Rabbi Jonathan Katz had a modest proposal.
It was 1994, and he was rabbi at Congregation Ner Shalom, in Woodbridge, Va., where the local population was abuzz with talk about what Disney planned to do with land it had purchased in the community. So, in the monthly bulletin, Katz included a letter from Michael Eisner, who was then CEO of The Walt Disney Co., notifying him that Disney was building in the temple’s backyard and was willing to donate $300,000 to the congregation as a goodwill gesture. As part of the deal, Mickey, Minnie and Pluto would make free bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah appearances. Katz endorsed the plan.
The proposal was a joke, a spoof written for the Jewish holiday of Purim. But it drew so much attention that The Washington Post did a story about it.
Now, Katz has ideas for Longboat Key, only, this time, he is serious. In April, Katz, who became rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in 2008, presented a proposal to the Longboat Key Town Commission for the Avenue of Flowers shopping plaza that would transform the complex into a town center that would be a gathering place for community development. He envisions a spot that would be a draw, one that could have coffee shops, a sculpture garden and space for concerts — something he sees lacking on Longboat. He pitched a similar plan to the city of Fort Wayne, Ind., and even spent $1,500 to hire an architect and present renderings for a rejuvenation of the city, complete with plans for a community square. That plan never came to fruition, but Katz feels that a similar plan could attract people to the Key.
“We’ve got to draw people to Longboat Key,” Katz said. “Longboat Key doesn’t ever seem to say, ‘welcome.’”
Katz has also been vocal about other issues, such as state-road signage along Gulf of Mexico Drive, which he describes as excessive.
But don’t think that Katz’s activism is getting in the way of his role as a rabbi. Katz has embraced the opportunity at Temple Beth Israel to serve a congregation that is largely retired and enjoys attending classes and cultural events. He has also brought new programming to worship services, such as a “Bagpipe Shabbat” on the first night of Hanukkah, a service during which musicians played prayers on their instruments.
“Since we did that, two other congregations have done something similar,” Katz said. “It’s nice to think that good, old Temple Beth Israel is on the cutting edge.”
But, for the record, Katz insists that concern for community development is key to his role as a rabbi.
“If you don’t care about how your community looks or feels, that’s going to make you callous toward your fellow human being,” he said.
In 2010, Katz plans to continue to speak out about the community-development issues he feels are important. And, although he is disappointed that Publix has not responded to the proposal he sent to company officials, for now, he’s improvising when it comes to creating space for the community. Katz allowed the Planning & Zoning Board to hold public hearings for the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s $400 million expansion project at the temple. He also hopes to make use of the grassy area on the temple’s property where the Longboat Key St. Jude Gourmet Luncheon takes place each year, possibly holding concerts and even an outdoor worship service there.
“I think people want to get away from their computer screens and TV screens and engage each other,” he said.
Occupation: Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel
Passions: Tennis, bike-riding and spending time with his wife, Marty, and daughter, Emma, 8
Interesting fact: Katz bicycled from Toledo, Ohio, to Seattle at age 23 and from Washington, D.C., to Charleston, S.C., in his mid-30s. He says that if his wife would allow him to, he would do it again.
Contact Robin Hartill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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