ST. PETERSBURG — When Rabbi Alter Korf and his wife, Chaya, arrived in St. Petersburg 16 years ago to take up an assignment for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, there was no doubt in their minds that it was where they would put down roots.
They established the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg, began a series of programs, including services, classes for adults and children and a summer camp. They organized public Hanukkah celebrations, encouraged women to light Sabbath candles and led the community to prepare and deliver hundreds of meals to the ill and homebound.
Chaya Korf, 42, yearns to do more. She mentions Mommy and Me classes, a teen lounge, after-school programming, and for seniors, an opportunity to socialize. Most of those programs require "unique furniture and space," she said. "We're not all about the synagogue. We're also a center for Jewish life and learning."
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Their Chabad Center at 4010 Park St. N, near Tyrone Square Mall, is not large enough to accommodate the expansion of programs envisioned by the Korfs. It's one of the reasons behind a new endeavor, the purchase of a half-acre at 533 Fourth St. N. The vacant land, on the edge of downtown and the Old Northeast, cost $1.7 million. The highly visible and easily accessible location is where Chabad will build its new center.
Rabbi Korf, 43, said there's been a shift in the Jewish population to that area of town. "We've seen a lot of growth there," he said.
He referred to the results of a study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. Among its findings was that the top three zip codes for Jewish households are Dunedin, downtown St. Petersburg and Lake Tarpon.
Korf noted that the 2017 study, conducted by Ira Sheskin, chair of the University of Miami Department of Geography, also showed that more than 2,000 people in south Pinellas County had participated in Chabad programs in the past year. He predicted that participation will more than double when the new, larger center is built.
"Being close to the large and growing portion of the Jewish population is very important," Korf said of the new location. "The visibility is a plus....We've been searching for some time."
The goal is to complete the project within two to three years. A fundraising campaign has been launched for the effort, which totals $5 million with the land purchase.
"We are more than half-way. People are supporting it," Korf said. "People want to see it happen."
Like Ralph Mizrahi. "I am just as excited as I can be," the semi-retired CPA and a member of the building committee said.
"It's a big step. It was really done with some planning," said Mizrahi, 84, who moved to St. Petersburg from Brooklyn in the early 1950's. "When I grew up in St. Petersburg, everything was downtown. As the community began to move westward, the Jewish community moved westward, as well. With the resurgence of downtown, with the apartments, condominiums and businesses — which is wonderful — as that migration took effect, the Jewish community moved as well."
Meanwhile, the Chabad Center he attends with his wife, Ruth Ann, has grown.
"When it started out, there were only a few people who started coming. Then the word started spreading," he said.
The Korfs moved to St. Petersburg from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. They are part of the worldwide contingent of couples — emissaries — whose task is, Korf explained, "to create a welcome and nonjudgmental space for people to feel comfortable connecting to their faith."
He added that Chabad "is known to welcome people regardless of their background and affiliation. We believe labels are for suits and clothing, not for people."
Many couples leave friends and families behind to build new lives and Chabad Centers in unfamiliar places.
"It was very difficult," Korf acknowledged of the move to St. Petersburg, "but we saw the need to touch lives and serve people."
At the time, they were parents of a 21-month-old and a 9-month-old. They now have eight children, three girls and five boys, ranging in age from 6 to 17. The couple began offering programs in their home. Their first major Jewish holiday celebration was held at the St. Petersburg Woman's Club on Snell Isle. Two years later, they rented a storefront at 6151 Central Ave. for their expanding programs and following. In 2009, they moved to Park Street. Today, "350 local families actively support" the center, Korf said. "They fund this entire operation from A to Z. We do not charge membership. They are partners in all we do."
The downtown site will be the center's permanent home.
"We don't only think of the present, we think of the future, as well. We want to make it so that our children and our grandchildren keep their connections to Jewish life," the rabbi said.
"We expect this to be the best location for continuity," Chaya Korf added.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.