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Temple Beth-El plans a service to honor four generations of a devoted family

ST. PETERSBURG

In 1928, Jacob Miller helped to establish Temple Beth-El, the city's first congregation for Reform Jews.

Decades later, his son, Irwin, helped spearhead the temple's move to its current spot while younger descendants continue the family tradition of congregational leadership.

On Friday evening, Temple Beth-El will honor the Millers during a Sabbath service that will focus on their dedication to a central concept of Judaism: continuity and commitment from generation to generation.

"We're trying to seize on the blessing of having this family who have had four generations of active involvement in the life of our temple community,'' said Rabbi Michael Torop, who created Friday's unique Shabbat Dorot, or Sabbath of the Generations, service.

In addition to having ties to the temple's past, family members have been congregation presidents, helped to start the Pinellas Braille Group that translates printed words into braille, and have worked to bring national recognition to the temple's annual Art Festival Beth-El. During the late 1930s, the family gave the temple a Torah scroll rescued from the Holocaust.

News of the honor surprised family members.

"When it was brought up, we said there were many other people that deserve honors,'' said Irwin Miller, 83.

"We were just doing it for the love of temple and carrying on our Judaic roots,'' his wife, Sonya, said of the family's contributions. "We're very honored.''

The story of the Millers — one of Pinellas County's pioneer Jewish families — began in Poland, Jacob Miller's birthplace. After arriving at Ellis Island as a teenager, he moved to Brooklyn, but settled in St. Petersburg in 1925 with his wife, Harriet, and their children, Lillian, Miriam, Dorothy and Irwin. Harriet and other women began meeting for religious and social activities. Their efforts and those of the men in the community led to the birth of Temple Beth-El. Jacob became one of the trustees.

Irwin was 3 years old. His bar mitzvah in 1938 took place at the temple's Arlington Avenue building. Irwin, like his father, became president of Temple Beth-El. He and the late Maurice Rothman, founder of Kane's Furniture, headed the construction committee for the congregation's present- day home at 400 Pasadena Ave. S. The temple is the creation of Morris Lapidus, who designed Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel. Irwin also oversaw the construction of the temple's education wing, dedicated in 2001.

His wife, Sonya, 80, has been a longtime co-chairwoman of Art Festival Beth-El. The team of eight co-chairs now includes daughter Jan Sher, whose husband, Craig, is a former temple president. Irwin and Sonya's son, Howard, also was a president. Another son, Jay, is a trustee on the board. As president of the temple's Sisterhood, Irwin's sister, Miriam Weiss, helped to start the Pinellas Braille Group.

The younger generation has been steeped in the family's commitments.

"We have grown up very aware of the tradition at the temple,'' said Stacy Conroy, 26, the middle of Jan and Craig Sher's three daughters.

"I don't feel that I necessarily deserve to be honored, but certainly my grandparents and my parents have made tremendous contributions there.''

Conroy and her husband, Will, Tampa lawyers, hope to keep it so.

"We plan to raise our kids as active members of the temple community,'' she said.

Friday's service will offer a program of music and liturgy from the early 20th century to the present, and recollections from friends.

"When one thinks of the Millers, one thinks of Temple Beth-El, and when one thinks of Temple Beth-El, one thinks of the Millers," Rabbi Torop said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

If you go

Shabbat Dorot, Sabbath of the Generations, 7 p.m. Friday, Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Go to templebeth-el.com or call (727) 347-6136.

Temple Beth-El plans a service to honor four generations of a devoted family 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 3:41pm]

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