For 115 years, Congregation B’nai Zion
“CBZ” served the citizens of Key West
and its Jewish community
In the early morning hours of
April 16, 2002,
however, a fire ripped through
the synagogue’s utility room, leaving
the place in ruins from smoke damage
and burned asbestos.
Federal Investigators determined that
fire was a deliberately set arson.
Immediate offers of rewards totaling
$11,500 failed to flush out those
responsible for this heinous offense,
and no arrests have ever been made.
(The $11,500 reward was made up of
$5,000 from the synagogue’s insurance
carrier, $5,000 from the Anti Defamation
League, $1,000 from Crime Stoppers
and $500 came from Key West’s
local Chabad Congregation.)
In addition, investigators have refused
to label the arson a hate crime
because of the absence of prior threats
or symbols that point to hatred as the
motivation behind the setting of the fire.
The synagogue found itself with a
gutted sanctuary and social hall, bare
and empty. The Rabbi's residence,
fortunately, was only slightly
damaged by smoke
(as were a few of the Torahs).
The kitchen and all the kitchen items,
storage areas and classrooms were
totally destroyed, as were
many of the synagogue prayer book,
library books and other religious items.
After holding services for two months
in the social hall of
St. Paul's Episcopal
Church, the synagogue's members
started having services that they
conducted themselves in the living room
of the former Rabbi’s
Bert Bender, an excellent local architect,
donated his services to BZ to redesign
and draw plans for the reconstruction.
CBZ began the slow process of rebuilding
and remodeling, adding classrooms for
Hebrew lessons for the children and
expanding and modernizing the kitchen.
Everything had to be brought up to code.
Could the synagogue be rebuilt?
Could we at CBZ raise enough money?
Was this test of our faith a battle that could be won?
The cost estimate for this rebuilding and
expansion rose to more than $1.3 million.
The synagogue’s insurance paid CBZ
something in the neighborhood of about
$700,000, leaving the members with a
$600,000 fund raising goal. Part of the
deficit arose because the ceiling insulation
contained asbestos. This added $90,000
to the repair costs just to remove all of
the burned and asbestos-contaminated
contents of the building.
In order to inform the public of our
situation, Tom Buchler and Sid Wharton
created the original CBZ Web site.
The response from the local community
was heart - warming. Churches offered
their facilities and donated money.
Through the local media and pleas to
our friends and families, the synagogue
initially raised $56,000. But publicity about
the attack was minimal, especially outside
of Key West and there was little,
if any, national coverage.
Lori Katz, a local accountant, and
Justin Kawaler, a retired businessman,
came to the rescue. With her significant
managerial skills and dedication, Ms. Katz
organized several formal, fund-raising dinners
and silent auctions, which raised
significant moneys. Mr. Kawaler was
extremely generous in making matching
Most important, citizens within and
without Key West, members and non-
members of CBZ, Jews and Gentiles,
Gays and Lesbians, donated their time,
money and talents to the task of
revitalizing and rebuilding CBZ, and in so
doing, recreated that indomitable spirit
that is the hallmark of this community.
As you sit in our new sanctuary and pray,
please take a moment to look around and
enjoy the surroundings that were so
lovingly restored over the past five years.
Think of the impressive efforts and
sacrifices, both in time and money, which
were spent in its restoration. We urge
that you continue the work of the
“rebuilders” and make the same financial
and engage in the same time-
consuming work that is required to
maintain the continuity of Congregation
B’nai Zion from generation to generation, our shared customs and traditions.
Please come and enjoy our new shul.
Explore the new gardens. Visit the
Learning Center. Spend time with
our new Rabbi Shimon Dudai. Participate
in the ever-expanding calendar of social
and religious events. Attend the monthly
Friday night Shabbat dinners and most
important, join us every Saturday morning
at 9:30 sharp for our wonderful
Shabbat service led by Rabbi Dudai
and Cantor Dr. John Kreinces.
This new building of glass and stone has
become our spiritual home. Please make
it your home as well. Congregation B’nai
Zion was and is a place where you can
come to pray, to study, to meet with
friends, to grieve, to cry, to recite the
Mourner’s Kaddish for a parent, relative
or friend, or to celebrate the joy of a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah,
or perhaps, just to share
a lox and bagel nosh with others
during the Saturday morning Kiddush.
CBZ and all that it represents and has
represented for 120 years -- still needs
YOUR help. Please tell everyone you
know about what occurred here
and how we are continuing to rebuild
and expand for the future.
Tell them about our Web site (www.BnaiZionKW.org);
and ask them to aid this Jewish community in fighting back.
Please take a moment and add your
financial help by writing a check, made
payable to CBZ in any amount that
you deem appropriate.
Please mail your check to
750 United Street
Key West, FL 33040.
We will be so appreciative
and you’ll be glad you did it.
Thank you and Shalom.
CBZ President Dr. Fred Covan in front of the synagogue
entrance sealed shut
due to asbestos contamination.
Law enforcement was never able to capture
the people responsible for the fire.
The destroyed electrical room where the fire was set.
smoke destroyed the social hall.
All the High Holiday Prayer Books,
Hagadas, Passover Kitchenware, Chanukah decorations
that was in the storage room were destroyed.
Everything was lost in the Social Hall.
Everything would have to be replaced.
Services were held in the gutted Sanctuary for over a year.
Members of CBZ donated chairs and tables and a
temporary Ark was built by members.
2002 in the social hall
with cinderblock walls and a concrete floor.
CBZ's Jewish Life Continued....amongst the dust
CBZ Cemetery Vandalism ...July 14, 2002
Groundbreaking Sept 15, 2003
The New Sanctuary