Interview with Dr. Sam Witten August 25 1976

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Interview with Dr. Sam Witten August 25 1976
Witten, Sam ( Interviewee )
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Subjects / Keywords:
Duval County Oral History Collection ( local )
Spatial Coverage:
Duval County (Fla.) -- History.


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Source Institution:
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
Holding Location:
This interview is part of the 'Duval County' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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DUV 007 Sam Witten 8-23-1976 ( SPOHP IDENTIFIER )


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INTERVIEWER: Sylvia Shorstein

DATE: August 23, 1976

S: This is Sylvia Shorstein interviewing Dr. Sam Witten, August 23, 1976.

W: You asked me about my parents. My parents came over in the great escape
from Russia. In Lithuania, at that time, there was the usual stories that
you've seen and heard about the prejudice and what was going on in those
areas of the world. My father and my mother had married in Lithuania.
She went to London, he went to Johannesburg. It was the Boer War, at that
time, between England and Holland. He became familiar with the dairy bus-
iness, 'cause he sold butter and cheese to the soldiers and to the people
of that area. They met again in New York. She came over from London. He
came directly from South Africa. There was no butter and egg business in
New York at that time, so he became a cigar maker. They were the first of
their families to come here other than Reverend and Mrs. B. Safer, who had
preceded them and had moved to Jacksonville, Florida. According to the
way that I heard the stories, the Reverend and Mrs. Safer were brought to
Jacksonville by Mr. Gabriel Finkelstein. Mr. Elias Pilton was the leading
figure in the Jewish community, the president of the Orthodox synagogue,
at that time. There was no such word as Conservative synagogue at that time.
CI have no knowledge of the Reform Temple].

S: Sam, about what year are we talking about?

W: We're talking about the years between 1900 and 1905. Mr. Pilton was a
dominant figure, and probably, I would use the word, the wealthiest of the
Orthodox individuals. Mr. Finkelstein ran a Jewish boardinghouse, located
on West Adams Street. There was a need in the city for a shochet, a mohel,
and a religious leader. Rabbi Safer filled the bill. In the meantime,
one family used to help save money, and send for another member of the family.
My mother was a Safer, her maiden name, so her brother, Reverend Safer, sent
for her and my father. In the meantime, my father sent over for my mother's
sister, Mrs. M. (Sarah) Falis, who came over. They resided in New York for
four years. In New York, my father became a cigar maker, and Mrs. Falis
became a seamstress sewing in the garment district. They lived in one house.
She married. They still lived in one house. They had children, they still
lived in one house, or one flat or maybe it was one room. We don't know
what it was, but in the lower east side of New York. Through the efforts of
Mr. Finkelstein and Reverend Safer, who persuaded him [Reverend Safer] to
sendfor the other members of the family, they moved to Jacksonville. My family
came to Jacksonville in 1906. I was 1907.

S: Were you the first?

W: No, I was the third. Well, I don't have to tell you that my early recollections,
of course, are that we were poor. We didn't know we were poor. We were happy
and we were not maladjusted. We didn't havepsychiatric problems. That was
the way we were supposed to live. The area in which all of the Jewish immi-
grants came to Jacksonville was like a ghetto. It was one big family, where


every Jewish person knew every Jewish person. Of course they were closely
encompassed in this brief area of the city. There were a few who were
outside of the settlement, but primarily I'd say 95 per cent of the Jewish
families lived ina small eight-, ten-block square. That made everyone
of us become friendly, intimate. Something that I think is missing today
was that even your family were your friends. Cousins were more than cousins,
they were friends. Aunts and uncles were people who you not only knew, but
you loved and you adored. I think it's missing today, it's the closeness
of the family relationship I think, but that's not what we are talking about.
The early life was that every child had to go to grammar school. Everybody,
boys and girls, went to the Jewish cheder, because it was in the Jewish
neighborhood. Not too many went to high school. And a few, after high
school, went to college.

S: What was the name of the grammar school and high school you went to?

W: LaVilla Grammar School, and from LaVilla, at that time, the classes were
only to the sixth grade, and to finish in the eighth grade, you had to go
to Central Grammar School. From Central Grammar, you went to Duval High
School. This covered briefly the period of time from birth, 1907 to 1920,
and from 1920 to 1924, the high school era.

S: Sam, what do you remember from the First World War days about maybe older
friends that went into the army, and what happened here in Jacksonville with
the war?

W: Well, I'm sure that Jacksonville was a military camp. There were many soldiers
that came here, and they lived here at Camp Johnson. Some lived here after-
wards; some went back. There was consternation when one of your family
or one of your close friends was drafted into the war. The central focus
of all activity at that time was the YMHA CYoung Men's Hebrew Association].
The YMHA played a most important part in the social activities of the city.
Of course, there were other organizations connected with the synagogue, the
debating teams or the social clubs and so forth. It really escapes me be-
cause I was in an in-between group. Three years older was one group and three
years younger was another group, and I was in between. I don't recall too
much, because at that particular time, my interest was in athletics. The
dream of every Jewish boy, at that time, was either to be a good boxer or a
good baseball player. We didn't know too much about football then. With
the formation of the YMHA, it gave the opportunity to many of the in-between
groups to become athletically involved. The YMHA at that time fulfilled
the social activities for all the groups of the people in the city. I used
to look through my bedroom window, listen and look at the crowds that went
to the dances, and listen to the music. I don't think anyone familiar with
the history of the Jews in Jacksonville could ever forget Mr. Henry Hertzenberg,
who was the executive director of the YMHA. Intercity basketball games were
proposed and fulfilled between Savannah and Jacksonville and Atlanta and Jack-
sonville, and many lasting friendships were made that way. From a historical
standpoint, Jacksonville was growing. The people were moving away from the
ghetto area into other parts of the city. Other parts of the city meant


primarily Springfield. A few ventured out into Riverside. We happened to
be the one who moved to Riverside. So I lost contact with the ghetto
feeling that took place in the Springfield area.

S: When did your family leave Springfield or LaVilla to move to Riverside?

W: In 1925. Going back to the war days, all that I can remember was very
similar to World War II. As far as I was concerned, everybody worked.
Everybody tried to get a job with the shipyard, or out to the camp, every-
body tried to bring in some money, and if you didn't bring it in from that
connection, why you brought it in because the stores in Jacksonville were
busy and you learned the retail trade. You became a clerk and a salesman
at twelve years old, and at thirteen years old, you worked from eight o'clock
in the morning till twelve-thirty at night. I used to get the magnificent
sum of $1.50.

S: Now, this was after school, or on weekends?

W: This is on Saturdays, the busy day particularly. Our Bar Mitzvahs used to
take place then, just like they do today. There was no slackening of Jewish
education. I'm sure that all of the immigrants that came over and became
American citizens did not forget the Jewish training, and they made their
children go to Hebrew school and to services. What else can I say? I mean,
some of it stuck and a lot of it didn't stick, just like today.

S: Are there any incidents or anything that you can recall from Hebrew school-
days? Did the kids dislike Sunday school like they do today? Did they cut
up in class? What did you do? Did you like Hebrew school?

W: I didn't like it. But in retrospect, as you think about it, you had to
admire the teachers, because it was a tough time. The kids just didn't like
it. They had to give up their afternoons to play baseball and go to Hebrew
school. When did you get the sunshine? I mean it just wasn't there.

S: Are you talking about B'nai Israel Hebrew school, no?

W: Yeah, B'nai Israel, the original synagogue. Look, I've never forgotten it,
on Duval and Jefferson.

S: That's the one on Duval Street. That's B'nai Israel.

W: Right, Duval and Jefferson. You know the closer you move to the synagogue,
why, the better off you were in those days. I mean that was the status
symbol, and Mr. Pilton lived a quarter of a block away. I think that, in
review, as a child, I only remember the names of the leading citizens who were
leaders in the synagogue. In other words, like Mr. Pilton or old Mr. Gabriel Fin-
kelstein and Mr. Harry Finkelstein, Mr. Neil Finkelstein. I don't like to mention
their names, because there's so many that should be mentioned that you leave
out, and particularly Mr. Dave Davis, who was an outstanding leader in those
particular days. Also Mr. L. D. Joel was certainly one of the bigwigs, and


led in the formation of the Jacksonville Jewish Center in 1927. I can't
tell you too much about what took place. I can just express it the way that
my father expressed it. He became a citizen in 1906, having landed in New
York in 1901. He took his citizen's first papers out, and he got his second
papers. And I remember when I was Bar Mitzvahed he says, "Well, you're going to
be like me now." I says, "How is that?" He says, "You know, when I came
over here, they said, 'You were trying to be an American, and you spoke
Yiddish and you spoke poor English,'" he says, "now," he says, "I'm a good
American and I speak better but can't write nor read." So it was just the
opposite and so he says, "Now, you Bar Mitzvah, you graduated, and you're
going to a different school now. I want you to get educated."

S: Sam, what was your father's name? I don't think you mentioned it.

W: My father's name was Max Witten. There were two Max Wittens. There was
another Witten family here, Joseph Witten, who had four boys and our family
had four boys. Although I was born in 1907, my youngest brother, Joe, was
not born until 1916 or 1917. It's nine-and-a-half years'difference. In
the war days, there was a different group. Harry Gendzier was, came along and....

S: Are you talking about the Second World War?

W: No, First World War.

S: We have to distinguish.

W: Yeah, and maybe Joe Becker was one, and Abe Newman was certainly prominent in
those days. And I don't remember, maybe Philip Bork, and maybe if we ask
Philip, he'll tell you, yes, he was the most prominent. They were a few years
ahead of me, and I just don't recall everything about that particular group.
I know in my group we didn't like the Hebrew school; we didn't like the Sunday
school, but we went. And I really think that we went because it was a tribute
to our parents. I think that we sacrificed a great deal, those who had to work
to bring in a little money to help support the family. That we felt a respect
for the parents that made us go to Hebrew school and to Sunday school. The hope
of every Jewish family was to have education for their children as well as
the Jewish training. We just could not afford to send my oldest brother to
school. It really goes with the way that the world went at that time. My
oldest brother, Louis, finished grammar school. The next oldest brother was
Ike, and he went to high school two years. Then the third brother was me,
Sam, and I was able to finish high school, and by that time, there was enough
to send me to college. An unheard-of thing, but probably the old Jewish
story of, well, you got to have a son who's to be a doctor. Well, there was
the dentistry, was as near as I could get to it, but that was enough. I have
a younger brother, Joe, who is approximately ten years younger than I, and he
had the privilege of going to school also, and became a doctor of veterinary
medicine. Because the early training that my father had in South Africa stood
him in good stead, he tried hard to make a living in many ways in Jacksonville.
He operated a soda water factory in our backyard. We had a horse and buggy
and no automobiles, and we had cows in the backyard that we fed and milked in
order to get along. It was the old ghetto from the old country, brought here


into the new modern, civilized America. And the adjustment was great, be-
cause the adjustment was with the families. They all felt close together
and closely knit, but overcoming the hardships in the New World, I think,
that made them bear their burden a great deal easier, because each one was
more of help to the other. The ones that they had brought over here, and the
ones that they sent for....In fact, my father had sent for all of his family,
which was five brothers. In the Safer family, on my mother's side, the five
brothers and two sisters all landed in Jacksonville. And one would send for
the other. The early rifewas not an organized life. It was sandlot ath-
letics, playing in public parks, trying to organize teams to play against
the Protestants of the city, because at that time there was a certain feeling
against Jewish competition also, and Jewish fellows, and we managed to over-
come a great deal of this with good, clean athletic programs, not organized,
but done by itself. So finally, after high school, there came time for
college and I went to the University of Florida. I was to room with Hyman
Katz, who was an attorney in Jacksonville later on, after his graduation.
Another roommate was Max "Goldie" Goldstein, also an attorney in later life.
A tremendous football player of renown and in the apartment complex where
we had a room was my present machuten, Max Glickstein, who was studying
engineering. So it's quite a humorous coincidence that my daughter marries
his son later on in life, but that's neither here nor there, with the history
of Jacksonville. The thing is that times were very hard. It was after
World War I, and for a while there was a big boom in Florida, and the boom
was in Jacksonville and people were making money hand over fist, but only on
paper. A few cashed in maybe, but everybody got clobbered one way or another.
They lost a lot of money, and particularly when the Citizens Bank, which was
the stronghold of the Jewish community, failed. I think that was a very
unfortunate blow, but still, how can you say there was a Depression when we
didn't know any better? We'd been poor all the time, and we didn't think of
the big blow of '29, '30, and '31 as anything unusual, because we never had
it good anyhow. And I think that helped many of the Jewish citizens of the
city to really pick themselves up because they knew it always had been a.hard
struggle. There hadn't been easy times. My graduation from dental school
in Atlanta, which is now Emory University, was in 1929. I came to Jackson-
ville. I'd been going with one girl for probably ten years, and we were
married in 1931.

S: What was her name?

W: Her name was Jean Stein. And when I say Jean Stein, it brings me to the best
part of the story that I know. It brings me up to River Garden EHebrew
Home for the Aged]. I not only married Jean Stein, but I think that I also
must have married her mother, Mrs. Rose Stein, because Mrs. Stein was a very
dominant, intelligent, wise woman who had a definite purpose in life, and
this she transmitted to her daughter, and some of it even leaked over onto
me. Now, by this time, the new Conservative synagogue hdd opened, the Jack-
sonville Jewish Center, and there was a ladies' organization.

S: Were you married there, Sam? Where were you married?


W: We were married at home because, in 1931, we didn't have any money to have
a wedding anywhere else. In fact, my wife worked and I had just started in
dentistry. We couldn't afford any wedding. My mother-in-law-to-be says,
"I'll give you some money for a wedding or for a honeymoon." We decided we'd
take the money for our honeymoon, and my parents asked,"What are you running
away from, who are you afraid of, why don't you stay here, why don't you get
married in town?" We said, "No, we've made plans to get married in St. Aug-
ustine, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Glickstein." He was one of my room-
mates in college, and, as I said, his son finally married my daughter many
years later. Well, we were married at home and the rabbi at that time was
a Rabbi Weisel. I think that was his name, and there was a very close, in-
timate little wedding of just my brothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, brothers-
in-law, aunts and uncles. We didn't even have cousins. It was the usual
Orthodox wedding ceremony, and then we left on our honeymoon.
In the Jewish community, there was one Jewish dentist, and his name
was Dr. Daniel B. Torn. To go into a new profession, like dentistry, I
became associated with Dr. Torn. So there were two Jewish dentists in the
city. Then I parted from Dr. Torn after about fifteen months, and we were
still friendly from then on. Dentistry was an up-and-coming profession, and
many of the young Jewish boys, who were patients of mine in the early and
late thirties, thought dentistry was a wonderful way to make a fortune. I
accepted it as really a tribute to me because so many of them from Jackson-
ville decided to take up dentistry,which they have. Now that I've retired,
I feel like they're extremely successful. I'm sure that many of their
young patients are going to consider dentistry as a profession. But, from
the medical standpoint, I don't know how many local Jewish boys went into
medicine. There was Dr. J. V. Safer, who is Reverend Safer's son. There
was Dr. Aaron EZ.3 Oberdorfer. I don't recall any particular ones at this

S: You know Dr. Wilensky?

W: Yeah, the Wilensky boys, Dr. Carl Wilensky and Dr. Lou Wilensky. Let's go
back and talk a few minutes about River Garden. One of the aims of the Jewish
women in Jacksonville was the same as Jewish women everywhere, that is to
help the needy. The original program was the Ladies Hebrew Sheltering
and Aid Society. Now the Ladies Hebrew Sheltering and Aid Society was only
for the purpose of helping transients. In other words, they would collect a
few dollars. I don't know whether it was really to provide a transient,
a snow-bird, as they called them, on their way from New York to Miami, or
Miami back to New York, to give them opportunity to get a meal and spend the
night, or really whether it was to raise a few dollars and get them on the
bus and get them out of here as quickly as possible. This is what the
organization was, and it was not really an organized group at all. It was
headed by a lady who I did not know, they say Mrs. Lasky.

S: Sam, about what time was this, that this got started?


W: Yes, I would say that was probably sixty-odd years ago, about 1920. When the
Stein family came here from Lake City, about sixty years ago, 1920, Mrs.
Stein was a great lady (Mr. Stein died in 1923). She had broader visions
than anyone else at that particular time and she exerted strong leadership,
and developed a more philosophical concept of not only helping transients, but
helping needy people. She had a core of devoted and dedicated women, and
these women were behind her, although she was never president of the organ-
ization as such. She was the treasurer. And she was smart enough, I would
say, that she selected women to be president who did a wonderful job,
but Mrs. Stein was the power, the friendly chairman of the board. With this
new concept of a home for the aged, they had to overcome a lot of supersti-
tions. Because a superstition in those early days was that a home for the
aged was, as they say in Yiddish, a hegdish, it was a mess. It was a place
where only insignificant people came to die. And it was the greatest sin on
earth if you went to a home. Well, they knew all about this, but they con-
tinued to raise money to buy a plot of land in order to establish a home.
Well, Joseph Shapiro was one name. And Mrs. Schevitz was another name, and
Mrs. Naban was another name, Mrs. Wilensky, Mrs. Newman, gosh, I really
shouldn't even try to name names. And, of course, Mrs. Yoffee. I don't
recall, I mean without looking up at the records.

S: Were these women contemporaries of your mother or of what age group were they?

W: Yes, they were contemporaries of my mother. When this organization began to
take off in the late twenties, I was already twenty-four years old, so they
were already probably old women, say from forty-five to fifty. It included
a number of Jewish women, and I'm sure that every family will tell you that it
was their mother who was the one who was the leader of the organization. They
were a very compatible and closely-knit group of women who had one purpose in
mind, and that was truly not to help the transients, as much as to help the
needy people of Jacksonville, and to perform charitable services for those who
needed it, as well as charitable services for those who may need it in future
years. They conceived the idea, you might say, the impossible dream, of forming
a home for the aged. This could have never been done without Wotid War II.
I'm skipping over a number of years now, because the years of hardship of soli-
citing and collecting small amounts of money, in order to further their dream,
was one that they did constantly, but with World War Two coming along, and
money being free, you might say, easy to make. Mrs. Stein had some devoted
sons, Mr. Yoffee adored his mother, and together Mr. Ben Stein and Mr. Ben
Yoffee told their mothers if this is what you want, you're going to have it.
Mr. Nathan Dwoskin found the property at Riverside and Stockton Street for sale.
He mentioned this to the ladies, and he may have even made the option himself.
I don't know, but he found the property, he offered it to the ladies. The
ladies went along with it. Mr. Stein and Mr. Yoffee went along, they under-
wrote the deal.

S: Which Mr. Stein and Mr. Yoffee?


W: Mr. Ben Stein and Mr. Ben Yoffee.

S: I see.

W: And they are the angels who helped their respective mothers put this across.
Now this is the way that River Garden really got started. It did not go as
easy as I'm making it sound. There was intense opposition.

S: Sam, when they found the property, did it have a house on it or was this vacant
property and then they bought it?

W: The first lot that was purchased, on the corner of Fifth and Perry, was an
empty lot where the original St. Vincent's Hospital was. They knew that
they would like to be near the Jewish center, which was at Third and Silver
Streets. They thought the closeness would be ideal for their type of re-
ligious living. As I mentioned before, the closer you get to the synagogue,
the more holy you are for some reason or other. Then Mr. Dwoskin came along
with this other deal; it was a beautiful old colonial house, but the lot
stretched from Riverside Avenue to the river, and this was most appealing.
So they sold the property on Fifth and Perry, and applied that to the purchase
of the new home. The home needed a director, so Mr. Stein and Mr. Yoffee
had Mr. Sidney Entman come down for an interview from New York City, and
they underwrote his expenses for a year so that the ladies would have no
obligation. Mr. Entman brought with him a secretary, Miss Lillie Volitin.
Of course, he was married also. I mean he had Mr. and Mrs. Entman come
here, and Miss Volitin was the secretary, and that's the way the home began,
with two employees, underwritten by Mr. Ben Stein and Mr. Ben Yoffee.

S: Sam, who were the first residents that you can recall?

W: I can't tell you who the first residents were.

S: Yeah, I don't mean names, but I mean these were old people...

W: Oh, naturally though [Names from the archives of River Garden by Mrs. Entman
and Mrs. Ben Carlin].

S: ...who didn't live with their families?

W: No.

S: In other words, primarily this was started as an old-age home.

W: Primarily started as ah old-age home for people who had no families, or
whose families found it was very difficult for these parents, or distant
aunts and uncles, you might say, to live with the families. The purpose
was to give these people companionship and a place to live. Again the
thought comes up, is it a place to die or a place to live? But the purpose
and the aim has always been to make it a place to live. Now you don't want
me to go into the first officers of the home or anything. I'm sure you can
get all of that on record, and so forth.


S: Anything stand out in your mind, in its history, that seems to be...?

W: Yeah, I hate to put this on tape, but as I was about to mention a few min-
utes ago, the one thing that stands out in my particular mind is that the
opposition in the community to the establishment of the home for the aged.
I hate to give personal opinions, because that has nothing to do with his-
tory, but....

S: As your opinion, we want to hear it.

W: The opposition was very intense. The leaders of the new Jewish center felt
like anything that was against the center, taking away money from the center,
was against the center, and that shouldn't be done. And some of the ones who
were the most bitter antagonists of the organization of the home for the
aged finally even spent their last days there. So....

S: Could you mention names or I don't want you to say anything thatyou don't
feel we, we can't....

W: I could mention the names, but it wouldn't be any proof. They're deceased,
and why say anything like that? I can tell you that one of the most
vivid memories that I have is this opposition and it goes a step further.
I would say that later on, in being active in the Jewish Community Council,
again it's my opinion, and it doesn't mean that I'm right and everybody else
is wrong, but the potential formation of a Jewish Community Center would have
saved all the religious institutions of this city a tremendous amount of
money, would have inspired many of the Jewish youths to intermingle more,
to know each other better. But it was so bitterly opposed by the Jacksonville
Jewish Center. To me, that was a calamity. Because now, well, I don't want
to have to tell you about now, because we know about now, but I think that
with that the religious institutions could have been really stronger. They
wouldn't have had to have such a tremendous repetition of services. They
could have been doing in one community center. It's been successful in
other cities. Why we've never pushed it and pursued it was due to the
strong opposition of a very strong person or persons. Now where do we go
from here? What did we leave out?
Let's go back with social activities. Back in 1930s, there were no
big social clubs, because money being tight, everyone had to sort of form
their own little intimate groups, and have social events at home, or per-
haps have dinner together somewhere and try to have a little dance, or a little
kind of affair of some kind. The only social group that other than in the
early days, when some girls' groups, called the Jolly Eight and then finally
the EMers-this is back in the, maybe the early twenties or so....But the
men, I don't recall having any particular group, other than say the Young
Judea groups and so forth. But at the Temple, which was the Reform group,
they did have a men's social group called the Jesters. The Jesters was
strictly a Reform group. With the Depression coming along and say 1930,
"31, '32, the Reforms were not privileged to avoid the Depression. They
were hit also, and the roster of their club became very weak. In the meantime,


I had come into town, not me individually but many professional men, at-
torneys and so forth, who were, let's use the word, up-and-coming suc-
cessful men, who were of the Conservative or the Orthodox group. So
it was a question to me that the Jesters needed help. But they didn't want
the other boys in. Finally out of desperation, I have to get personal
now. It was at that particular time they included and they asked to join
the Jesters, a number of the Orthodox or Conservative Jewish young men of
the city. And through wonderful leadership, the Jesters,which had probably
had seventy or eighty members, had dropped down to maybe fifteen members.
With the inclusion of the added new group it went up to maybe thirty members,
and in a few more years, it was built back to over 100 members.

S: Sam, was this couples or just men?

W: These were just men. Not couples,but of course, couples came to the affairs
and the fellows, through ingenuity and where it didn't take too much money,
why you developed social programs that always included women.

S: Was this on the weekends, or what types of socials did they have?

W: Well, at that time, the Temple had a house on Mallory and St. Johns. That's
where most of the Temple activities had taken place, at the period of time
when I became a member. Earlier than that they had regular monthly meetings
and a yearly affair, like for New Year's and they invited a few outsiders
at that particular time. But you've got to understand that there was not too
much mingling between the boys. They were opposite groups and at opposite
ends of the scale of social eligibility, I would say. But the affairs were
what would seem corny today, probably; maybe we need more of those affairs,
but it was home entertainment and planning and a good get-together. With
the coming of World War II, why, the Jesters fulfilled a very good purpose
in the city because it not only took care of the membership but it also took
care of many of the visiting military personnel who were here. The Jesters
grew. In 1950 or so, the Jesters used to rent different meeting places
Hotels, or available night clubs] throughout the city and that's where they
would hold their affairs, say club night every Tuesday night, Saturday night
dance, a Thanksgiving affair, New Year's affair, or whatever it was. The
club had grown to maybe 200 members--men only. But of course, women were
always invited. The talk got around, why do we have to rent a meeting place,
why don't we form our own club? Other cities in the South had clubs. Why
don't we have a club? Mr. Ben Stein was also a member of the Jesters and he
said, "Well, if we can get 200 fellows to put up $2,000 apiece, we can raise
$400,000 and we can buy a piece of property and put up a building and have
a club." I'm not going to go into names too much, but the late Sam Wolfson and
the late Bobby Jacobs and the late Edgar Kugerman and Mr. Ben Stein, with
a host of many other willing, anxious young men, went out, sold, solicited,
begged, borrowed, tried every means and they finally got the $400,000 and
Beaveler Country Club was born.
When the new building was built at Third and Silver Street and the move
was going to take place, it now meant also the moving of the ideology of
religion. In other words, to make it more modern and more up-to-date and
acceptable by the young people. There was established a brand of Conservative


S: We're talking about the move of B'nai Israel congregation to Third and
Silver Streets.

W: The B'nai Israel changed to the Jacksonville Jewish Center, as it is now
known. And this change of buildings was not really a bad change because,
in my remembrance, the Conservative faction would pray in the upstairs
sanctuary and the downstairs was to be dedicated to those who wished to
follow pursuit of the Orthodox liturgy and ritual. I think they went
along very well for quite some time, until the difference in prayers and
the difference in what was taking place developed into personal factions,
more than the difference in religious factions. At that time, the Orthodox
group began to pull out. They were headed by Reverend Safer, and Reverend
Safer had certain supporters and followers who were dissatisfied with meeting
in the downstairs and they wanted to have their own services and follow
through in the Orthodoxy, and he had several good financial supporters. At
that time, coming into influence financially was a Mr. Morris Wolfson. You
probably know of his sons: Mr. Lou Wolfson and Mr. Sam Wolfson.

S: About what period is this?

W: I don't know what period this was, but this was the early formation of Etz
Chaim, the Orthodox synagogue. With the splintering away of this
particular group, there became a snowballing of enthusiasm to establish an
Orthodox synagogue. I don't remember when this was, but this was the nu-
cleus, and they moved to West Sixth Street, between Main and Laura. They
built a little structure and that is where they prayed until this same Mr.
Nathan Dwoskin....He was a dedicated Jewish man and he was very anxious to
help Jewish people. And he went out and found some property on University
Boulevard which, at that time, was way out. And he picked it up for a song
and he turned it over to the congregation, the same way as years earlier he
had picked up the property where River Garden is. That was the beginning of
Etz Chaim. Mr. Nathan Dwoskin was the one who found that property. Now
that's the way that I remember the split, but I can't go into the politics
of it or what took place. Maybe it was a question of mitzvah. Maybe it
was the question of how to keep kosher in some way. I don't really know.
Maybe it was the type of service-no English in the service, perhaps, is
what they demanded. I couldn't tell you about that. But I know there was a
splintering away.

S: Sam, when did you start becoming active in synagogue activities?

W: I'm not going to say that I was ever really extremely active, except in the
search for new members and new officers in your congregation. What is
better than to have a young struggling dentist to become an officer in
the organization? So immediately you get to be secretary. The secretary
meant you didn't take minutes as such, because someone else took the minutes,
but your name was signed as secretary. I think I was secretary of the Jack-
sonville Jewish Center for maybe ten years or so, but I don't recall too much
happening. My closeness with the Jacksonville Jewish Center was primarily


during the regime of Rabbis Margolis and Tofield. I was very friendly with
both. I could understand their idea of religion and their stronghold with
the institution. The presidents at that particular time were probably
Philip Selber, Lou Safer, Ralph Mizrahi, and certainly Harry Gendzier. When
he was president, I was also very much in the swing of the board, not poli-
tically however, I was just a young man filling a position. Mr. Robert
Gordon was a most active and dedicated and devoted worker. I was very
friendly with Bob. I never was called on for many wise decisions because I
think between Mr. Gendzier and Mr. Selber, and Mr. Max Rubin, everything was
taken care very well. Mr. Joseph Hackel was also one that I, personally,
am very indebted to because he taught me more about Hebrew reading and un-
derstanding of prayer books and the Torah readings than all of my teachers
put together.

S: Sam, were there any particular incidents, happenings, or events that stand
out in your mind that took place at the center?

W: Well, I remember the dedication of the Youth Activities Building. The ded-
ication of the queen, I don't remember so much who the queen was; as I
remember I was emcee,and I think it was a splendiferous event. You asked
me earlier about anti-Semitism in the early days. I would say there was
anti-Semitism but maybe it was not a violent anti-Semitism. I don't think
that the non-Jewish community actually thought of violence and murder or
killings against Jewish people. But of course, the comment was, "You dirty
Jews," and so forth and so on. They held us in very low regard. The in-
cident that I recall very vividly was the time of a basketball game at the
YMCA in which the YMHA Juniors, of which I was a member, were playing the
city championship against one of the Springfield teams and the Jewish boys
won. We were herded down into the locker room of the YMCA and we were told
we wouldn't get out of there alive and that they had probably several hun-
dred non-Jews surrounding the building. They came down to the locker room
and one of our fellows said, "Why were they such cowards? Why would two or
three hundred want to pick on six or seven Jewish boys?" That he would
fight any man that they picked out and let it go at that. They decided they
would. They let him fight one of theirs, bare-fisted. The only thing is,
it was not one of theirs. There was about four of theirs that collared him,
and they finally let us out of the building. So that was another form of
anti-Semitism, not maybe the way we know it today, but it was bad. Then,
of course, in high school there was always, "Don't talk to him, he's a Jew,
she's a Jew." "Don't go with her, she's a Jewess," and whatever it was.

S: How about the exclusion of living in certain areas or exclusion from certain

W: I never found that, but it was there. I mean we moved to Riverside which was
predominately a Protestant area at the time. We were not excluded from a
club because we didn't know about a club. We didn't have a club to go to.
We didn't try to join a club. So it didn't mean anything to me or to my
family. Now later on after graduating and coming to Jacksonville to practice,
I was accepted most readily into the dental profession although I know that
there was some undercurrent.


S: Did you have difficulty getting into dental school?

W: No, it was very easy. I had no problems at all. There were two Jewish
dentists in town and we were both accepted very readily with the others.
That is openly readily. What they said when we weren't listening, of
course, they may be in good humor or maybe not. Might say something about
the Jew dentist, but that didn't bother us at all. I never found it bad.

S: Sam, do you recall the beginning of the Jewish Community Council, or how or
when it got started here in Jacksonville?

W: I'll have to go back a minute now and say that I was very friendly with
Rabbi Morris Margolis, too, who was before Rabbi Tofield. Rabbi Margolis,
I think, was one of the primary founders of the Jewish Community Council,
as it is known today. It was a philanthropic purpose, and there was no
state of Israel, so that was not the problem at that particular time, but
it was for a group fund-raising to minimize, I'll use the word schnorring,
which meant transients coming in and making a plea throughout the city for
funds, and then moving on without any organized group in order to contribute
to it. So the thought was, maybe we could get together, get up a fund and
out of it allocate monies to the various charitable organizations. I think
it was Rabbi Margolis and Morton Hirshberg, and I don't know. I'm sure
the records will tell you.

S: Was it a group composed of all the synagogues?

W: Yeah. The effort was to have all the synagogues, but primarily there were
certain temples that maybe didn't want to be recognized, but Morton Hirsh-
berg was a Temple member, and he was one of the leaders and founders. I'm
sure Rabbi Kaplan must have been active in it at that particular time. It's
all vague to me; I just don't recall without going back. If I could read
the history, I could comment better. You asked me how did young people meet
in the old days, and how'd they get together tofind out they loved each
other, you might say, and why they married each other? I think that, al-
though there were people coming and going all the time, that they married
within the city. Sometimes from out of town, through relatives, and ac-
quaintances, but primarily, I would say, through the social clubs in the early
beginnings. Whether it was from the center, I'm primarily speaking about
the congregation, B'nai Israel, and the center, that through the association
of the couples and the children within that group, and I think that's one of
the reasons why they still wanted to maybe hold it that way. They would
like to keep the center kids together and perpetuate an intermarriage program.
In the olden days, I think thatyoumet a person of the opposite sex through
your social contacts in a group or in a classroom, and that was the way you
became acquainted. In my particular instance, my wife came from out of
town, and I met her that way as she moved into the city, and I met the family.
The family was friends with my family. I was a year or two older, and so,
my wife will shoot me for that, but I was a year or two older and they Cmy


family says, "Don't you know the Stein girl?" And I says, "I know the
Stein family." My father said, "Why don't you go out with the Stein girl?"
In the meantime I was already going out with the Stein girl, so you met
each other that way. But I'd say I never thought, in going off to school, of
meeting a girl from another city. It never occurred to me.

S: Sam, I'm wondering. I know the boys would go off to school, or else they
would go into their father's business, or go into some kind of trade. What
did the girls do when they finished their formal schooling? If they didn't
get married, did they go into business, or would they stay home?

W: I can't answer that because I never had that experience as a girl. In my
wife's case, she went from high school to the University of Georgia for
a year, and by that time it was 1930, or '28, or '29, or whenever it was,
by that time we were courting seriously and we became pinned to each other,
and we were waiting until we could afford to get married. And as for the
other girls, I don't know, I never had a sister. So I can't answer from
the girls' standpoint.

S: Getting back to college, did they have Jewish fraternities?

W: Sure, they had Jewish fraternities. In Gainesville, in 1925, two Jewish
fraternities were started. One was Tau Epsilon Phi, which had about ten
members, and Phi Beta Delta had about ten members. I think they had maybe
1200 students registered at that time, whereas, I don't have to say, it must
be close to 30,000 students that they have now. But the 1200 on the campus
knew each other practically by first names, everyone except the two Jewish
fraternities. They didn't speak. There was a great deal of friction between
the two, and it probably would have been better if all twenty would have
gotten together and formed one fraternity, but there was quite a bit of

S: Sam, did boys from a particular geographical area go into one fraternity or-
the other? How were they divided?

W: They were not from any geographical areas as such, because out of the original
ten, I'm sure there were like four from Jacksonville, in each, and some from
Miami in each, and maybe there might have been one from Orlando in each, and
several Yankees in each. That had nothing to do with Jacksonville except that,
was it the beginning of a status symbol? In other words, fraternities were
just starting again in Gainesville. Now they previously had had one Jewish
fraternity before and it didn't make it. That was ZBT. There was some talk
at that time of starting the ZBT again. I mentioned that one of my roommates
was Goldie Goldstein from Jacksonville. He was a reknowned football player,
and you might say as Goldie went so did other fellows go. I was a fresh-
man and as Goldie told me, this is what you're going to do, so I did it. I
didn't choose, I was told. I was glad to do it 'cause he was a great guy.


I thought there couldn't be any greater. I don't know how the TEPs did
because they had a different group. I think today, Jacksonville is a
Tau Epsilon Phi town, but Dr. J. V. Safer, who I mentioned before, was a
TEP. And so it wasn't in the family line or anything, it was just differ-
ences of opinion; differences of friends you meet and cultivate.

S: Sam, I want to thank you so very much for spending this time with me, and,
if I have your permission, I would like to use this material in gathering a
history of the Jewish community of Jacksonville.

W: You have it.