Ask Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov how he feels about the recent construction that has more than doubled the size of Chabad-Lubavitch of Northeast Florida and he flashes a big smile.
“This project was long in coming,” says the center’s director. “Thank G-d it’s arrived.”
Located on an acre and a half of land in Mandarin, a neighborhood in the southernmost portion of Jacksonville, the synagogue and community center offers Shabbat and holiday services, Torah classes, summer day camp and other adult and children’s programs. Approximately 15,000 Jews call the area home and numerous synagogues serve the region; and Kahanov’s center and the two other affiliated Chabad Houses – Chabad of Southside and Chabad of the Beaches in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach – keep growing.
Part of that could be explained by the warmth of the community, says Amnon Shamlo, a resident of the area for more than 30 years.
“There is a very special atmosphere here [at Chabad],” explains Shamlo. “Right at the door you have the feeling that you’re someone special. They welcome you with open hearts. I’ve never experienced anything like it before.”
Kahanov’s new building sports a portico entryway, offices and a sanctuary with 18-foot ceilings. But the rabbi is most proud of its Jewish ritual bath. A joint project of the Chabad center, Mikvah USA and other members of the Jacksonville Jewish community, the bath contains two pools, and a spa-like atmosphere rooted in a free-flowing waterfall and frescoed ceiling. The entire expansion was made possible in part by a grant from the philanthropic Tabacinic family secured by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Richard and Carol Branowitz, who moved to the area about three and a half years ago, are among the residents particularly excited by the expansion.
“We can definitely use the larger facility,” they say. “Chabad has meant a lot to us, and we think what’s going on here is terrific.”
Kahanov and his wife, Rivkie Kahanov, have lived in Jacksonville for 18 years. In that time, they’ve seen a steady influx of Jewish retirees and young families, necessitating the establishment of new centers, including as far south as S. Augustine.
“The most amazing thing about all of this is the rapid pace!” he says. “Most of these changes happened within the past seven to eight years. Before that, Jacksonville was about as Jewish as most of the Deep South.”
Change, though, has also gone the other way. They’ve learned how to make “a mean chili,” which they serve for Shabbat lunch, and have a distinctly Southern flair to their hospitality.
“Come on down and join us in our beautiful synagogue,” Kahanov tells people. “We built it for you!”