A steward of one of the oldest Jewish congregations in Northeast Florida, Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner is a leader that strives to maintain the rich cultural traditions of the past, while integrating faith into the ever-changing present. He spoke with us about the history of the Jewish community in our region, and what the holiday season means to Jews.
You moved here in 2004 from New York to accept the position as Senior Rabbi. What made you choose the First Coast area?
One thing I like about Jacksonville is that it isn’t New York. I had lived most of my life within 100 miles of New York City. My wife and I wanted to raise our family in a place where there was a strong sense of community. We found that Jacksonville had all of the amenities that you would want from a city. The nicest surprise moving to Northeast Florida is that we were not surprised. The accents are a little different, but people are people. There was a genuine warmth that we really liked and a strong sense of community.
The JJC is the largest Jewish congregation in the area. In what other ways is it unique?
We are the only congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism in Jacksonville and its immediate environs, which means we have a very varied congregation from one side of the religious spectrum to the other. I think what makes us unique is the 360-degree approach that we take to religious life and community. We offer a daily service, morning and evening, 365 days a year. We operate not only a supplementary religious school, but we also have our own day school. All of our formal and informal youth programming, which includes our schools, is integrated into one body that we call the Galinsky Academy.
How does the JJC’s history fit into the larger history of the Jewish community in Jacksonville?
We are the second oldest synagogue in Jacksonville. The congregation dates back to the turn of the twentieth century when it was housed in Lavilla at the corner of Jefferson and Duval. In 1927, it moved to Springfield and spent a half-century there before coming to Mandarin in the mid-1970s.
The Jewish community of Jacksonville is a very close-knit community, precisely because we have to work a little bit harder–unlike urban areas with larger Jewish populations with a myriad of resources. You have to roll up your sleeves and get involved. When people don’t take community for granted, then the fabric is stronger and it is more meaningful.
What does the Christmas holiday season mean to the Jewish community?
Christmas certainly impacts Jews in several ways. It has brought more focus to Hanukkah even though it is a relatively minor holiday; culturally, Hanukkah has gotten pumped up on “Christmas steroids.” We love watching our Christian friends celebrate the Christmas holiday and put up their lights. But it’s also helpful for us, as a minority, to value the ways we are different. One of the messages of Hanukkah is that we should fight for religious freedom and the ability to be different. Difference is a good thing. Members of the Jewish community don’t have to feel deprived at Christmastime; there is so much richness in the Jewish calendar. If you’re living an engaged life Jewishly, there’s no reason not to just sit back and enjoy the lights…and celebrate Hanukkah!