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A beloved family tradition flourishes despite loss

Since the 1960s, generations of a St. Petersburg and Tampa family have gathered to celebrate their faith and each other.
A new generation now participates in the annual Hanukkah gathering that was started in the mid-1960's. [Courtesy of Pam Wittner LeCompte]
A new generation now participates in the annual Hanukkah gathering that was started in the mid-1960's. [Courtesy of Pam Wittner LeCompte]
Published Jan. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — The holidays might be over, but one family, though grieving the loss of one of its elders, is savoring the continuation of a cherished Hanukkah tradition.

When Jane Silverberg, founder of Silverberg Jewelry with her husband, Don, died in December — days before the Jewish Festival of Lights — her large extended family almost cancelled their annual gathering around the holiday. They considered rescheduling the celebration for January.

Related: Jane Silverberg, St. Petersburg entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist, dies at 89

But Mrs. Silverberg’s daughter, Terri Gross, urged that the decades-old get together should go on.

“I thought about it and I said we should have the party and we should have it during Hanukkah as planned,” Gross said. “I knew that my mom would want that and that it was very important to carry on the tradition.”

It’s a tradition that began in the mid-1960’s with the Goldman, Silverberg, Benjamin and Wittner families. Edward Goldman, Mrs. Silverberg’s father, had arrived in St. Petersburg in 1919 and launched a successful Central Avenue jewelry and luggage business.

He was part of a large family of two brothers and five sisters and employed many of his nephews. Mrs. Silverberg and her brother, Sanford Goldman, and their first cousins, Ted Wittner, Harvey Wittner and Phil Benjamin, were close and started the family custom of gathering for Hanukkah.

First cousins (left to right) Harvey Wittner, Sanford Goldman, Ted Wittner, Jane Goldman Silverberg, Sidney Mershen and Phil Benjamin about 1948. [Pam Wittner LeCompte]

“These close ties exist today and we still get together every year for this cousins’ Hanukkah party,” said Gross, who with her brothers, Edward and Thomas, and other relatives have added generational layers with their own children and grandchildren.

"That’s what it sort of means, passing the torch, l’dor v’dor,” Gross said, using the Hebrew for “from generation to generation.”

Pam Wittner LeCompte, whose father, Ted Wittner, was one of the original first cousins, has fond childhood memories of the gatherings.

“We always looked forward to it. Back in the old days, they always put a dollar limit on the gifts for the kids. It was just a tchotchke. We stopped gifts years ago. We all bring a dish,” LeCompte said.

“The important part was just the family being together. Through the years, we’ve lost some of the original cousins, but we still have it. We light the (Hanukkah) candles and just enjoy each other and it’s a good time to get together. This time, we were fortunate to have some of the kids home from college,” she said, alluding to the lunar Jewish calendar, which means Hanukkah sometimes falls outside the college break.

The most recent celebration took place on Dec. 22, with Judy Benjamin hosting about 40 family members in downtown St. Petersburg. Her mother, Marilyn, who married Mrs. Silverberg’s first cousin Phil Benjamin, was among those who helped host the early celebrations.

“We want our children to carry on this tradition," Marilyn Benjamin said. “It is important that you show the next generation what is important and that family is important.”

Marilyn Wittner, who lives in Tampa, is the family historian. She married Harvey Wittner, another of the original first cousins.

“We have certainly done all we can to keep this going. There are four people left of the original group and the other groups get bigger and bigger and we’re proud of that," she said. "I think, in every family, if you don’t have some traditions that live from generation to generation, that family tie gets weaker and weaker and that’s what I think is so beautiful about this.”

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