Space shortage

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:35 a.m.



  • What: Building dedication and groundbreaking for the Esta Levy Kress Educational Wing. Day School musical performance will be held at the northeast corner of the property.
  • When: 11:30 a.m. Sunday
  • Where: The B'nai Israel Jewish Center, 3830 NW 16th Blvd.

  • One of Gainesville's oldest and largest Jewish centers is about to get even bigger.
    Congregation B'nai Israel, founded more than 80 years ago by a handful of local Jewish families, will break ground Sunday on an approximately 12,000-square-foot expansion to its synagogue.
    "We've been bursting at the seams," said David Pawliger, who is building expansion committee secretary. "A lot of the space can't be used for the purpose it was intended for."
    The congregation currently has 280 families as members and runs two schools out of its existing 16,812-square-foot building.
    The congregation's day school holds classes for 65 preschool through elementary students Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. An additional 90 kindergarten-through-high-school students attend a supplementary religious school Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons at the center to further their Hebrew studies.
    But the present B'nai Israel Jewish Center just isn't big enough for its educational needs, said Pawliger.
    Pawliger said the schoolteachers have been forced to conduct classes in corners of the center's social hall and sanctuary due to the lack of classroom space.
    Plans call for the construction of an educational wing that will include the renovation of nine existing classrooms; the addition of three new ones; an enlargement of the existing library; the addition of a computer lab; a youth lounge; administrative rooms; and a multi-purpose community room that will serve as a school auditorium, chapel and meeting area, Pawliger said.
    A shortage of space is nothing new for the flourishing congregation.
    Over the years, members' daily use of the center has grown. Committees and groups must reserve rooms several months in advance to ensure they will have the meeting space necessary, Pawliger said.
    Congregation members approved the new wing's construction last spring. It is the first phase of a long-range plan for expansion that has been more than 10 years in the making, committee member Mickey Smith said.
    In the future, the congregation hopes to build a new, larger social hall to replace the one it has and modernize the center's kitchen, lobby and restroom facilities, Smith said.
    Scherer Construction will handle the project's site development, which should take about three months to complete, Smith said.
    The committee is currently accepting bids from contractors for construction of the new wing and will choose one within the next two weeks, Smith said. Building construction should take about 10 months to complete, he said.
    Architect Billy Brame said his goal for the new wing's design was to maintain the "clean, contemporary look" of the existing building. Originally designed in the late '70s, the center's exterior consists of split-face concrete block and stucco with a flat roof, Brame said.
    "If all goes according to plan, you won't be able to tell the difference between the old building and the new one," Brame said.
    The entire expansion is expected to cost between $2 million to 2.5 million, with approximately $1 million going toward the educational wing, said Harry Krop, who is chairman of the building expansion committee.
    Krop said the expansion is being financed through private contributions from congregation members, with each phase commencing as more funding is obtained.
    The new educational wing will be named after the late Esta Levy Kress, a former member of the congregation and a Gainesville physician. Dr. Jacob Kress, who passed away in 1991, bequeathed $250,000 to the congregation in his wife's name.
    Since its establishment in 1921, Congregation B'nai Israel has been planning for the growth of its members.
    Sam Proctor, a member since 1948 and congregation president in 1956 and 1957, has done extended research on the history of the congregation's growth in Gainesville.
    Proctor said the congregation's first synagogue was built in 1924 on the corner of SW 2nd Terrace and SW 2nd Place. At the time, the congregation had no official rabbi and depended on local members to conduct its services, he said.
    After World War II, the Jewish community in Gainesville began to grow, largely due to the expansion of the University of Florida. Congregation membership increased to about 150, and once again space became an issue, Proctor said.
    In 1958, land was purchased to construct the B'nai Israel Jewish Center on NW 16th Avenue. The original building continued in use as a sanctuary until the 1970s when all activities moved to the center, Proctor said.
    In 1973, Rabbi Alan Cohen was appointed the congregation's first full-time spiritual leader. But the center still wasn't big enough for the congregation's increasing membership, Proctor said.
    In the late '70s the congregation purchased about 10 acres of land and built the existing center at 3830 NW 16th Blvd, Proctor said.
    Today, the congregation is still thriving as it prepares for its latest expansion, and its members couldn't be happier about it, said Rabbi Amy Levin said, who will be leaving B'nai Israel this summer when her three-year contract expires.
    "It bodes well for the future of a congregation that it needs to expand for the education of its children," Levin said. "Our hope is that it will continue to grow."

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