Jewish Learning Center Opens in Winter Haven

Posted Friday, Jan 9th, 2015

WINTER HAVEN | Todd Simon left his place of worship when he moved from Tampa to Polk County three years ago.

Simon is Jewish and visited a synagogue in Winter Haven, but said it was too Reform for him. (There are several branches of Judaism, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.)

That's why he was excited when he saw a rabbi walking through his local Sam's Club.

"I went right up and introduced myself to find out if he was local, if he had a Chabad, or a place we could come for services," Simon said. "We had nowhere to go."

Rabbi Moshe Lazaros invited Simon to Chabad of Lakeland.

But Lazaros noticed Simon, like many people from East Polk County who attend services at Chabad, didn't come as frequently as those who lived nearby.

That's why Lazaros is opening the Jewish Learning Center in Winter Haven on Sunday at 605 Overlook Drive. The center will open at 1 p.m. with a ribbon cutting and a mezuzzah ceremony.

"The people interested in our programs aren't from one particular neighborhood, and this location is as central as it's going to get for people in the northeast," Lazaros said. "Even for those who come from Sebring and Avon Park, it will cut their travel time in half."

In addition to reaching more people geographically, Lazaros also gave the center a nondenominational name because it is open to all faiths, he said.

"Chabad is well known and may have helped to bring more people to the center," Lazaros said. "But at the same time, (we didn't want to deter ) people who don't know what Chabad is or those who think this is just another Chabad."

He said a Chabad doesn't work the way a temple does — there's no membership involved.

There are two other Jewish congregations in Polk County: Beth Shalom in Winter Haven and Temple Emanuel in Lakeland.

The Jewish Learning Center will be a community center that will have Jewish education classes, special events for the holidays and religious services, held by either Lazaros or another rabbi.

The center will be open Sunday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. as a place to relax, drink some coffee and read books from a Jewish library of mostly English editions, Lazaros said. There's WiFi, too.

"I don't see anything remotely like this in the community," Simon said. "People are going to walk into the center to use the Internet and drink some coffee, not necessarily thinking about religion.

"But because they're there, they're going to gravitate toward it — the books on the shelves, literature on the tables, people having discussions," he said.

That's Michael Shoffner's goal for the center.

Shoffner has taken the lead in opening the center, Lazaros said, and will serve as its president while Lazaros is the executive director.

"It was about a year ago that I really started to see a need for Jewish people and the state of Israel to be represented in this area," Shoffner said. "This center will fulfill a need in East Polk and promote peace, education and appreciation of the Jewish tradition."

Shoffner estimates about 1,000 Jews live in East Polk County.

Shoffner is studying to be a rabbi and will lead a Torah studies class. The center will also offer Jewish Learning Institute courses, which combine mythical Jewish teachings with modern research and science.

Shoffner also will coordinate movie nights with children's movies telling the stories of Abraham, Moses and Joseph, and he plans to open a Sunday school in the fall.

Simon said the center will attract a younger generation because of its lax, Starbucks-like atmosphere.

Shoffner's wife is Christian and his son will start kindergarten at All Saints Academy next year, but they plan to be active members of the center.

"We want her to form her own beliefs," he said. "And that's what the center's all about — people of all faiths coming here, asking questions and learning what's out there."


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