For more than a century, Congregation Ahavath Chesed has been the home of Reform Judaism here in Northeast Florida. Below is a brief overview of the history of our congregation. We invite you to visit the Temple Archives to learn more.
In 1867 the “Israelites of Jacksonville” met to form a Jewish congregation. Even though they failed to seek a charter, they set a pattern of worship that has continued to this day. The first Jacksonville City Directory, published in 1870, lists 23 recognizable Jewish names, and by 1880 there were 130 Jews living in Jacksonville.
Congregation Ahavath Chesed was formally chartered in 1882, with Rabbi Max Moses officiating at the dedication of the synagogue on September 8th of that year.
At the time, the architectural style of the Orthodox synagogue reflected the European origins of our membership, most of who came from Prussia and Germany. It remained Orthodox until the mid 1890’s when the congregation adopted the Reform Movement.
Tragedy struck in 1901: the great fire of Jacksonville destroyed all of the downtown area, including our beloved synagogue. It was rebuilt in the same style, but soon became too small for our growing congregation, and plans were drawn for a new house of worship.
In 1910, the move to a new house of worship located at Laura and Ashley Streets was made with Rabbi Pizer Jacobs delivering the dedication address. We had several rabbis until Rabbi Israel Kaplan came in 1916. He was responsible for the formation of the Interfaith Thanksgiving Services first held in 1917, with three other area religious congregations participating. This annual service continues today with the active participation of more than thirty area religious organizations.
Our congregation continued to grow and in 1927, a beautiful new facility was purchased in Riverside. Built in 1907, it was designed by Henry Klutho and served as our religious community center. All activities, including Sisterhood, Brotherhood, Junior Congregation, Temple Men's Club, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts that were formerly held in the Laura and Ashley Street vestry rooms, also moved to the new Riverside location. Fire struck again in 1940, destroying this beautiful building. All records of the Congregation, including boy scouts, brotherhood, sisterhood and TIR were also destroyed at this time.
As shown in this famous photograph of Jewish services in Aachen, Germany, Rabbi Sidney M. Lefkowitz was the first Rabbi to give services on German soil in 1944 since the rise of Hitler. He became our spiritual leader in 1946 upon the retirement of Rabbi Kaplan. Rabbi Lefkowitz served until 1973 when he retired. During his tenure, plans were made to build a new house of worship and in 1950 we dedicated a new facility. In the mid 1960’s, the congregation purchased a tract of land on San Jose Boulevard to accommodate future growth.
In 1979 we dedicated and moved into a new house of worship at our current location. The Chapel and more classrooms were added in 1986. More recently, we added a new Education Wing, a state-of-the-art kitchen and remodeled to allow for a larger Library, the Archives Display room and additional storage.
Although the dates and milestones above articulate a brief overview of the history of our congregation, we invite you to visit the Temple Archives for a more in-depth understanding of our past and present. Today we are a congregation composed of 700+ families that actively participate in Jewish life. We worship, learn and work together to help make the world a better place.