Temple Israel rabbi makes call for harmony among races

Church of the Year

Pushing for unity

Temple Israel

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

Even before he officially became rabbi of Temple Israel, Jack Romberg had a good feeling it would be where he’d lead his first synagogue.

His wife, Audrey, had a sense of that, too, by the time the interview process was over.

“We saw a warm, welcoming congregation,” Romberg said. “The people did not care that I wasn’t a Southerner. They just cared that I had the passion to come and really dig in and move the congregation in the direction that they felt good about.”

Under Romberg’s leadership, Temple Israel has grown in membership, community engagement and the way services are conducted.

In essence, Temple Israel has become more visible in the community. So much so, that the Jewish synagogue was given the distinction of being chosen as Church of the Year by the Capital Outlook.

The honor came three months after a mass shooting attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Temple Israel hosted a vigil for the victims. Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church attended the event.

It marked the beginning of a relationship between the two men, who have since been on a mission to improve race relations in Tallahassee.

Romberg, however, was taken aback that Temple Israel received the honor from the Outlook, which Holmes owns. The award has historically gone to a traditional church.

“I’m really grateful (and) I have to give (Rev. Holmes) the credit,” Romberg said. “I was just shocked, honored and I didn’t know how to respond.”

Romberg, who will retire in June, came to Tallahassee as rabbi of Temple Israel in 2001, soon after he was ordained. Not long after arriving, Romberg set out to put more emphasis on improving the understanding of Judaism among his congregants, improve the level of learning for adults and children. 

He has also modernized the services; from the music to how prayers are done. 

Martin Merzer, a Temple Israel board member who joined in 2010, said he didn’t have second thoughts about which synagogue his family will attend after moving from South Florida. He was especially impressed with Romberg and the congregation, he said.

“It truly is a very warm community sense there; religiously, of course, but also from a sense of community, social welfare and taking care of each other and the needy, Merzer said. “I view it as a community as much as a place of worship.”

Merzer’s two grandchildren are among about 100 children who participate religious school each Wednesday night at Temple Israel. The lessons focus on the Jewish culture, religion and the community.

Regular services are also held on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Holmes will preach there Feb.15 service, a first for Baptist minister at the synagogue.

Another initiative at Temple Israel is a partnership with the Alzheimer Project. On Wednesdays, Temple Israel provides care for Alzheimer patients as a form of reprieve for their families.

Sessions also are held for people dealing with immigration issues and human trafficking. Most recently, Temple Israel joined in an effort to help furloughed federal workers by giving gift cards from the congregation.

Through Romberg’s effort, Temple Israel also is involved in strengthening the bridges between Jews and Blacks. On Sunday, Romberg delivered a sermon on just that at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, emphasizing commonalities between the two races.

“We are sending a clear message that we want to strengthen the Jewish and Black relationship in Tallahassee,” Holmes said, explaining his reason for inviting Romberg to preach. “Hopefully it will spread abroad.”

After outlining several Jewish principles, Romberg disclosed anti-Semitism threats that Temple Israel has received. He went on to say that the attacks on Jews are similar to those that Blacks face in racism.

“This connects us on a deep, but sad level,” Romberg told the Bethel congregation.

The attack on Black churches, such as the one in 2015 when a 21-year-old killed nine people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina is no different from anti-Semitism threats on Jews. Romberg said.

“I think that we have to start to get our communities to work together a little more,” Romberg told the Outlook before his visit to Bethel. “The times that we are living in; any minority group is suffering and we’ve got to come together to stand together to create more strength.”

Romberg’s appearance was part of Jewish and Christian Unity Service that Holmes billed at “Hope, healing and harmony.” Darrick McGhee, pastor of Bible-Based Church, also participated in the service.

Romberg and McGhee are leaders on the Village Square’s God Squad.

Having a rabbi preach at a Baptist church isn’t new, dating back to the early years of the civil rights movement, but Holmes said it’s necessary today.

Rabbi Jack Romberg will retire in June after almost two decades at Temple Israel.
Photo by
St. Clair Murraine

“In the times that we’re living, we cannot allow race, religion, gender or national origin to divide us,” Holmes said. “To heal this nation, the people of faith must come together around one same purpose, which is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. 

“We cannot let denominational boundaries keep us apart and tear down the walls that keep us from being brothers and sisters.”

McGhee, in part of his sermon, spoke of simpler times when neighbors would borrow a cup of sugar. He also made reference to the similarities between Jews and Blacks.

“When they are invaded,” he said, “it’s an invasion on us.”