Exploring St. Pete’s Jewish History, Part 2
In “Exploring St. Pete’s Jewish History, Part 1” historian Monica Kile introduced many of St. Petersburg’s early Jewish families and how they helped to shape the culture and economy of the city. In part two, we take a closer look at their challenges and successes. Read part one here.
In the last issue, we met Old Northeast resident Jay Miller, and learned about how his and other Jewish families came to live and build successful businesses alongside each other in St. Petersburg in the first half of the 20th century. But, particularly in the early years, they also faced widespread antisemitism.
Jay’s aunt, Marilyn Benjamin, recalls her father telling her about the sign on 4th Street North, leading into the city from the Gandy Bridge in the 1920s that read: “Gentiles Only – No Jews Wanted Here.” It was widely believed that the signs were the work of Jim Coad, the bigoted secretary of St. Petersburg’s Chamber of Commerce.
Coad drew national attention to the city with a speech that was quoted in Time magazine on August 18, 1924, in which he stated: “St. Petersburg is a city of homes. It has no slums. I believe that the influx of foreigners here, and I class the Jews as foreigners, is detrimental to the city and would tend to produce slums and destroy the neighborly feeling that is now an asset here. … I know that many Jewish families plan to come here in the fall, and that two Jews will come here to enter the real estate business. I believe the time has come to draw the line against all foreigners and make this a 100% American and Gentile city.”
National reaction to Coad’s speech was harsh. A shipment of steel to be used for the city railway system was delayed by a northern manufacturer until the city clarified its position on Coad’s antisemitic speech. The St. Petersburg business community disavowed the statement, but otherwise turned a blind eye to Coad’s behavior; he was later promoted within the Chamber of Commerce.
In St. Petersburg in the 1920s, antisemitism was becoming increasingly acceptable. “Restricted policies” existed in most of the private clubs and civic associations like the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Rotary, the Suncoasters, and the Lions Club. Apartment listings included the line “Gentiles Only” in their advertisements in the St. Petersburg Times. Hotels like the Vinoy, the Don Cesar, and the Tides Hotel and Bath Club were also off limits, even if they had welcomed Jewish guests in the past.
That was exactly what happened to Jay Miller’s paternal grandfather, Jacob Miller. Having moved to St. Petersburg with his family in 1925, he spent a pleasant season as a “summer club” member of the Don CeSar Hotel in the late 1920s. When he called to rejoin the following summer, he was told that a fellow guest had complained and that he would not be allowed to join again. So, Miller decided to open his own hotel – immediately south of the Don CeSar, on land previously owned by that hotel. Jay recalls that his grandfather “had to use a shill to purchase the land, because the owners wouldn’t sell to a Jewish person.”
The Millers built a beautiful art deco building, with a large terrazzo porch on the front, and lobby that opened onto the back patio and the bay. The hotel opened in 1940, with 60 rooms, and expanded in later years to the Gulf-front property across the street. The name, Rellim, was the family name spelled backwards.
After a slow start, the inexperienced Millers grew into successful hoteliers. The Rellim became a thriving, high-end Gulf-front resort beloved by generations of families. When Jacob Miller passed away, his son Irwin and wife Sonya took over, and Sonya invigorated the social life of the hotel with a weekly newsletter, “The Rellim Tellim,” and monthly theme parties where guests dressed up in elaborate costumes. Jerome Gilbert, the son of another early Jewish St. Petersburg settler and a frequent guest, was quoted in 2003 saying, “The Rellim provided the Jewish community with camaraderie and the fine social aspect of life.”
Demand for accommodations and services for Jewish families increased along with the state’s population. Five years after The Rellim debuted at the beach, the Empire Hotel opened on Arlington Avenue downtown, offering a kosher hotel and restaurant just a stone’s throw from the city’s first synagogues. Congregation B’Nai Israel, founded in 1923 by 13 Jewish men (including Marilyn Benjamin’s father, Leon Haliczer), held their first services in the back rooms of the stores of their founders, and later in rented spaces throughout downtown. By 1935 they had raised the funds to erect their own building at 1039 Arlington Avenue North. The reform congregation of Temple Beth-El, founded in 1928, built their first temple a year prior, in 1934. The two synagogues were located just two blocks apart on Arlington Avenue, and many of their members lived and worked nearby on Arlington and Burlington Avenues, as well as on 9th Street North. Despite the antisemitism growing throughout the country and abroad, the Jewish community in St. Petersburg was thriving. By the 1960s both synagogues had outgrown their first Temples and moved to the west side of town, where they remain today.
The city, too, was outgrowing its antisemitism, but not without a struggle. In the early 1960s, Philip Benjamin, a prominent optometrist who had grown up in St. Petersburg, served in WWII, and returned to the city to open his practice (and marry Marilyn Haliczer), was nominated for membership in the Lions Club. Dr. Benjamin had been performing free eye exams for the club for more than 17 years. His wife Marilyn recalls what happened next:
“When they took the vote, he was blackballed. And the colleague who had nominated him was so angry about it that he said he was resigning.” Several other members of the club threatened to follow suit. Marilyn goes on: “It caused such a stir that they had a revote and Phillip was accepted. I asked him why he would want to be a member of a group that had tried to blackball him, and he said, ‘I have to show them that I can go forward, and I hope they can too. And that they should not do this again to anyone else.’”
It was not the only time that Philip was a quiet leader in the movement to end bigoted policies. His medical office was the first in St. Petersburg to desegregate its waiting room. Some white patients never returned, but Dr. Benjamin carried on because he believed that all his patients should be treated equally. Later, while serving as the chairman of the board of St. Petersburg Junior College, he oversaw the implementation of the school’s affirmative action policies. Minority representation in the staff and faculty grew exponentially.
After learning of the antisemitism that the Haliczer, Miller, and Benjamin families faced in St. Petersburg, it would be easy to assume that they might feel bitterness or resentment. But just the opposite seems to be true. Marilyn recalls her life in St. Petersburg with great fondness: “I really felt very little discrimination growing up, but I wasn’t looking for it. We were a very tight community. We would socialize with a youth group from Tampa, go to picnics and to the beach.” She laughs, “I ended up dating more boys from Tampa than from St. Pete!”
Her nephew Jay expresses similar sentiments. “We were a very small minority, and still are, even today. There was only one other Jewish child in my elementary class. But there was a huge family reunion every Christmas at the Rellim Hotel, and most of the guests were Jewish there, so I really learned about Jewish culture.”
Jay credits the Jewish tradition of studying and focus on education for the success that he and his family have experienced. His company, J Square Developers, built the Trader Joe’s store on 4th Street and are currently building the Whole Foods just a few blocks north. They are also one of three partners developing Orange Station on Central Avenue. As the grandson of the first president of Temple Beth-El on his father’s side, and one of the founders of Congregation B’nai Israel on his mother’s, he is descended from St. Petersburg’s Jewish pioneers on both sides of his family. In many ways, he continues their often-unsung legacy in the development of St. Petersburg.