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel on December 6, 1901.
By 1907, the membership of B’nai Israel had increased to seventy-five, and the congregation erected a synagogue on the corner of Jefferson and Duval Streets in the Lavilla neighborhood. The lot was purchased with a down payment of $50 and a total cost of $25,000.
In 1926, the congregation hired a rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who introduced Conservative Judaism and the synagogue-center concept as a means of strengthening and perpetuating Judaism in our growing community. To that end, in 1927 a down payment was made on a more spacious site in Springfield, facing a park at the corner of Third and Silver Streets, while Congregation B’nai Israel assumed a new identity for itself as the Jacksonville Jewish Center.
Over the next thirty-five years, the Jacksonville Jewish Center expanded its facility to meet the needs of a growing congregation. By 1959, the impressive campus of three large buildings housed a two-story main sanctuary complete with balcony and choir lofts, a chapel, library, social hall, school, playground, auditorium/gymnasium, banquet facility, bridal lounge, meeting rooms and offices.
With an eye to the future, property at 3662 Crown Point Road in Mandarin was acquired in November, 1963. The following summer, the synagogue’s day camp moved to the new site, where a recreational park with an Olympic-size pool and playing fields had been built. Renovated and improved throughout the years, the synagogue’s summer camp and schools continue to use this facility.
Groundbreaking on the synagogue-center complex took place on September 16, 1973. On Sunday, January 11, 1976, a caravan of automobiles followed an open truck upon which Center dignitaries sat carrying our priceless Torah scrolls from the ark at Third and Silver to their new home in Mandarin. It was an historic event that culminated in a moving dedication ceremony. Over the next 30 years, our magnificent synagogue building would see many additions, improvements and renovations to keep pace with the many activities, events and celebrations of our community.
For a detailed history written by a life-long JJC member, follow this link. The PDF is fairly large and may take a while to download.
For another wonderful glimpse into the history of Jews in Jacksonville, click this link.