New to Marco Island in the early 1980s, Elena Rosner saw a need for a homegrown Jewish center. So, with a personal mindset of “there’s nothing you can’t do if you set your mind to it,” Rosner began to negotiate for just such a center with executives of the island’s original developers, the Deltona Corporation.
As it happened, Deltona had set aside areas of the island for various houses of worship, and Rosner’s efforts were almost immediately successful.
“You got it,” was the way a Deltona official reacted to her initial and tentative query, Rosner remembered.
It was now a matter of kindling interest in what was to become today’s Jewish Congregation of Marco Island (JCMI), and following her placement of a classified ad in a local paper, about 60 people responded. More did so in time.
Today the JCMI has been in existence for more than 30 years, and is described by current spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Gross as, “a local bastion of Jewish richness … a dynamic cohort of local Jews whose imagination and dedication have built this community as a nurturing home for us all.”
Rosner, Italian-born and who married an American, was one of two iconic JCMI women honored recently as Southwest Florida Jewish pioneers.
The other was Lenore Greenstein who, along with her late husband Rabbi Howard Greenstein, were referred to as the “heart and soul” of the JCMI.
About 100 people converged recently at JCMI to watch documentary movies on the women and hear them talk afterwards. The Jewish Historical Society of Southwest Florida presented the afternoon.
Greenstein recounted how she and her husband had discovered Marco and the JCMI in 1996 after hearing about the need for a Rabbi.
“It was a dual opportunity,” said Greenstein, who secured a job as a food writer for a local publication.
“We met the JCMI congregation, and it was an absolute love affair. We loved them and they loved us.
“He was an inspirational leader, an outstanding educator and a great ambassador for the Jewish residents of Southwest Florida,” Greenstein said of her husband after the showing of her documentary.
Throughout, she gracefully shifted the emphasis more on to him and his enthusiasm.
“He was a promoter of social justice and activism … repairing a fractured world, that was Howard’s theme,” Greenstein said. Her husband died 12 years ago.
In one of the opening series of remarks, Rabbi Gross remarked on history’s value.
“We think of history as being something from antiquity, and overlook the fact it is today’s observations and understandings of what we did yesterday and all the yesterdays before,” Rabbi Gross said.
During her talk after the showing of her documentary (part of which outlined her family’s horrors at the hands of the Nazis), Rosner made an unplanned and somber observation.
It came in the wake of the previous day’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Yesterday’s massacre in Pittsburgh is a grim reminder for us all to be on the alert for the dangers of prejudice and hatred,” she said. “Love thy neighbor.”
The two documentaries will soon be added to others on the JHSSWF website (which also houses a virtual museum) at jhsswf.org, according to president Marina Berkovich.