The Jewish Community and Congregation
The first Jewish congregation in Palm Beach County was Beth Israel, formed by six families
in 1923 with Max Sirkin as its first president. Over the years the name was changed to Temple Israel. One of the founders was Joseph Mendel, mayor of West Palm Beach from 1923 to 1924. Mendel had come to Florida from Albany, New York, where he manufactured cigars, to improve his health. After his term as mayor, he worked in banking and real estate. Other merchant families in the Jewish community included the Schrebnicks and Gruners (both with dry goods stores), and the Goldmans (women’s wear).
One founder of Temple Israel was Max Greenberg, an Austrian who had come to the town of Lake Worth at its birth in 1912 and founded Pioneer Hardware. His son, George Greenberg, later said in a 2006 oral history interview:
I was the only Jewish child in Lake Worth schools pretty well up until middle of high school. And no, they treated me like everybody else. … My father felt that he had come to America, he wanted to be as American as he could. That’s why this temple [Israel] was formed. Of course it was the only temple, the only one. But it was very Reform; all the service was in English, almost no Hebrew.
For several years Temple Israel had only a traveling rabbi and the members, including Greenberg, filled in as teachers, because “Most of the members were foreign-born and I was one of the first to have a college education.” The temple had Friday night services; and on High Holy Days, services that often lasted all day. When in high school, Greenberg and his friends would slip out to a barbecue stand on Dixie Highway to listen to the radio.
Women from Temple Israel trained others to transcribe books into the Braille System for the blind. Samuel Schitzer established Our Voice, a Jewish tabloid, in 1932.
In 1923 a group of Jewish merchants bought seven blocks of unplatted land on the west side of Woodlawn Cemetery and created the Jewish Community Cemetery within Woodlawn. After Hillcrest Memorial Park opened in the late 1930s, they bought a section at the south end.
In 1938 a handful of committed people founded the Federated Jewish Charities of Palm Beach County, which ultimately became the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. It was a time when everyone who was Jewish in West Palm Beach knew each other.
The first Jews to settle in Boca Raton, in 1931, were Harry and Florence Brown (changed from Boguslavsky to Bogus to Brown after emigrating from Russia). The Brown’s ran a drug and sundries store until 1935, when their sons, George and Herb, took over; they added a restaurant and package store.
Harry’s sister Nettie and her husband, Maxwell “Max” Hutkin, also Russian, followed from St. Louis in 1936 and bought a grocery store at Palmetto Park Road and Dixie Highway. They operated on credit and billed customers twice a month. Most of their clientele were African American or white maintenance workers at the Boca Raton Club. Max Hutkin was later a founding member of Boca Raton’s first Jewish congregation, Temple Beth El, and of the Boca Raton Historical Society.