Ocala, a relatively-small city in central Florida, has a Jewish history dating back to the 1800s, but until recently, its inhabitants have seen traditional Judaism from the periphery. Home to the state’s oldest standing Jewish house of worship and one of Florida’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, Ocala saw its first Orthodox synagogue just last fall.

Operated by Rabbi Yossi and Chanie Hecht, directors of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Marion County, the synagogue made history once more on May 21 with Ocala’s first-recorded traditional circumcision, that of the Hechts’ son, Menachem Mendel.

“I had never been to a [traditional] bris before,” said Ellen Camp, who has been attending services with the Hechts since they first moved to town. “The non-traditional [services] are not as official, and this one was much more beautiful. Chabad’s presence here in Ocala has really brought me closer to my own Jewish identity and my own people through things like this.”

Since the Hechts’ arrival to this city of some 1,000 Jewish residents, they’ve seen their share of firsts, such as this past winter, when they hosted a Chanukah menorah lighting ceremony in the city square. That event was the first Jewish ritual to have ever been performed in at the location; it drew hundreds to the downtown venue and earned a spot on the front page of the local newspaper.

For Sandy Israel, who has been living in Ocala for some 20 years, such events have had a tremendous impact.

“Since I met Rabbi Yossi at a barbeque last year, I’ve been going to services and Shabbat meals almost every week,” said Israel, who was recently introduced to donning the black Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin. “It’s absolutely fantastic how much Chabad is growing in such a short time. I think that they’re the greatest people in the world.”

Community members enjoy the celebratory meal after Menachem Mendel Hecht’s circumcision.
Community members enjoy the celebratory meal after Menachem Mendel Hecht’s circumcision.

The Hechts’ influence also extends outside of Ocala’s city limits. Yossi Hecht visits The Villages, one of the largest retirement communities in the world, for holiday celebrations and to lead a monthly class. Don Canaan, who moved to The Villages six years ago from Cincinnati, Ohio, helped form the “To Life” club that hosts the rabbi’s Kabbalah-focused class.

“The continuing series is very interesting to me,” said Canaan, a retired journalist. “I like to follow the course through, especially now that I have more time in life to really enjoy it.”

Hecht pointed to his son’s circumcision and other area activities as a few of the ways that Jewish residents in the region are becoming more connected.

“For many, this is the first time in their lives that they are experiencing traditional Judaism,” said Hecht. “We try to focus on how they can affect their own lives and those around them and to try to bring out what they themselves are able to accomplish.”