SPRING HILL — Now a synagogue with a full-time rabbi and an active congregation that offers religious, educational and social opportunities to Jewish families throughout the Nature Coast, Temple Beth David's humble beginnings are but a memory to a select few who have been part of the journey.
About to celebrate the temple's 40th anniversary, longtime members recall the congregation's early years.
"Everything was a new beginning back then," said Diane Paskowitz, 93, who has been a member of the congregation for a longer period of time than any other living member. "It was a new community, and we were growing along with the whole county."
Before Paskowitz and her husband came to Florida in 1975, a handful of participants had been meeting for two years as a Jewish social club, calling themselves the Jewish Club of Hernando County. They met in members' homes and later at a school and a community center.
"Also, we were allowed to use rooms in many of the churches here," Paskowitz said. "We were grateful that we were allowed to use all those places. It was so rural back then."
Some club members began leading religious services for the group, which then became known as the Jewish Community Center. In 1979, Paskowitz was asked to be the group's lay rabbi. She served in that capacity until 1991.
"I always enjoyed being part of the community and promoting goodwill with other faiths and familiarizing them with Judaism," Paskowitz said. "I feel I touched many lives, and it caused me great happiness."
Marlene Shaw Praglor, 69, began serving at the temple in many capacities when she moved to the area in 1990.
"Years of paper drives, bake sales and other fundraisers finally culminated in the construction of an all-purpose building at its current site in 1986," Shaw Praglor recalled. "Dorothy Trompeter paid off the mortgage, and the congregation was named Temple Beth David Jewish Center in her husband's memory."
Paskowitz also recalled the hard work by members to bring about such growth.
"We really worked hard to get funds to build," she said. "We're proud to be here and grateful that all our hard work paid off and that we have many more things going for us than we had then."
After Paskowitz retired, the congregation hired a succession of part-time, ordained rabbis. The first was Rabbi Saul Besser, who continued there until his death in 1996.
"During that time, a period of growth in both membership and programming ensued, and the need for a building expansion became apparent," Shaw Praglor said.
The Forbes Family Sanctuary and additional offices and meeting rooms were dedicated in 1998. Rabbi Frank Sundheim served the temple from 1997 to 2000, when Rabbi Cyrus Arfa, the current rabbi emeritus, became the spiritual leader. He was followed by Rabbi David Levin.
In 2011, the progressive reformed congregation hired its first full-time rabbi, Lenny Sarko.
"Rabbi Sarko has brought increased programming, educational opportunities and many technological advances," Shaw Praglor said. "His Yad program now brings streaming and video-conferencing services and classes, allowing homebound and out-of-town members and religious schools students the opportunity to more fully participate in temple life.
"It was a gift from God to find Rabbi Lenny," she added.
Polly Levine, 91, came to Hernando County with her husband in 1982. She has served as the congregation's president and was the first sisterhood president.
"Being a part of this congregation has been a wonderful education for me," Levine said. "Our rabbi is the most incredible teacher. I just love being where he is teaching."
Levine hopes people will visit the temple and learn about the members' beliefs.
"This is truly a unique body, because we are made up of every form of Judaism," she said. "Our members come from everywhere and are every part of Judaism, so we are a wonderful conglomeration. I would encourage people to come, whether they are Jewish or not, and would welcome them with all of me."
Paskowitz is looking forward to the 40th anniversary celebration on Jan. 18 at the Palace Grand, when the congregation will recall its roots.
"Many people have done worthy things in their lives in different directions," she said. "But speaking personally, I think the worthiest thing anybody ever did is building a temple in Spring Hill. I'm so proud and so glad. I never dreamed that we would accomplish this, and we did."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Jessie Bauer, 99, and Syd Gangel, 98, are the oldest members of Temple Beth David in Spring Hill. Diane Paskowitz, 93, has been a member of the congregation for a longer period of time than any other living member. Information in Wednesday's Religion story was incorrect.